Technology Provides New 'Tools of the Trade'

Kitchen and bath designers have always had a wide variety of tools in their arsenal, and today’s rapidly evolving technology has expanded that toolbox exponentially. Whether it’s smart phones, tablets, design software, apps to help them share information with clients or manage projects, blogs or social media sites, today’s technology is providing design professionals with a wealth of instantly accessible information thatcan streamline and simplify business operations.

Likewise, technology offers myriad tools to help designers market their businesses cost effectively, gain recognition with consumers, enhance their brand and become smarter and more profitable.

Indeed, technology has dramatically changed the landscape for kitchen and bath professionals, impacting everything from marketing to showroom design (see related story, Page 18).

Joni Zimmerman, CKD, CBD, president and artistic director of the Annapolis, MD-based Design Solutions, Inc., notes, “Technology is crucial in today’s business environment because of both convenience, and perceived competency by the client of your business acumen.”

But for many designers, the biggest techno challenge today is learning how to sort through the plethora of options to select the best tools for the trade – incorporating the latest in technology without losing the “human element” that’s so important to building trust.

SOCIAL MEDIA

When social media first hit the scene, it was seen more as a tool for entertainment and staying in touch with friends than as a business tool. But, like many online products, it soon evolved to include business applications. Facebook started introducing business pages, companies began building Twitter followings, Pinterest became a popular showcase for home design photos and Houzz became what many designers describe as “Facebook for design professionals – only better.”

For Susan Serra, CKD, designer, author of the well-known blog, TheKitchen Designer.org and founder of Bornholm Kitchens, social media isn’t just a great way to market her business, it’s also a great learning tool. She notes, “I get a lot of my information through social media, and I try to keep current with design information across numerous social media platforms. There are probably five or six of them I’m frequently looking at, and each one offers different benefits.”

She continues, “For instance, for business info, I like Google+. I have a community on Google+ called kitchen products and design, and it’s wide open for anyone and everyone to talk about modern kitchen design. I like Tumblr because there are a lot of creative people on there, and I get a lot of design inspiration from there. Pinterest is great, and while I’m not a Pinterest ‘power user,’ if I want to search for a particular design element, I do go to Pinterest because you can always find plenty of ideas there. Houzz is another good source, but I find Houzz is not as diverse as Pinterest or Tumblr.”

On the other hand, Zimmerman thinks Houzz is life changing for the design community. She exclaims, “The best thing that ever happened for us, in my opinion, is Houzz – all the clients are using it!” She adds, “I am trying to reach more clients via social media, and plan to continue this campaign. Since the social media costs vary from free to a self determined investment, it is definitely a profitable manner of advertising. And Houzz definitely saves us time because of the ease of sharing pictures.”

Kellye Kamp, owner and creative director of RenovateKate, in Oklahoma City, OK, also loves Houzz and uses it extensively in her business. She recently won an award for her use of Houzz, and perhaps more importantly, she’s also won customers through her Houzz presence. She explains, “I got my last client because they saw me on Houzz. They were looking for a designer so they went to the site, did a search by location, and they liked the description of what I do. They hired me just to do the design but then I ended up getting the whole job because I also do construction.”

What was particularly interesting about this “cyber referral,” she says, was that the client did not fall into the stereotype of the young, tech-savvy Gen Xer. Rather the client was 60-plus – proof, Kamp believes, that social media is no longer the purview of the young. She adds, “I don’t know if you’ve seen the stat on this lately, but the number one group of people using Facebook today is the Baby Boomers.”

While technology is often maligned as being at odds with “the personal touch,” many design professionals see social media as a bridge between technology and the human element, as it combines the searchability and immediacy of technology with informal personal interactions that can help build and foster relationships that are so important.

APPS, CLOUD & MORE

Apps have become the hottest new tool for designers looking to increase their efficiency. Apps can do everything from simplifying measuring and sharing files with clients to tracking receipts.

In fact, Kamp notes that she has gone completely paperless thanks to apps that allow her to do pretty much everything digitally. “All invoices and renderings are emailed, all receipts I take pictures of with an app, and they are documented digitally, which the IRS now recognizes, and I use apps to do all of my accounting,” she notes. “I use apps to take audio notes, and to make physical notes on pictures. I probably use an average of 20 apps a day!”

