Distribution World – Call in the experts

Distribution World – Call in the expertsExpertise, expertise, expertise is the cry when manufacturers are asked what they want from their FAEs.It seems that a distributor must have technical product support in order to keep pace with the industry. Richard Wilson
Ask manufacturers what they expect from the FAE support provided by their distributors and you will get any number of different answers. However, one requirement crops up again and again.
Manufacturers now expect their distributors to assign FAEs with the right level of technical expertise to support their products. Whether it is connectors, power supplies or mobile phone chipsets that you want to sell, it seems that technical product support in the distributor is the new sales mantra, and a prerequisite to growing sales figures.
“The nature of our sales is applications,” says Kevin Swann, sales director at Consumer Microcircuits Limited (CML). “Design-in takes a bit of effort so it requires design support. So for us a distributor must understand the technical nature of our products.”
When CMLchose Flint as its UK distributor the requirement was to come up with new design-ins for its mobile communications and wireless data chipsets. Clearly designing in a chipset for the new Tetra digital packet switched radio standard requires a level of technical knowledge that goes far beyond the component data sheet. But the same can equally apply to arguably less complicated products.
Consider the approach of connector maker FCI’s European distribution manager to his distribution network. “Iwould like our distributors to deal with around 95 per cent of customers’ technical enquiries,” says FCI’s Bryan Regan.
Although a connector maker like FCIrelies on broadline distributors to generate volume business for its commodity products, it also requires more focused design-in support from much smaller specialists. “We need someone in the distributor who is driving the franchise for us,” says Regan. “Without that it won’t get out to the customer.”
Sometimes it is as simple as what samples the FAEis carrying in the back of his car. “For us samples are an important part of selling,” continues Regan. “And there is simply more chance for the specialist to have our samples in the back of the FAE’s car.”
The problem manufacturers have is that while they may feel more comfortably in control of the product specific technical support provided by specialists, they also rely on the broadliners to generate the major part of their distribution business.
Manufacturers work hard to develop good product support through their broadliners and it is now being recognised that the broadline distributors are meeting them half-way and putting more effort into their own technical support. “An FAE with a global broadliner has by definition a huge range of products,” says Regan. “So we must work hard to get close to him and get product awareness. It is difficult, but broadliners are doing a good job for us as design-in for our products.”
Broadliners are more willing these days to put effort behind their connector electromechanical franchises which now can generate better margins than most commodity semiconductor products. However, power supply manufacturers like Coutant Lambda can still feel like the poor relation products with some broadliners. “We still make a clear distinction between our broadliners and specialists,” says Coutant’s sales director Martin Southam. “Broadliners naturally put a big resource into semis lines and power supplies are lower in the pecking order.”
Even semiconductor manufactuers are looking for more from their distributors. “Increasing technical complexity coupled with customer demand means that higher levels of technical support are required,” says Tim Conway, UK distribution manager at Siemens Semiconductor. “Today’s products need to be designed-in as much as sold-in. Distributors must have a high degree of technical competence in order to compete.”
Whether broadliner or specialist the key to the right technical support is largely down to the calibre of the FAE sitting in front of the customer. “We expect degree-level engineering support,” says Southam. “This is more important now than in the past.”
“Our distributor’s FAEs will be trained to provide technical support to design level,”says CML’s Swann. “We will take part in joint visits for specific customers, but we will rely on our distributor Flint to be our main channel for the UK.” Start with a good skill strategy
So what do manufacturers look for in a good FAE?
According to Peter Anders, European distribution manager at Samsung Semiconductor, there are a number of skills that a good FAE must possess to provide the level of support that customers and designers expect.
The need for a well thought out strategy is as important as the personnel being employed to implement it. “Before you can even start selecting FAEs,” comments Anders, “you have to recognise the need for good application support across the board. This includes those working for both the manufacturer and their distributors. Customers should be able to deal with FAEs from both sources and expect the same level of expertise and support.”
The idea of engineers talking to engineers may not be a new one, but is sometimes harder to realise than one might think. Anders believes what is important is the FAE’s mix of skills.
The ability to provide good technical understanding and insight in a service environment is important. Being able to identify the best product for each application means that an FAE must have a good working knowledge of the technology and also the applications that it is being designed into.
What is important, says Anders, is that an FAE must have design experience in their field as well as a technical qualification.
Another important attribute of a FAE is to understand the market they are working in. For Anders a successful FAE will make recommendations that work for the customer 1 to 2 years down the line. They must also understand the commercia l implications of their role, as overall system costs must be considered when selecting components. “Common sense and a little business acumen also never go amiss,” he adds.
Good communication skills are also essential, as FAEs must be able to present their ideas to the customer in written and verbal form. They must have the confidence to stand up in front of senior managers and designers and suggest solutions to their problems. FAEs must also be able to provide feedback to customers and suppliers, as well as to the distributors involved.
As an engineer and problem solver a FAE can fulfil the technical requirements of the role, but they must also have the drive and motivation of a good salesperson.
The ability to see a project through to completion is as important to the FAE as their ability to understand the technical aspects of the job.
FAE SKILLS CHECKLIST Technical qualification Industrial experience and application expertise Problem solving abilities Personal drive that sees projects through to completion Good interpersonal skills Provide effective feedback to all parties Effective communicator (verbal & written) Business/commercial acumen Common sense Willingness to travel

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