Lumber and building material dealers are starting to make progress having their salespeople run apps on their smartphones and tablets, but there’s another technology that’s catching the eye of tech-savvy LBMs: interactive whiteboards (IWBs).

“It would be neat to manipulate diagrams and run sales training on the boards,” says Mike Riegel, director of training at TW Perry of Gaithersburg, Md., where some outside salespeople run customer relationship management apps on iPads. “Maybe it’s something we could get into in the next year or so.”

Some dealers may have seen IWBs at a high school or middle school back-to-school night or on a college tour with their kids. 

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The devices consist of a large display that connects to a computer and a projector. The most popular IWB brands are from SMART Technologies and Promethean. Prices for the board itself for businesses start at $2,000 and go to about $5,000, depending on size, which typically range from 50 to 89 inches. Add $1,000 to $1,500 for a short-throw projector (which works a short distance from the screen), and you’re off and running.

Sometimes IWBs are also hooked up to a videoconferencing system, but that gets very expensive, often running $100,000 or more. However, all the latest interactive whiteboards support collaboration technology such as Cisco’s WebEx and GoToMeeting from Citrix.

IWBs are widely used in primary and secondary education and on college campuses and in business for sales training, collaborative meetings, and general communications. Business people like that they can share and save PowerPoint slides, annotate drawings and documents, and record meetings. Unlike traditional whiteboards, IWBs allow meeting participants to take away copies of presentations and other material displayed on the boards.

Large companies such as United Parcel Service use IWBs in their logistics operations. UPS’s Technology and Logistics Center in Louisville, Ky., uses about 14 IWBs from SMART Technologies to manage shipments for the company’s high-tech, health-care, and retail customers.

Adam Meyer, the operations manager who handles the SMART account at the Louisville center, says his group has been using the IWBs for about five years. UPS deployed the IWBs to get a better handle on its metrics, Meyer says. For example: How many items need to be picked up in any one day? How many people are on hand to do the work? And when does the material have to ship? The IWB posts all of that information on an 80-inch board.

“In the past, all the information was either on a traditional whiteboard or on a computer screen,” Meyer says. “People would crowd around small computer screens, and it was an ineffective way to work. Now, the information is more available to anyone who wants to take a look at it, plus the data is more accurate. And when we hold presentations, we can circle a metric or a number to make a point. It’s much better than a regular projector or even a large-screen TV.”

Collaboration Is Key

Dealers may salivate at the chance to use IWBs in the warehouse, but many may also find that the ability to help teams collaborate more effectively could help the equipment pay for itself.

Ken Cartier, a partner at GEC Architecture, a Calgary, Canada-based commercial architecture firm, says enhanced collaboration was the primary reason the 60-employee company installed five SMART Board IWBs in its offices.

“We’re set up in a studio environment and we all work in a large room,” Cartier says. “Years ago, when I walked around the office I would see models and drawings. Now, everything is on computers and I only see what’s on the screen.”

Cartier says the interactive whiteboards take what was internal on computers and put it out for the entire group to see. In the past, when working over a set of drawings, he says, most people didn’t get to participate. “The difference is that the whiteboards make people feel free to come up to the board and participate more actively in the discussion or make a point,” he says. 

GEC’s whiteboards come integrated with a Polycom videoconferencing system, so staffers from the firm’s two offices use the IWBs to run videoconferences in which they share documents, spreadsheets, and 2D drawings. Instead of printing 30 to 40 large-scale drawings and shuffling through paper, they can create the documents as a PDF and mark them up right on the whiteboard. 

Using SMART Bridgit conferencing software, the Calgary and Edmonton teams mark up architectural drawings and collaborate with data as if they were in the same location. When they’re done, they save all their meeting notes and share the files with everyone who needs the information. 

Cartier says the technology has become a big selling point for clients and prospects.“We’ve become the place where people want to hold meetings,” he says. “The way I see it, if we bring in one job because of SMART Boards, then they pay for themselves, and we have seen this ROI many times already.”

That’s similar to the point Mark Elliott underscores when talking about interactive whiteboards. Elliot is CEO of Genesis Collaboration, a reseller targeting the government and business markets for Promethean. Elliott sells the products, and he’s also a heavy user.

“What we’re finding is that it’s easier to carve out a two-hour block of time during the day to hold a meeting on the interactive whiteboards than to send people to your location or a customer’s location,” Elliott says. “What we’re doing is taking the technology that’s been used in schools for years and taking it to the business environment."