The days when it was enough for electronics distributors simply to sell and support products are long gone. Advances in technology, growing application complexity, changing customer requirements, and myriad other forces have driven distributors to provide training and education in ways they’ve never offered in the past. Here is a look at how two different companies approach the task, the challenges that they face in this realm, and the benefits that come from keeping both internal sales teams and external customers up-to-date and knowledgeable about the goods being sold.
Leveraging the Educational Component
For Future Electronics of Quebec, Canada, providing customers with the highest level of continuity of supply and outstanding service are business mainstays.
“We have a unique value proposition in how we go to market,” explains Lindsley Ruth, executive vice president. “We have all of the capabilities and differentiators, and everything that we need behind the scenes to achieve those two goals, but it takes people to implement those programs and processes with our customers.”
That’s where the educational component, both internally for the Future Electronics’ sales team and externally for its customers, comes into play.
“We invest significantly in training on a global basis,” says Ruth. “It’s paramount to our success as a distributor.” Exactly who administers that global training is also important to Future Electronics, which Ruth says relies on a pool of experts to present the associated programs and strategies. “We don’t have trained teachers or professionals in the continuing education area conducting the training,” he explains. “We have individuals who are actually experts in the subject matter.”
The distributor crafts the educational content, delivers it, and offers resources such as role-playing, with the idea that attendees will go back to their respective roles and use the information during the course of their jobs. Future Electronics also tracks and measures the results of its training efforts.
“We make sure that we have a closed-loop feedback process for all of the programs that we put in place and use,” says Ruth. In terms of the content delivery, he says the company utilizes a combination of traditional classroom sessions, “lunch-and-learn” type meetings, and the Web.
In some instances, the distributor training lends itself to the online format, where attendees can learn material at their own pace and on their own time. It works particularly well when the material itself is straightforward, according to Ruth, and when it requires little or no interaction with a “live” instructor. The group setting, on the other hand, features a high degree of personal interface both between students and the instructor and among the students themselves—something that the online format doesn’t necessarily support.
“Attendees can get instant feedback,” Ruth adds, “and have certain issues addressed live and in person.”
Future Electronics’ lunch-and-learn educational programs are used primarily with customers that need more information about advanced technology, new products, or broader topics such as introducing supply chain initiatives and mitigating supply chain risk. Ruth says the distributor’s three-pronged approach to training allows it to flex and adapt to its users’ needs.
“We’ve learned that there’s no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to learning and development,” he notes, “so we cover the bases in those three different ways.”
Covering those bases isn’t always easy for electronics distributors, which face a number of challenges on this front—not the least of which are the time and money spent bringing both internal and external stakeholders up to speed in a rapidly changing business environment. Ruth says one of Future Electronics’ biggest hurdles is bringing people in for a week for training and then watching them go back to their job and continue doing things the way they’ve always been done.
“Effectively putting people through a kind of ‘mental car wash’ and re-programming is challenging and requires repetitive follow-up,” says Ruth. “It also requires practice in the areas that we’re training them on, be it engineering, sales, marketing, or another discipline.” Changing the mindsets and/or work habits of industry veterans, for example, can be particularly onerous.
“Someone may have 20 or 25 years of experience on paper, but in reality it’s just one year of experience relived 20 or 25 times,” says Ruth. “He or she learns it all in one year and then just keeps doing the same things over and over again.”
The global economy presents additional challenges for Future Electronics, which provides cross-border training that doesn’t align perfectly with its domestic offerings. Training in local languages, for example, is just one of many obstacles that the company has dealt with.
“A lot of things can literally get lost in translation,” says Ruth. “When we’re training in China we have to make sure we’re doing it in Mandarin and not in English. The same rules apply in other countries. We have to offer as much as we can in the local languages in order to get the greatest impact for that particular program.”
Challenges aside, Ruth says the company views the initiative as continuous and necessary. It’s also a learning process for the distributor itself, which has deliberately honed its approach to training over the last few years.
“The industry is so fast paced that we have to continue to stay in front of it and get face to face with marketing, engineering, and other departments at least once a year,” says Ruth. “That’s absolutely critical.”
Fulfilling Key Requirements
When Avnet Electronics Marketing in Phoenix started selling a new Artix FPGA IC this year, the distributor focused both on the product side of the equation and on the solutions and services related to that new product.
“When we work with our partners to develop new products and take them to market,” says Tim Barber, senior vice president, design chain business development, “we know that our customers are interested not only in the products themselves, but also in the complete design associated with those products.”
Customers also need to know how to power up their products, hook them up to data converters, connect them to memory interfaces, and take the many other steps necessary to get up and running. When rolling out the Artix FPGA, for example, the distributor tapped into the training content, reference content, and reference designs developed by the manufacturer itself to gain a greater understanding of the item and how it will work in the real-world environment. Concurrently, the distributor examined the training needs of its customers and developed the hands-on training (typically in the form of a workshop) to support it.
For its internal sales team, Avnet first trains its field application engineers (FAEs) on the fine points of using the new product. Then, those FAEs train the distributor’s sales team.
“We provide a brief tutorial or ‘lobby pitch’ that the sales team can use when sitting down with customers to discuss the new product,” Barber explains. In other instances, Avnet pairs up with semiconductor or software-defined radio manufacturers to develop key training sessions in specific cities nationwide.
“Customers fly in and attend the training,” says Barber, “which is presented in a ‘live’ workshop environment.” In June, for example, the company announced the X-fest series of free, full-day, how-to training seminars for systems designers on Xilinx All Programmable products. The X-fest program features 12 technical courses based on the devices.
Right now, Barber says Avnet is exploring various Web-based training options—a delivery mechanism that the distributor has already used successfully for several educational offerings. Currently, for example, the company offers a number of 16-tract software classes (with labs) online.
“For those classes, we’re signing up anywhere from 20 to 30 customers daily,” says Barber. “Over time, we’ve moved from the hands-on educational environment, which we will continue to offer, to a ‘live’ environment online, where we’ve found that customers really learn better.”
No Black Eyes, Please
Like Future Electronics, Avnet also has faced its share of challenges on the educational front, where matching up the right content for the correct application and class isn’t always easy. Keeping up with rapid advances in design tools, Barber adds, is another obstacle.
“When we go in and train customers, we have to make sure we’re dealing with the latest revision from our supplier partners,” he explains, “so that they can go out and start designing and using those tools right away.”
Managing customer demand for education, information, and knowledge is also difficult at times, says Barber. “According to our FAEs, a lot of customers want access to our training,” he notes, “so we’re always looking for new ways to deliver the content in an effective manner. It’s something that just continues to evolve.”
To distributors looking to beef up their educational offerings or launch a completely new program, Ruth says, don’t give up, and remember what’s most important—that is, making sure that all distributors as a whole work together to promote the value of distribution.
“We can’t forget that distribution is here to hold inventory, help service customers, and deal with the mass market and the long trail of customers that exists out there,” says Ruth. “When we fail to service or support a customer with distribution in general, it gives the overall distribution market a black eye.”