Online purchasing of components is fast and efficient, but is it killing the possibility of face-to-face sales meetings which some suppliers believe still has an important place in the market.
“I think it will be a sad day for all if the human element is removed from the sales process,” says Nigel Watts, managing director of Ismosys.
“The development and maintenance of strong relationships are a critical element of strong and successful businesses. Build the relationship, establish the ground rules, design and deliver the solution and let the computer transact. The “build, establish, design elements” are better driven on a peer to peer basis using online facilities and resources as the delivery mechanisms,” says Watts.
Clearly the Internet has changed the way engineers search for components.
“Customers can use manufacturers’ websites, dedicated blogs and datasheet websites to narrow down their search or find alternative products, ultimately arriving at the manufacturer part number they need,” says Jane Loveday, global head of search relevancy at RS Components.
“They can then use comparison sites or Google shopping to compare prices across a whole range of distributors before even arriving at a distributor’s website. This huge increase in the availability of information has resulted in a fundamental shift of power away from distributors and towards customers,” says Loveday.
Loveday sees the distributor’s role as helping customers navigate the choice of products available online and in providing confidence that they are getting reliable, quality products backed by a solid supply chain.
For Chris Shipway, country director of Avnet Memec UK, customers expect to find product information quickly on the internet, but they still like to speak to an applications engineer if they can.
“Sales and demand creation is still about sitting down in front of people,” says Shipway.
“On a website you can get an app note or data sheet, but sometimes that is not enough, you may need a more detailed discussion,” says Shipway.
“I find customers still appreciate the personal touch,” says Shipway.
Avnet Memec does not make sales via its own website, but it will direct potential online customers to Avnet Express transaction website.
“We don’t have access to that inventory, but we will direct customers to them,” says Shipway.
“But the needs of our customers, which are large and middle-tier OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), have not changed and they still want a personal service, such as onsite face-to-face technology workshops,” says Shipway.
But workshops and roadshows must offer the designer valuable face-to-face discussions about product or design issues which are not available online.
Undoubtedly, the major beneficiary of the online revolution has been the so-called “high service distributor”, which focuses on stocking an array of products, ex-stock and without the encumbrance of minimum order quantities, reel or tube sizes.
But high service distributors also recognise there can be benefits from having personal business relationships with customers and this may not always be achieved online.
Online distributor Digi-key has been adding local sales staff in UK and in other parts of Europe to support a new area of business. This was the supply of components to manufacturers for small order production.
The sales team identifies those customers which want to up-scale their business with the distributor from buying small orders of components for design to production purchasing.
But according to Ian Wallace Digi-Key’s regional sales director, this is not a direct face-to-face sales effort.
“We still find that customers don’t want account management with a salesman. The web is still the sales tool,” says Wallace.
Wallace believes that buying through the website works for procurement as it does for design.
“Engineers don’t need hand-holding, I see our role as facilitators and not pushing products at them,” says Wallace.
Wallace believes that what Digi-Key’s new “feet on the street” approach can offer is the speed of online sales with the assurance of component traceability through manufacturers’ certificates of conformance and data codes.
Justin Lyster, global director online acquisition, element14 is a believer in a multichannel approach which supports the main online sales activity with telesales, field sales teams as well as roadshows and exhibitions.
“E-commerce today is actually moving away from the pure play online only model. There is a clear trend toward multichannel and we expect this trend to follow in the business-to-business industry,” says Lyster.
But it is undeniable that the internet has changed the way customers search for information, and then make design decisions.
“The internet has removed many “mysteries” surrounding pricing and availability, the so called “grey” market of non-franchised distribution has evolved beyond comparison as many of the coveted secret pockets of inventory have been uploaded and are available for everyone to see,” says Watts.
As customers increasingly use websites to research, find, select and order products, distributors have invested in infrastructure and skills to support their online sales and support activities.
Those distributors more focused on online selling see the provision of product information closely related to the sales transaction.
“Our customers demonstrate they jump through the buying cycle journey multiple times and rapidly. As a result we look at these actions as a part of the same journey. The customer journey through research and purchase overlaps heavily as customers can move rapidly from research into find, select and buy phases. This is why our objective is to present up to date product pages with datasheets, product features and benefits, zoom-able images, 360 images and ratings and reviews etc,” says Lyster.
In the case of a system designer, finding the right product information leads to the purchase, so they are now seen as part of the same process by distributors.
Jarn Gill, head of corporate sales at RS also thinks the two actions are closely linked.
“In specifying a parts list, the engineer must be aware of price and lead times and will often express a preference for a particular distributor based on this. Professional buyers tell us that even where they are simply placing a pre-specified order, they want to see elements of product information to give them confidence that they are ordering the right products,” says Gill.
But for distributors operating in volume sales for production, purchasers are typically less reliant upon product information.
The provision of product information and the sales transaction may be different processes, but on the internet they are inevitably related, and that relationship is changing all the time.
Graham Maggs, director marketing, Mouser EMEA, believes that because of the growing use of distributor websites, designers are moving away from requiring the face-to-face meetings which were typical with supply chain discussions and price negotiation.
A visit from an FAE would usually follow the sourcing of sample and pre-production quantities, before moving to full production.
However, according to Maggs, there are indications that many designs are finished without any need for a meeting with a third-party FAE, and boards move to production quickly and efficiently with less people involved in the design chain.
“Access to relevant data is the key: now that designers have that data at the fingertips they have little time – and in some cases desire – to be influenced by outside sources,” says Maggs.
“However, while face-to-face meetings may not be necessary, we do believe that is it is important that our customers can speak to a real person. Local support is essential,” adds Maggs.