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Caterpillar builds sales with unique facility

Caterpillar bases unique marketing approach on customer center

"Sometimes it's just introducing people to the organization. Sometimes the dealer is very close to making a sale and needs to get down to details." Either way, reports Neal Ament, Marketing Consultant at Caterpillar Agricultural Products Inc., a visit to the firm's new Customer Center in DeKalb, Illinois, is often just what's needed to bring someone on board. And such visits have become central to the firm's marketing efforts.

The visits, according to Ament, who designed the Center, give farmers a chance to see their tractors being built, to meet with Caterpillar engineers, product support specialists and executives, and to get a detailed look at the engineering and the people behind what is one of the farmer's largest investments. "The customer visit," says Ament, "is an important experience. We try to help people form an accurate impression of Caterpillar and Caterpillar people." Cat dealers, who sponsor the tours, consider them the most effective sales tool they have. Such visits have become a key part of Caterpillar's marketing program in recent years, and the firm hosts thousands of customers each year.

"The whole idea," says Ament, "is to create an atmosphere where the customers become comfortable discussing their perceptions of the tractors. "We want open frank conversation to ensure that the customers get all of the information they need to fully understand the product." Thus Ament, in designing the Center, chose soft, rocking armchairs, hid coffee and food service in the room's cabinetry and specified warm, inviting woods. "It's like when I invite people into my home," Ament continues." "I want them to walk in and, number one, to be comfortable, and number two, form an impression of the type of people we are, by the environment that we meet them in." Part of the impression he wanted for the company, of course, was one of impact and professionalism. So Ament asked his systems integrator, United Visual, Inc., of Itasca, Illinois, to include a high resolution Sony video projector and surround sound.

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Typically, Caterpillar dealers will bring customers in groups of 15 to 25, by air or by bus. Groups come regularly from all over the world. They'll start off in the new conference room with a half-hour orientation, take a plant tour, then return to the conference room for meetings with Caterpillar staff, videos, and for questions and answers. They often have lunch with Caterpillar staff. Each tour is custom designed and may last a half day, a full day or more. Frequently a group will tour several Caterpillar facilities and spend several days with the company. Group sizes vary, at the extremes, from two or three customers on up to 40, and in the busy seasons, the Center hosts one group nearly every day. The conference room has a movable wall which opens to handle very large groups, but Ament does not like to schedule crowds. "It's a lot more intimate when we keep the groups to 25 or fewer," he says.

 

The concept behind the Center

Caterpillar has been conducting customer tours for many years but greatly professionalized the experience by opening its first customer center in Aurora, Illinois, in 1987. This facility, consisting of a 40 x 40' conference room and an adjoining kitchen and novelty store was an overnight success. Today the Aurora center hosts about 4,000 customers and dealers annually. In the last eight years, the company has opened nine additional centers in plants throughout the midwest, in North Carolina, Belgium, and Brazil.

DeKalb is world headquarters of Caterpillar Agricultural Products Inc., where its largest Challenger tractors are built. The plant also contract manufactures paving machines for Caterpillar Paving Products Inc. of Minneapolis. Originally the Challengers were built in the Aurora facility, but when production was moved in 1994, managers did not want to give up their ability to host customers. So they began planning a new center, which was opened in September, 1995.

The new facility in DeKalb includes a conference room and adjoining lunchroom. The lunchroom can be joined to the conference room by opening a movable wall, and it's outfitted with two 45" video monitors which can be repositioned to help support very large presentations. So far, however, the room has not been used this way, and the monitors are used mainly for employee meetings and safety training.

Caterpillar Paving Products also uses the Customer Center for its customer visits. Ament reports that Agricultural Products will bring as many as 1,000 visitors through the Center each year and Paving about 800.

Cost effective

One of the remarkable things about the DeKalb Customer Center is how much impact the firm was able to obtain for its investment. Caterpillar prides itself in providing its customers the best value for their dollar, and they wanted this philosophy carried through to their new center. Still, Ament did not feel he had to compromise the room or its AV system to meet its budget. Experience was the key to Ament's success. It was he who designed the firm's first customer center in Aurora and consulted with the designers of six other similar centers. The experience of Ament's suppliers also helped–he worked with United Visual at Aurora, and he invited them to bid on the Dekalb center.

"I was very pleased with United's work on the Aurora and Dekalb projects," says Ament. "I liked the idea that Rick had a lot of hands on with the installation. That gives me a lot of confidence that he understands the system. If I have a question, I have just one person I need to deal with. I realize that as the company grows you can't have people who are out there selling every day necessarily that involved with every installation. But it's a nice touch, it really is. With some suppliers, you never see the guy after you get the PO to him. I much prefer the United Visual way, because it gives us a lot more comfort."

The end results are impressive. For a cost perhaps one quarter of what's typical for this sort of room, Cat was able to create a facility that's functional and beautiful. Best of all, it really does encourage the honest give and take that Ament was after. "Our customers get the impression that, 'hey, these Caterpillar people are happy to sit down and talk as long as we want to stay.' And the dealers appreciate this and come back with other groups. Several of our dealers make repeated visits because of the success they have had. This room works because it helps us to conduct good honest business."