Investing in Application Support Pays off for Chroma Technology
How much effort should a bioscience company expend in application support? What if more than half of customer queries aren’t even about the products you sell, but involve related equipment, basic techniques, and system design?
For Chroma Technology Corporation the answer seems to be ~10%. That’s the percentage of their 100+ employees who man telephones and email addresses to field inquiries from scientists about their optical filters & filter sets. Their manager is Michael Stanley—equal parts scientist, teacher, and gear-head. He explains that Chroma actually saves money by putting so much effort and staff time into application and customer support. The savings come from minimizing returns and replacements, but Chroma also reaps the less tangible benefits of their well-earned reputation as a trusted resource in designing and troubleshooting fluorescence detection systems.
Stanley joined the company in 1998, seven years after it was founded; he was employee #28. At the time, he was the only employee with a PhD degree, (he is pretty sure that his academic pedigree got him the job). Although he was originally hired to conduct R+D alongside the team of engineers designing ever more sophisticated filter technologies, he quickly found that his talents could be put to better use educating customers to select and use their filters properly. Chroma has always had a return policy that Michael describes as “way beyond anything LL Bean ever dreamed of”, and he quickly realized that many, if not most, of the scientists using Chroma’s optic filter products did not really understand how to effectively “see” fluorescence or the details of how microscopes’ optical filter sets work. In the early days, Chroma replaced many filters and filter sets that were not defective, but were either being used incorrectly or were not well suited for the application. Michael set about changing that—he found himself explaining the basics of fluorescence detection and filter technologies by phone and email, and soon he was invited to deliver talks and training sessions. He contributed to customers’ scientific progress, while saving Chroma thousands (and thousands) of dollars in product replacements. Over the years, this focus on application support has become a hallmark of Chroma’s business model.
When six former Omega Optical employees opened the doors of Chroma Technology Corporation in 1991, they offered world class filter design and computer-controlled manufacturing. They could produce optical filters inexpensively, with quality and uniformity that far surpassed anything available at the time. Chroma filters, as Michael describes, are very effective at blocking unwanted fluorescence wavelengths, thereby making it possible to see even very low levels of fluorescence from the wavelength of interest. Most are used in microscopes; other major applications are in flow cytometry and fluorescence plate reader optical systems. Optical filters for absorption and astronomy applications also constitute a small piece of Chroma’s business. Although they continue to push the boundaries of coating technology—most recently with magnetron-sputtered optics—in the past several years, the technological advantages that launched Chroma to a market-leading position have become less pronounced. Chroma’s reputation for quality and no-holds-barred customer support are now even more important in helping them to retain their position as the major supplier of optical filters to microscope manufacturers, and perhaps more importantly, as a respected scientific resource.
In Vermont, Chroma may be better known for its employee ownership model and epic legal battle with the founders’ former employer, than it is for high-quality scientific products. Its location in Southern Vermont (Rockingham/Bellows Falls) makes it a challenge to network and collaborate with the bioscience community that is centered in Chittenden County. In fact, their location presents a somewhat different set of challenges for recruiting and retaining employees than those faced by companies in the Burlington area. Despite their physical distance from Vermont’s bioscience hub and their close proximity to commerce-friendly New Hampshire, however, Chroma Technology is a staunchly Vermont company. When faced with the choice to move either to their current location in Vermont or to a New Hampshire business park with attractive incentives, Chroma employee-owners voted to stay in Vermont. But it was a close call. In fact a simple vote count would have moved the company to New Hampshire. But major decisions in this employee-owned company are made by share-vote. Employees accrue shares each year they are employed by Chroma and the remaining company founders are also major shareholders; more shares means a weightier vote. When the issue was put to a formal vote by share-count, the Vermont location won out. With its culture of collaborative problem-solving, environmental sensitivity, and employee-owner governance, Chroma Technologies embodies the Vermont brand, all while advancing science with its high quality fluorescence filter systems.