CHICAGO, Sept. 6, 2001 — When Alex Browne, general manager at Plural, Inc., was asked by one of his clients to perform the daunting task of revamping a retail Web site, he knew the only way to get it done was to take the project to the new Microsoft Technology Center (MTC) in Chicago.
The challenge brought to Plural by Brad Lenhart of Chicago-based H O Plus was a fast growing, unstable e-commerce site that needed to grow along with its customer base.
H O Plus, which has nearly 100 brick-and-mortar stores around the world, selling water-based, oil-free skincare products, had one-to-one customer service perfected. But the online relationships needed work.
“In a physical store, you have a sales associate who knows the customers very well and can walk them through the process of purchasing what’s right for them,” says Lenhart, director of e-business and communications with H O. “We like to provide our customers this type of service.
“But our previous site was very unstable,” he says. “In the last two years we experienced tremendous amounts of growth. It became too expensive and labor intensive to grow our site and deliver the standard e-commerce features that the public has come to expect.
“I wanted to replace the generic, what-you-see-is-what-you-get site that we had with one that was tailored to work with our customers on an individual basis,” Lenhart adds. “But each new piece was a function that had to be built from scratch, and the stability, once it went live, was shaky at best.”
So shaky, in fact, that Lenhart estimates the company’s Web site, H OPlus.com, lost between 20 and 25 percent of its potential online sales due to frequent downtime on the Java-based site. He wanted out-of-the-box functionality and a solution that offered the scalability and flexibility the company needed to provide customers a positive online experience, restore brand quality and, ultimately, drive increased sales.
Standard features now available include gift-certificate redemption and the ability to do personalized marketing.
Translating Knowledge and Experience into Customer Benefits
After winning the H O Plus project, Plural’s development team, along with Microsoft consultants, sequestered themselves in the Microsoft Technology Center in Chicago to begin revitalizing the site. “What the MTC did for us was make our bid for this work much more competitive, primarily because of speed and cost factors that are the result of the specific product expertise we can tap into,” Browne says. “A bid from a company like Plural alongside a company like Microsoft is a combination that’s tough to beat when it comes to peace of mind.”
“It’s a huge benefit for us to be able to work side by side with Microsoft people who work in the trenches day in and day out,” he says. “The knowledge transfer was second to none and we walked out far better trained to show real value to our customers.”
Browne estimates that the expertise Microsoft brought to the H OPlus.com overhaul shaved from eight to 10 developer weeks off the project, which was crucial to the goal of delivering the revamped version in approximately three months. The other cost savings, Browne says, were realized by the fact that the available brain trust at the MTC reduced the need for developers.
“Working with the MTC meant we could leverage knowledge that was already fully established,” he says. “Rather than having to do research around each particular subject, we were able to tap the expertise of the Microsoft team.”
Browne’s enthusiasm for working with the MTCs is not unique among Microsoft’s partners. Data Return uses Microsoft technologies to provide managed hosting services to a group of clients that includes RadioShack.com, H & R Block, Texas Instruments and BMW North America. Data Return is the only managed hosting provider at the Silicon Valley MTC, and, based on its success there, wanted to be an integral part of the Chicago MTC as well.
“We’re trying to increase our footprint nationwide, and the MTCs are a very valuable vehicle,” says Scott Brewer, Data Return’s vice president for applications engineering. “It’s definitely a revenue generator for us in the Midwest region.”
One of the key benefits for partners who work with the MTCs, Brewer says, is the level of service they can bring to the small- to medium-sized business segment that, he says, constitutes about 30 percent of Data Return’s customer base.
“Small companies don’t necessarily have the deep pockets and the in-house IT expertise, and they’re making a smart decision by accessing the think tank at the MTCs,” he says. “At the MTCs they can work with alliance members who have a proven track record in deploying Microsoft solutions. The customers have the chance to test out what they’re using before they deploy it on their networks, which saves them both time and money.”
Like Browne, Brewer thinks that one of the key benefits of working with the MTCs is the chance to accelerate the speed to market.
“A lot of companies need a solution quickly,” he says. “The traditional process of choosing, purchasing and deploying technology can be painfully slow.”
“We don’t offer consulting services or integration,” he says. “Microsoft takes care of it. When a customer goes into the MTC environment and works with consultants, it’s very much a microcosm to help them identify and deploy the technology that’s best for them. At the MTCs, customers and partners get one of the world’s greatest technology services and access to the people who are at the forefront of it.”
Resolution and Expertise at the Customer’s Fingertips
Lenhart’s research identified Microsoft Commerce Server 2000 as the best server software for H OPlus.com. It was April, and he needed the site ready for testing by August so it could be deployed by the beginning of the fourth quarter. All of the firms Lenhart interviewed said it couldn’t be done — except for Plural.
“Plural came back with the idea of developing the solution at the MTC in Chicago and showed me the opportunity to create and deploy the site in the short timeframe we needed,” Lenhart says. “Who better to assist in the deployment of a Microsoft solution than Microsoft?”
Not only did the Plural-MTC partnership save Lenhart time, he also saved about a third in actual monetary costs. “To be at the MTC during the build meant that we had resolution and expertise at our fingertips,” he says. “There was no lost time or money trying to figure out the right direction. Our roadmap was well defined.”
Lenhart is already envisioning future site builds that will further personalize and increase efficiency on H OPlus.com. One of his plans is to create separate Web site addresses that draw on the existing site but offer distributors of the H O Plus line, including retailers such as Nordstrom, private access to data specific to their purchasing, including order and product updates and training information.
“Working with the MTC was a great experience,” he says. “It’s definitely something we’ll do in the future as we make changes and upgrades.”
A Customer Satisfaction Machine
Adam Hecktman, managing consultant for the Chicago MTC, feels the vision for the future of the facility synchs up perfectly with the experiences already enjoyed by H O Plus and Plural.
“For partners, what we offer at the MTC can be incorporated into their proposals to help cement deals,” he says. “Partners can fully leverage the skills and talents of our team. We have a permanent crew of top-notch consultants. Each one of the people here has deep expertise in specific areas of e-business.”
Talent, Hecktman says, is also the key benefit that the MTCs and partners deliver to customers.
“The level of expertise available at the MTC would be difficult to find in the marketplace,” he says. “Having that volume of talent at your fingertips is a very valuable thing for customers. We bring everyone together under one roof with the latest and most powerful technology to work toward the best e-business solution possible.”
One customer in addition to H O Plus has already been through the MTC prior to its grand opening. Their combined experiences, Hecktman reports, were equally positive. “This place is a customer-satisfaction machine,” he says.