By Dave Doherty, Digi-Key Corporation

Real-life engineering problems cannot always be solved through inanimate search engines and static content.

To keep pace with this recent technology push, engineers are typically searching for the latest in RF and wireless discrete components and systems with application requirements that can be both unique and complex. Recent industry-wide economic downturn has led to varying approaches to "excellent customer service" among distributors, and they have become somewhat of a contradiction of terms, as companies strive to reduce costs.

For example, many IC manufacturers and distributors have chosen to directly tier, or triage, technical support calls and e-mail inquiries, according to perceived customer size. With advances in telecommunications, by the time a service call is answered, an inquiry may already be labeled and prioritized. Unfortunately, that's simply a nice way to say "not prioritized." Additionally, the inherent anonymity of engineers on the web does not lend itself well to a subjective, tiered support strategy. Any size customer may prefer to order via personal e-mail address, or opt for the convenience of ordering via personal credit card, as not to further delay the ordering of a needed component within their corporate purchasing department. Such scenarios illustrate how some of the industry's newer service paradigms simply cannot translate into viable, longer-term strategies.
The Source for New Technology Introductions
More than ever, design engineers have come to rely upon distributor web sites as key resources for new technology introductions. A site is expected to offer extensive information about a variety of product lines with applications expertise to a broad customer base. Search engine capabilities and content pages must be continuously updated and increasingly easy to navigate. With time and resources at an absolute premium, the site must also offer regular opportunities for education, training and customer support.

Along with increased reliance on the web is the continued understanding that real-life engineering problems simply can't always be solved through inanimate search engines and static content. There are times when only a knowledgeable, competent resource on the end of a call or live web chat can help. Digi-Key both recognizes and understands this, offering an experienced team of nearly 100 technical professionals, who provide personalized customer service on more than 1,000 daily application calls and via 250 daily live technical web chats. This expertise has also directly benefited customers within some particularly challenging wireless applications.
Meeting Customer Challenges
In one example, a customer based in Georgia is an installer of HVAC controls within commercial buildings. The application became challenging in a recent project, when installation of multiple zone thermostats into a single existing structure was required. As the structure was an older building, and featured brick and mortar wall construction, running wires could simply not provide the necessary mesh routing structure. To address this, we recommended a Zigbee evaluation kit, which included necessary packet error test firmware to perform on-site range testing. This allowed the customer to test both standard and high-power modules, as well as antennae options, and to help develop the proper serial interface between thermostat and wireless module. These evaluation tools were important in facilitating a return link to the main environmental control system, which ultimately allowed the customer to perform a successful wireless installation.

In another example, a customer in Florida required an RF module for implementation of a custom protocol onto one of the unlicensed ISM bands. Our Design Support Services team assisted with a wireless module that required neither a specific data format nor data encoding, and which facilitated development of the custom protocol. Ultimately, we also assisted the customer with appropriate hardware selection, as well as the development of embedded software for the RF link, embedded control, sensor and battery management system.>
Commitment to Customers is Key
Throughout our company history, Digi-Key's approach to customer service has remained the same — customer-centric, proactive and steady. We provide detailed online product and technical support for 72 different RF and wireless supplier lines, with offerings ranging from shielding tape to complete RF systems, for both standard and proprietary protocols. Each customer is provided with the same excellent service, whether a student, hobbyist, consultant or design engineer from a Fortune 200 company. We also remain committed to providing the very latest information about wireless components and technology in a manner that best suits an engineer's purchasing preferences.

The keys to any successful customer partnership may be found in the lessons of Sales and Marketing 101: listening to your customers, developing products and services that enable them to achieve greater success, and encouraging them to build mutually beneficial partnerships with your company, versus the competition. Not to mention, finding ways to keep them returning for future business, in any economy.

Dave Doherty is vice president, Semiconductor Products Digi-Key Corporation. A member of the Digi-Key team since January 2008, Mr. Doherty is responsible for worldwide development and execution of the company's semiconductor customer growth strategies.