The Cutting Edge

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Simply having the latest high-tech gadgets is not enough anymore to stay competitive in the kitchen and bath industry.

Dealers and designers not only must have the right tech tools to stay in constant contact with clients and reach out to potential ones, they must also have technology integrated at every stage of the sales and design process. It demonstrates their ability to stay current and on the cutting edge in the eyes of today’s tech-savvy clients (which matches up to the editorial page, http://www.kitchenbathdesign.com
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They must have everything from the latest design and business software and hardware such as PDAs, cell phones, scanners, digital cameras and laptops to an updated Web site that draws potential business, showcases their work and allows them to communicate with clients 24/7.

“As a designer, I can’t begin to express how important technology is to me,” proclaims Peter Collins, assistant manager of Alure Home Improvements in East Meadow, NY.

“Design software allows me to quickly draw out and express my vision of the client’s new kitchen, as well as detail it and price it all out. Our estimating program allows me to accurately calculate the entire scope of the project, down to the precise details. Changes can be made at the touch of a button to eliminate tedious redrafting,” Collins elaborates.

Even the NKBA recognizes the role technology plays in staying competitive and on the cutting edge. The Hackettstown, NJ-based association reported that it is even looking to create digital versions of the CKD and CBD exams to ensure that the association continues to reach a new generation of tech-savvy design professionals (which matches up to the sidebar, Industry Expert Offers Tips for Creating an Effective Web Site).

SOFTWARE SAVVY

At The Office Carol J.W. Kurth, AIA Architect, p.c. in Bedford, NY, all of the design stations are networked, interfaced and linked to the Internet. The firm uses AutoCAD. It even has a graphic design team to do “3D renderings for clients either using Adobe Photoshop or 3D Studio Viz,” notes Carol J.W. Kurth, AIA. “Having 3D design presentations helps clients really visualize our designs.”

“We use 20-20 design software to create 3D presentations for clients to help them visualize the project and show them different product options. For the finalized design, we do a 3D presentation with all of the elevations, floorplans, electrical plans, etc. in Microsoft PowerPoint,” shares Hila Nahmani, interior designer with the New York, NY-based NYKB (New York Kitchen & Bath). NYKB has one showroom on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and one in the Flat Iron District.

Oconomowoc, WI-based JP Kitchen Design Studio, LLC offers a service to clients called Virtual Vignette. Clients can preview room layouts, colors, door styles and flooring choices that are based on their own kitchen’s measurements. Co-owner and kitchen designer Laurie Peirick can modify the layout or design elements on the fly based on clients’ input. It’s all powered by a laptop that projects the presentations onto a giant screen.

“This is really the best way we’ve found to incorporate technology into the design process. The number of selections to make for a kitchen remodel can be overwhelming, but this makes the selection process faster, more precise and more fun,” explains Sean Jacobs, co-owner of and surfaces specialist for JP, and a contract trainer for PK Training, also based in Oconomowoc.

“We also use 20-20 design software and Microsoft’s Media Center Edition, [which is a Windows XP-based computer that has the added capability of viewing all of your digital media with the click of its remote control],” he adds.

“We have a high-tech conference room with a large LCD display, and we use Autodesk’s Inventor 3D modeling program that allows our 3D modeling specialist, Chris Breedlove, to turn the design to view different angles as we present the design in the conference room,” reports Dan McFadden, president of Geneva, IL-based Past Basket. “We supplement that with water-color renderings to maintain warmth, and further enhance the visual experience.”

GADGET GURUS

Beyond software, firms are using other “tech toys and gadgets” to manage client communication, stay connected to the office while traveling or at home, and document projects.

“Digital cameras capture all of the details and site conditions that I couldn’t possibly remember on my own,” says Collins. “Printers provide neat and comprehensive presentations. Scanners allow me to e-mail digital pictures of proposed details to the homeowner, eliminating the need for multiple trips to our showroom and the job site.”

Kurth uses her laptop when traveling. “I use to it stay in touch with my office via e-mail. I often review images, PDF files, etc., while out of town, so I can stay involved if the need arises. In cases where I’m on a plane, for instance, I often do creative writing, work on business planning/marketing ideas and brainstorm ideas and concepts for projects.”

Beyond the Planit design software, Adobe Photoshop, ACDSee Picture Viewer she uses, Susan Serra, CKD, owner of Northport, NY-based Susan Serra Associates, Inc. and KitchenBathPros.com, uses AT&T CallVantage, which alerts her via e-mail when she has a call. It sends an audio file of the voice mail message, which she can access any time she logs onto her e-mail, from any location. “I use it a lot when I’m out of the office.”

Serra also uses a PDA with cell phone and e-mail capabilities, a scanner to scan anything to do with a project and a laptop to create slide shows of her work and send 3D renderings to clients.
Additionally, she utilizes GoToMyPC, which is a Web-based service that allows members to log on and access their main PC’s desktop and hard drive from any computer.

