In a time of chaos, do you choose to “Panic or Pivot?”: Simformotion’s story of persevering during COVID-19

Simformotion was founded in 2009 in Illinois and specializes in training technologies for industries such as construction, mining, forestry, and agriculture. Simformotion is the licensee for Cat® Simulators for Caterpillar Inc. They have developed hardware, simulation software and companion curriculum for more than 20 Cat machines so far. They are also developing training solutions from simulators to VR (virtual reality) experiences for other industries and are a reseller for a number of brands, with sales throughout the world.

Adaptability and global reach allowed them to carry on in the face of the pandemic that shut down the world for a time. Jonathan LaBerdia, Simformotion’s international sales Account Manager, points out that due to the nature of this high-value industry, most sales were closed with in-person meetings, pre-COVID 19. Moreover, simulators are most often sold as full-sized models with authentic controls, seat and motion system in order to give trainees the most realistic experience possible when training to operate heavy machinery or vehicles. As the ability to see, touch, and use this large, high-end product is essential for most companies, the real question was “how can we get this to you to test out? Or, how can I get you here to test this out,” LaBerdia explained.

Prior to the pandemic, virtual meetings were underused in the industry because the technology was not adequate. When attempting to use web conferencing pre-pandemic, LaBerdia notes that it never really went well technically because the audio and video quality was not very good. Viewers could see the hardware clearly but never the software, and it often ended up being a sub-par experience from the buyer’s perspective. As a result, LaBerdia and his colleagues would familiarize a company with their solutions through emails, calls and videos, and then try to identify more prospective clients to make it worthwhile to ship a simulator overseas. Finally, LaBerdia or his colleagues would fly to the location to demonstrate simulator capabilities and close the deal, while generating leads for future sales in the region.

Although it could be complicated and time consuming, they were securing significant sales overseas and were ready to make exports an even bigger part of their success when the pandemic shut the world down. Simfomotion had to find a solution quickly. the question became “how do we adapt”?

LaBerida was no stranger to having to adapt quickly. He explains that although he had a great deal of sales experience, going into his position at Simformotion, he had no international experience, so there was a lot of changing and adapting that had to happen on his end.; LaBerdia was told when he started, “if you’re having any problems the [Bradley ITC] are the people to reach out to.” From there “I really never stopped reaching out,” says LaBerdia.

This close working relationship and a new live streaming studio helped Simformotion make the leap to virtual sales in the time of universal shut-downs. The Illinois SBDC International Trade Center (ITC) in the Turner Center for Entrepreneurship at Bradley University and specifically, Jim Ryan, has been working with Simformotion since very early in the company’s international efforts. Ryan has walked him through everything possible from the smallest, simplest export questions to some of the more complex aspects of doing business internationally. “At the height of the pandemic, the ITC was able to help Simformotion continue to move forward by identifying resources and potential customers, so they could get in front of them with virtual demonstrations, while many companies were taking a wait-and-see approach,” Ryan elaborated.

LaBerida stated that overnight the new question became “how do we get our clients to experience our product fully through a live streaming platform?” Simformotion invested in professional audio and visual equipment and learned how to use it seamlessly at a professional level. With people working from home, and businesses trying to carry on as usual, it became mandatory for companies to adopt the video conferencing platform as the new “norm.” Luckily, the rest of the world was adopting this system as well, so it became significantly easier to get a client on a video conference to see a product and talk about how the benefits and functions.

While challenging, the technology lends itself to international sales in some key areas. For example, it allows them to be flexible and meet with clients at a time of day that works best for the client, despite time differences. And of course, the language barrier when selling internationally is something that can be made worse over email or the phone because of the industry specific terminology that would not necessarily be easily translated. “Suddenly, disadvantages became advantages because you can see someone’s face or see what they’re demonstrating,” says LaBerdia.

Simformotion only had to wait two months into the pandemic for backordered cameras and other gear to arrive. By end of June 2020, a dedicated virtual demonstration studio was established that has taken sales to the next level. “Really, the key to surviving the pandemic as a business is that while other companies panicked, we chose to pivot.” Two years later, travel is opening back up globally so more in-person visits are in the works. “However, we will continue to rely on our virtual capabilities to short-cut the sales process, and make it more convenient and efficient for our customers,” LaBerdia added.

It is an assurance that Bradley’s Turner Center will be part of this journey. It is clear that they enjoy collaborating and have kept a great working relationship as Simformotion continues to reach out for assistance whenever needed. LaBerdia promotes the ITC services to anyone he thinks would benefit and considers himself a true Turner Center supporter. He advises: “Don’t just be okay with where your business is at when there is a great resource here in our backyard to help grow. I really believe in what Bradley can provide for businesses in the area.”

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Simformotion's simulator controls.

Simformotion's simulator.