Digital tools for finding and buying panel components

Digital tools for finding and buying panel components

Molly Hannigan
OEM Sales Manager
ABB Electrification Business

The pandemic greatly increased the use by manufacturers and distributors of digital and online tools to stay in touch with customers. Panel builders are using these digital tools for finding and buying panel components needed to keep production on track.

GoToMeeting™. Skype. Zoom. Everyone knows the names of these popular video meeting platforms. All had their genesis at the 1968 New York World’s Fair where AT&T® introduced their Picturephone. It offered the promise of video chatting with far off friends and business associates, but actually did little more than demonstrate a concept. The device was incredibly expensive, clunky to set up, and difficult to use.

More than a decade later, the technology improved to the point where video conferencing became a practical possibility, but even in the early 90s the per-system price was still $250,000. Today, the ubiquitous availability of reliable networks combined with huge leaps in compression technology have finally made video conferencing no more expensive or difficult than a phone call.

And that happened just in time.

The coronavirus pandemic made in person, face-to-face business interactions a dangerous proposition. But on the commercial side of most industrial organizations, functions like sales and engineering largely maintained business-as-usual thanks to the increased use of video chat and other online collaboration tools.

Beyond a range of online communication options like Zoom and the ability to easily exchange digital documents, power-control-device manufacturers and distributors rapidly ramped up the use of an array of tools that enable panel builders to investigate, specify, and buy their products remotely.

Seeing is believing
Anyone who’s shopped online for a consumer product has experienced the ability to manipulate a virtual version of the item via a 3D image or model, or to view a collection of photos from a variety of angles, enabling buyers to visually examine the product.

Industrial online marketing is following suit, vastly expanding the already massive libraries of online product-related videos. Whether to showcase their products, show examples of customer successes, help with setup and use, or provide troubleshooting tips, organizations are cranking out more and more videos.

While the ability to touch and feel a product provides a richer experience, a solid collection of still and video images is often an acceptable substitute.

Product selection
When a panel builder is ready make a purchase, a second category of online tools comes into play, including online catalogs and configurators.

In the past, online catalogs were, too often, the source of more irritation than insight. They were typically just a direct conversion of the hardcopy into a digital format. Navigating them was cumbersome and searching them frustrating.

The best examples of current online catalogs make finding the desired product incredibly easy. Most offer clickable links that let a buyer quickly navigate to the product that meets their needs. Some offer a clickable table of characteristics or features, letting the buyer create an ever-tighter filter. This enables narrowing a catalog of thousands of items down to only those that match the panel builder’s requirements.

For products that require customization, configurators provide the ability for customers to select the required options. Configurators reduce the need for the time-consuming spec-and-quote process, thereby speeding the buying process. Based on rules and logic, configurators intelligently guide buyers through the process and, in some cases, provide immediate feedback on the appearance and/or function of the product via 3D visualization.

Some tools, like ABB’s empower™, combine product selection and configuration functions with quote management, order tracking, and invoice management, providing panel builders with a complete digital customer experience suite.

Intuitive, accurate, user-friendly catalogs and configurators require costly development and coding, making them primarily the domain of larger manufactures and distributors. Manufacturers with the biggest commitment to supporting their customers are typically the organizations making the investments in these valuable resources.

Personal support at a distance
While the tools described above offer tremendous support to panel builders in exploring products and making buying decisions, they sometimes don’t provide a complete substitute for live interaction with a product expert. When this is the case, smart online marketers make it possible to also easily connect with those experts.

Probably the most-common solution is to include a link on every website page that lets customers request help from a product expert – help delivered through various channels.

Expanding online tools
In some cases, in-person interactions remain essential. Panel builders sometimes need to get hands-on with a product to make an informed decision, or require face-to-face dialogue with the component manufacturer to ensure their needs are understood and met. In most cases, though, the bulk of those interactions are being effectively done online.

Some manufacturers are making a special effort to support customers and encourage use of the available online tools. (Click to see an example.)

Most industrial manufacturers have been expanding their online, self-service resources available to customers. They did so to meet customer expectations for product information they could access on their terms and timetable. Panel builders who work with these manufacturers are now seeing a big pandemic-related payoff. These tools, combined with easily accessible video-chat apps for virtual face-to-face interactions, provide the framework to conduct much of their business uninterrupted.