NKBA President John Morgan also relies heavily on technology to be more efficient in his job as a rep. “The Motion X GPS on my iPad guides me to my clients and then in front of customers, my mobile device transforms into a library of all of my spec books and all of my literature so that we can conveniently zoom and browse an almost unlimited array of materials and options. Product culling and final selections are faster and more convenient. My iPad becomes my measuring tape as I use Magic Plan to dimension the room and create a DWG/DXF file that I can instantly link to my 20-20 Design for planning.”

He continues, “The next step is using my client’s mobile device as I share a panoramic view of the room from my 20-20 for them to hold up in the actual space and move it around, showing them a live and moving view – floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall what their new room will look like.”

“During the project process I am using cloud storage like Drop Box so that everyone involved in the project can have shared access to plans, elevations, installation instructions and anything else they would need on the job.

“And, at the end of the job, I use apps like Skitch to photograph and make notes of items to be added to the completion checklist. I use the video option to record issues and email all to the appropriate people to quickly address. And I may even use Facetime, Skype or GoToMeeting to communicate live to the factory to help facilitate faster communication and actions when needed. And throughout the whole process I am using my Web-based CRM to track leads, opportunities and eventually to service clients.”

Morgan also finds technology to be a huge help when on the road, noting, “As someone who travels a great deal, I am often ordering my products from my mobile device through the Web-based ordering systems of the suppliers. It is a great use of waiting time between customer appointments.”

Serra, too, relies on apps to increase her efficiency. She says, “There are specific apps I use for managing my projects. It’s super efficient because I can make emails into tasks, I can make Web sites I see into tasks. It makes me more productive, and keeps everything in one place.”

“Working with clients, I use another project management system; whether the client is local or far away, I find it much more efficient to supplement in-person meetings with online interactions. For small revisions or changes or new ideas, I can upload them into our mutual project management system so we both can see them.”

However, the apps that Serra is most intrigued by right now have to do with photos. “Images have never been more important than they are today,” she maintains. “Our clients are immersed in images, not just because this is a field that lends itself to the visual, but because pictures communicate feelings and emotions and information in a way that words don’t. So I’m taking more images and collecting more images and I’m much more interested in photo apps, using them on my blog and on social media. We talk about how important technology is, but many people don’t have the attention span to [understand] all of it. Images, however, provide a universal language, and to be able to illustrate a thought or idea or solution with images is critical. Thankfully, there are apps that make this incredibly easy!”

THE HUMAN FACTOR

While there’s no question that today’s technology offers speed, efficiency and the ability to work from just about anywhere, there’s still a danger of losing the human element. As Zimmerman notes, “While technology is crucial to our business, the balance is keeping the personal factor. For example…remember when we did not have automated voice answering services and a live person did answer the phone? And how much many of us hate calling a company and pushing 500 buttons only to find out that you pushed the wrong one somewhere along the line and have to start again, or the person you finally reach says ‘I’m not in the office?’”

Zimmerman actually refuses to use voice mail in the office when there are people in the office for just this reason. “We lose ‘connectedness’ with so much automation. So finding the balance is important,” she maintains.

Serra, too, thinks it’s important to balance online business dealings with “real-time” interactions. She notes, “While it’s important to be part of the online design community, it doesn’t replace the in-person trade shows and networking opportunities. You can’t hide behind the monitor; you have to look at and touch and feel the products, and talk to the manufacturers. You have to see products, meet people.”

Kamp concurs: “You still have to talk to people…the business is ultimately about the relationship and nothing can replace the relationship. I’ve had a few clients who were completely remote. I have a girl in Honduras who I work with on kitchen and bath design and we’ve never met. [We do a lot online], but we also talk on the phone all of the time.”

Kamp is admittedly very high-tech; she explains, “I use my iPad on every in-home consultation, I use apps to take notes, I use a smartphone to take pictures and document everything we’re discussing, and I use software to produce high-quality renderings, 3D renderings and animation of projects.”

Yet Kamp knows that the tech comfort level of her clients varies widely. In fact, she’s started up a sideline business teaching classes on how to use the iPhone for business. Although the business is unrelated to her kitchen and bath work, she finds that many of her kitchen and bath clients take the classes after watching her and realizing how much she is able to do with all of the different apps. It is, she feels, an interesting synergy that also helps to service many of her kitchen and bath clients.

Kamp concludes, “It’s important to remember that technology is a tool, but it’s not a replacement for human interaction.”

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