“We all have laptops, and we use Groove Networks’ Groove Virtual Office, which is password-protected and encrypted,” offers Jacobs. Groove provides a Web-based virtual workspace that “allows designers to work from home, at a client’s home or in the office and have access to photos, contracts, etc., as all of our files are kept current online. We can also have online meetings in real time.”

ON THE GO

Tim Hmelar, owner of The Kitchen & Bath Co. of Palo Alto, CA, has entire mobile office. “I have a laptop with Internet access from Verizon, a printer and a GPS in my truck. I carry a Palm Zire with a digital camera, address book and calendar, and a Palm Treo with the same capabilities, plus a cell phone and e-mail component.”

He’s also now scanning each client’s job site book that documents the entire project, and presenting it to clients on a CD along with the final building permit and unconditional lien releases from him and his subcontractors at the end of each job, before final payment.

However, despite his firm’s high-tech quotient, Hmelar firmly believes the right systems and software go hand in hand – “as long as you have the right systems in place to respond to the business technology will generate for you. If you do, technology will help your firm attain greater efficiency and productivity, and, more jobs. Technology alone will only accelerate chaos,” believes Hmelar.

PARTNER PERFECT

Partnering with tech specialists, bringing tech experts on board and outsourcing technology all seem to be solutions for managing, utilizing and implementing everything from a digital design process to incorporating high-tech products into kitchen and bath designs. It all depends on the firm.

“We have a huge investment in technology at our firm, and rely heavily on it. However, that said, without the talents of the great team we have, the technology is meaningless!” stresses Kurth.

“I prefer outsourcing because it’s always fresh to bring in outside solutions. It’s critical to find the best people to work on [a] specialty in any project,” shares Michele Daenzer-Sapp, ASID, CKD, CBD, NICDQ and showroom manager of Francesco Molon in Estero, FL.

For NYKB, technology is crucial to each project, from start to finish. “NYKB does not hesitate to spend to maintain and upgrade its technology – even to test new software,” notes Nahmani.

For example, she’s presented the idea of using a 3D modeling program called Sketchup, which has the free beta version from Google, and the full Pro 5 version available for purchase. She feels it would complement the firm’s 20-20 software and PowerPoint.

In terms of partnering with high-tech specialists, Karalesa Greer, NYKB’s marketing director, says the firm’s partnership with FutureTech Home Integration is “a winning recipe. [Home automation] is an emerging market, and we feel partnering with FutureTech allows use to not only offer high-end design to clients, but also a high-end lifestyle.”

FutureTech has installed full Control4 lighting, security, A/V and climate control solutions in NYKB’s showrooms.

At JP Kitchen Design Studio, Smart Kitchen technology is among the products and services it offers clients. And it has a specialist on staff that understands the technology and can integrate it in the kitchens of the studio’s clients.

(INTER)NET WORTH

An up-to-date and sophisticated Web site is also key.

“It’s indispensable,” says Daenzer-Sapp. “We have only 2,800 sq. ft. in our showroom, but with our online catalog we can offer our clients a tour of all 2,000 of our item SKUs. We also use the site to order product online from our factory, and keep clients updated on company information.”

“Not only does [our site] feature our location, showroom hours and directions, it also allows you to explore our various areas of home improvements – kitchens and baths, windows, roofing, siding, finished basement systems, sunrooms. People can also read up on our various community activities, company announcements, [and] the five completed projects we did for ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Addition,” notes Collins.

“I have several Web sites, including a business one for my design firm and a couple of photo sites, which are nice because clients can log online to approve drawings, once the design is sold. I can send clients an invitation with a password, and can revoke that password if the client doesn’t sign,” explains Serra.

“We use our site to generate interest and leads. So it’s important to put forth the right aesthetics and demonstrate what we can do for you,” says Greer.

Karla Krengel firmly agrees. “Not only that, but think about how you can update or change your site every couple of months, and what it says to potential clients from their point of view,” says Krengel, who chairs of the NKBA’s Committee on Technology. She’s also the CEO of Chicago, IL-based Krengel Media and the Internet Connections columnist for KBDN, (which matches up to the sidebar, Industry Expert Offers Tips for Creating an Effective Web Site).

TECH TIPS

Technology in its many forms is clearly crucial for any dealer or designer to survive, compete and achieve success. But what’s the best way to integrate technology into their firms, into the way they do business, sell jobs, present designs, manage projects and market themselves?

“Like a pencil or a drawing board, technology is just another tool. Find a package or system that works the way you work. You will never become vested in a technological tool unless it complements your work style,” answers Daenzer-Sapp. “My rule of thumb is to use technology that I can update myself, and that has local educational support through community colleges and adult education programs.”

In the end, though, the best thing for dealers and designers to take away and apply in their own firms is the attitude that technology is here to stay. So, it should be looked at not only in terms of cost and budget, but also, more importantly, in terms of how it can be used to improve efficiency, productivity and client communication. Any firm not on board with that could find itself left behind.

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