We can`t live with them, and we can`t live without them. That seems to be the attitude of cabling installers toward the technical services and support that their distributors provide. But while distributors and installers may differ on the delivery of technical services--in terms of quantity and quality--both groups agree that their businesses depend on it.
In fact, as the pace quickens for the technological development of voice and data network systems, technical service and support are increasingly becoming a competitive differentiator for distributors in the marketplace. "The knowledge of our people is the largest value that we bring to the customer," says Tom Brzoski, vice president at Graybar Electric Co. (Clayton, MO).
Take a look down the food chain and it`s easy to see where the hunger for technical information comes from--the end user. "Our customers are more sophisticated and are turning to us more than ever for technical support," says Stephen Phillips, service manager at Electra Link, a 10-year-old cabling installation and network support company based in Spring, TX. This is because network technology has become the lifeline of many of today`s businesses. If the network fails, the business fails.
Cabling installers look for various technical services from their distributors--product assembly information, data on product compatibility, assistance in finding custom-made parts, design and engineering support, on-site presale support, and technical information on emerging technologies and new products.
Company size seems to have no bearing on who is likely to ask a distributor for technical support. "It`s spread out pretty evenly across the board," says Jim Fitzsimons, an account executive at Communications Supply Corp. (Stamford, CT).
Depending on what type of technical service they expect from their distributors, cable installation companies report that they usually get what they ask for. The biggest complaint they have is response time. "I don`t want to be put into a queue or told that someone will get back to me while I`m on a job," says Mark Teal, general manager at Data Connections Inc., a Richardson, TX-based installer of voice and data systems.
Beefing up support
If they haven`t already done so, many distributors are in the process of beefing up technical support personnel. CSC, for example, brought in Fitzsimons five years ago to start a technical services group. This telephony-oriented distributor company was not familiar with network hardware for data. "The market needs help, and providing good customer support is critical to our business growth," he says.
What does he mean by good? "At the top of the list is timely response to our customers," he adds. Approximately half of its customer base uses the company`s technical support services most of the time, according to Fitzsimons.
At a basic level, cable installers turn to their distributors for everyday, nuts-and-bolts information. "At any given time, for example, we might get a call from an installer company that is putting in a Thinnet Ethernet local area network," says Fitzsimons. "The company will want to know what parts it will need, or what cable it should use for a Novell network."
One of the presale technical services that distributors provide most frequently is putting together parts or materials lists for their customers, detailing system components as well as order numbers. In some cases, supplying a materials list is straightforward; at other times, distributors work with the installers to satisfy specific customer needs.
"We`ll work with installers and offer options on how they might accomplish the type of installation the customer is looking for," says Keith Hedin, a product marketing manager at Eesco Inc., a distributor of structured wiring and networking products and system electronics, based in Oak Brook, IL.
More extensive presale technical services sometimes include design and engineering support--for example, computer-generated drawings--but only if the proposed project is big enough. At Graybar, for example, pre-wiring and pre-configuration consultations, as well as system design and computer-aided design and manufacturing work, are a value-added service that is only offered through the company`s sales force.
"Customers have to go through their sales representative for all technical service," says Brzoski. Graybar purposely doesn`t have an 800 telephone support number, nor does it actively advertise its technical support services. "We`re trying to control the level of input activity," he adds.
Many distributors, in fact, encourage cable installers to turn to their sales representatives as the first point of contact for technical service. Graybar, for example, has 1000 people who comprise its internal and external sales force; they operate from 220 storefronts nationwide. Technical services are provided during regular business hours.
Some cable installers see distributors passing the buck when it comes to providing technical services. "What they really want to do is sell product and have you turn to a systems integrator for technical support," says Chris Wells, a design engineer at Electra Link. "Distributors like to sell products to people who can take the ball and run."
That does not mean, however, that Wells refuses to turn to distributors for technical support. He says that distributors are a good source for information on older systems and grandfather clauses and in researching local area network and system configurations.
Sam Parthemer, project manager at Datalink Solutions Inc., a San Diego-based business that specializes in telephone and data cabling, would like to see technical support people available to answer questions on special equipment--racks, backboard configurations and fiber products--rather than on day-to-day components. "It would allow me to get one-stop shopping," he says.
Today, Parthemer is more likely to turn to the product manufacturer rather than to his distributor for technical support. "For the most part, technical product support from the distributor is lacking," he says. The sentiment among installers is that, with dozens of product lines to support, distributors often lack in-depth knowledge of all their product lines. Distributors, on the other hand, say that technical service and support spans all product lines.
Distributors tend to offer very technical product information on product lines that are exclusive to them, like Graybar`s Allentel products, according to Parthemer.
Such distributors as Anixter Inc. (Skokie, IL) see their strength in providing inventory and some product expertise. "Our strategic direction is to provide information to our customers," says Bill Galvin, vice president for marketing services at Anixter. Technical support is provided to customers through the company`s 1000 worldwide sales representatives, who have access to Anixter`s 100 Registered Communications Distribution Designers. The distributor works with the contractors, answers questions and helps them do systems design for the end user.
Demand for expertise
This past year, Anixter increased its RCDD staff from 0 to 100, a sign of the times, demonstrating that demand for technical expertise from distributors is becoming critical. "Anytime a distributor has the capacity to provide current information and expertise on products, it gives an advantage in the marketplace," says Galvin. "RCDD registration will continue but at a slower pace," he adds.
Having Building Industry Consulting Service International-registered technical people on staff is not necessarily an important criterion when cable installers rate their distributors, however. "What does matter is that they`re practitioners and understand the products, as opposed to being academic," says Teal. More important to Teal is the technical service representatives` ability to understand the problem that a cable installer might be dealing with. "Many technical support people have the technical expertise but not the communications skill to digest just what a particular problem might be," he adds.
Some cable installation companies especially value the distributor-installer relationship in customer joint ventures. In this situation, the distributor gets to sell hardware and software, and the installer gets to hook up, test and configure a system.
Wells, at Electra Link, says that for the end user, dealing with the distributor alone is a limited option. "We can provide a turnkey system and offer engineering as well as system support," he says. One recent joint sales call that Wells made, for example, was for the design and installation of a fiber-optic backbone at a chemical company.
The demand for technical services escalates in proportion to changes in technology--and that means they`re in demand more than ever. One of the most valuable services that distributors offer their customers is education. In an industry where technology changes daily, keeping pace with technology and products remains challenging.
Product information seminars
CSC offers product information seminars several times a month, according to Fitzsimons. Seminars are often hosted by distributors with product manufacturers. Graybar, for example, offers technical seminars to expose its customers to different manufacturers` products.
Emerging technology seminars and product demonstrations are generally held when needed. "We`ll put on a technology road show, but that depends on the interest in a given area," says Brzoski. There can be 10 one-day seminars per week or as few as none in a given month.
In the near future, Graybar plans to make its distance-learning network, currently used internally, available to customers and suppliers. "We`ve always focused on education and emerging technologies; our intent is to increase our efforts to meet growing needs in the marketplace," says Brzoski. Emerging technology topics recently covered at Graybar include computer-telephony integration, fiber to the desktop and wireless communications.
For cable installers, attending educational seminars is part of doing business, and many installers are pleased to find distributors offering more educational information. Teal, for example, has attended three seminars in the last five months. Topics included interactive voice technology and client/server for telephony.
Overall, cable installers appear to be satisfied with the technical services offered by their distributors. Distributors continue to improve the quantity and quality of the services they offer. "It`s definitely improved," says Teal. "The market is changing rapidly, and it`s difficult for all of us to keep up."
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Lynn Haber is a freelance writer based in Boston.