For John Griffin, founder and MD of furniture assembly service Unflatpack, embracing technology-driven systems proved vital to achieving fast-track business growth. He told Business Advice how he did it and what challenges he faced.
According to recent research, carried out by professional services network Bidvine.com, sole traders and micro-businesses are lagging behind when it comes to embracing new technology. Although 20 per cent of the 630 firms surveyed have lost money as a result of using traditional pen and paper based systems, they are still finding the transition to technology a tricky one.
Despite plans to phase out cheques by 2018, 44 per cent of small businesses are still accepting them while less than a quarter take web payments and six per cent accept mobile payments.
I launched Unflatpack ten years ago, running it out of an office in London with a duplicate pad and paper-based system in place to process single orders.
All customer communications took place over the phone and, from the outset, the focus was firmly placed on customer service. I soon realised that technology would be the only way to fully facilitate customer needs, provide a reliable service and, ultimately, grow the business.
The turning point came when I invested in a sophisticated management system that allowed technology to look after the administration, so a growing team could concentrate on customer services.
We were one of the first businesses of our kind, so making our service simple and straightforward was key; we recognised early on that we could only grow with a happy customer base. I still view Unflatpack as a great customer service team that can build furniture.
Technology allowed us to build and store a customer database. It also meant we could manage a comprehensive pricing system across a wide range of products – enabling us to offer a simple flat-pricing system that competitors simply couldn’t. Word spread and our services were soon being extended to Brighton, the outskirts of London and Birmingham.
We steadily grew from a small startup reliant on the skills of a single fitter in London into a nationwide outfit. We now manage a network of over 100 furniture fitters across the country, communicating with each other and customers via a web portal and text messages. We are now working on an app based system to further improve our work flow and customer experience.
The move from traditional methods to more modern processes was a gradual but crucial one. A telephone number has and will continue to be available for customers who prefer a more old-fashioned approach. A fifth of initial enquiries still take place over the phone, although we expect this figure to dwindle as mobile technology takes over.
Online interactions now account for 75 per cent of our business which is why online lead generation services like Bidvine are so important as they turn customer interest in our service into tangible enquiries which provide us with another stream of work.
Our fitters currently undertake work for around 150 customers in London through Bidvine every month so I can concentrate on developing business to business relationships. As Bidvine continues its expansion, it will be a key platform in building our consumer client base outside of London and across the country.
Having studied AI at university in the 90s, I will always be looking at ways in which technology can improve our business model. We are currently working on a plug-in service that will offer a live pricing option to customers searching for furniture online. With customer service so integral to our offering, this will hopefully make the customer experience of choosing, buying and using furniture in the future seamless and stress-free.
We have recently extended our service to businesses, assembling the furniture you see in-store for retailers like Next and Bensons for Beds and providing customer service assemblies for a host of growing retailers. While this currently requires our focus and commitment, technology helps ensure that we do not overlook the consumer side of the business. One of our first ever customers was a dad who used our service so he could take his son to a football match rather than build a bed. For me, this is what technology is all about and if it can enhance our lives then we will use it.
We are constantly evolving as a business and only by reviewing the new and emerging technologies available can we grow, improve and help our customers streamline their lives.
As Sohrab Jahanbani, the founder of Bidvine, pointed out though: “It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach – through trial and error, businesses are learning which technologies provide benefit and, in some cases, when a more traditional system will do the job just as well.”
John Griffin is the founder and MD of furniture assembly service Unflatpack.
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