An Open Letter to B2B Hardware Vendors on How to Best Support Your Products

Dear B2B Hardware Vendors--

I'd like to share some advice from an end-user with 20+ years of experience developing products and equipment based on your hardware.  I do believe that these recommendations will increase sales, reduce  support costs, and keep your customers satisfied.

Support

  • Consider implementing a ticket system for your support requests.  This makes interaction with you much easier, and as a central repository for support requests, will make it much easier for you to develop knowledge base articles and FAQs as well as identify areas of improvement for your support system--if 10% of your tickets are due to the same issue, it's time to correct that issue.  Parker has developed an excellent KB system that should serve as a model for others.
  • Consider creating forums to interact with your customers.  It's much easier for us end users (and much lower cost to you) if we can google a solution on your forums.  Why spend the resources to answer a question each time it is asked when you could post an answer for the whole world to see?  When it's midnight before a deadline, a forum might be the only way us customers might get a solution on time.  Forums enable you to leverage other volunteer experts in the community (from time-zones all over the world) to help provide support--another opportunity for cost savings (just don't take your volunteer experts for granted).  I understand that forums do require a moderation effort, but depending on the size of your market, this effort should be a fraction of the effort required to provide direct support to your customers.
  • For companies with a large enough market, consider a tiered support system--and ensure that your more complicated cases and more savvy customers get routed to higher-tiered support as quickly as possible.  You will frustrate your savvy customers if they have to redo basic troubleshooting with a level 1 applications engineer before they can speak with someone more knowledgeable.
  • Consider implementing a support-only email list where your customers can learn about firmware updates, end-of-life notifications, documentation updates, etc.  Your customers probably don't have time or desire to read through all of your marketing emails, but we definitely want to know about bugs, fixes, and other pertinent news.
  • Consider implementing a bug bounty program.  There is no way that you can completely test your product in-house before it ships--your customers will undoubtedly discover bugs, documentation errors, and other highly valuable feedback for your product development team.  You should make it worth it to your customers to take time out of their busy schedules to help you improve your product.
  • Provide support via multiple means--email, ticket system, forums, and old-fashioned telephone.  But please do provide at least some means for support--I once had to use LinkedIn to find someone, anyone at Amphenol who could provide CAD and a transfer function for one of their pressure sensors.
  • Offer your training seminars at no cost.  The more people out there who are familiar with your products, the more likely they are going to continue to use them and recommend them to others.  If your product is as good as you think it is, then free training will create an army of evangelists to keep your sales team busy.

Documentation

  • Your PDF documentation must include bookmarks.  Navigating a large PDF document without bookmarks is a pain when you have to jump around from section to section by manually scrolling through the document.  Hyperlinks are also very useful in the table of contents, index, and wherever you have a cross reference.
  • Your PDFs should not be protected/secured.  Having to retype complicated part numbers or information is an unnecessary hindrance because you are worried about someone plagiarizing your documentation (I'm looking at you, SMC).
  • Document revisions (and release dates) should be clearly indicated in your PDFs, along with a revision table indicating the changes between revisions.  Old revisions should still be available on your website (but clearly marked obsolete) so that us end users can attempt to identify what might have lead us in a certain direction in the past.
  • Documentation must be updated as soon as errors are discovered.
  • Finally, it makes life much easier when the printed page numbers in your PDFs match up to the electronic page numbers--when communicating with your applications engineers, it's unnecessarily confusing when a page number reference is ambiguous.

CAD and Other Design Tools

  • You must provide 3D CAD for your mechanical components.  This is absolutely a deciding factor as to whether or not I'll use your product in my design.  These should be published on your site or via 3D CAD engine, e.g. 3dcontentcentral , traceparts, etc.  Accompanying 2D drawings must also be available--3D CAD doesn't tell you tolerances or whether a hole is threaded or clearance.
  • 3D CAD should be provided with the end-users' needs in mind.  Obviously, you want to remove proprietary internal features that we won't use/need--it will make the models smaller and more manageable.  You can dumb the models down, but ensure that they are still usable and representative.  Assemblies with moving components should be able to be manipulated--they should not be rigid.  Ensure that your flat surfaces import as planar and that your round features import as round (not some multipolygonal approximation of a circle).  Consider adding reference geometry or mating references for odd shaped parts (e.g. put some circular feature or mating reference on through-hole connectors with square pins).
  • ECAD libraries also vastly simplify the electronics design process.  Relying on user-submitted ECAD from websites like SnapEDA and Ultra Librarian raises risks for the EE design process--that information is not always correct.  Provide your own ECAD and ensure that it supports a wide range of platforms.
  • Electronics simulation models are also very helpful in the design process--consider providing these to your customers.
  • Ensure that your CAD is correct.  Developing a design around incorrect CAD is expensive and frustrating.

Marketing

  • Especially during the current supply chain situation, posting factory and distributor stock on your website helps us designers to know what we can actually get our hands on.  It's really frustrating to design around a certain component, only to discover that it has a 36 week lead time thus forcing a redesign around what is in stock.  Alternatively, consider what SMC previously did with their SMC Now program--this was a subset of frequently-used components their product line that was guaranteed to be in stock.
  • Each product should have its own page on your website with direct links to datasheets, manuals, CAD, etc.  Don't do what NI does by burying documentation on their site such that the easiest way to find it is to google it.
  • Ensure that your website and catalogs help your customers navigate your product line.  Charts, product trees, and tables (with filtering, sorting, and comparisons) help your customers understand what products are best for our application.  IGUS has made major improvements on their website…whereas they previously just offered 1400 page catalog for their cable carriers, they now have a hierarchical product navigator that allows you to drill down into the products you need.  Parametric search coupled with spec tables enables us engineers to quickly decide which of your products, if any, will satisfy our requirements.
  • Make pricing clearly visible on your site (especially if your products are only available through you and your rep network).  It's very frustrating to identify a potential solution then go through the hoops of getting a quote, only to find that your solution is way out of our budget.  [thanks Systems Disintegrator for the suggestion]
  • The ease with which us customers can access your documentation and CAD is often the deciding factor as to whether or not to use your products.  If I have to create an account and wait for approval to get access to your manuals or CAD, then I'll likely go with your competitors if I can get this information from them immediately.  Mandatory registration, CAD links in email, waiting for account verification--these are all impediments to getting your customers to integrate your products into their designs.  Anyone attempting to reverse engineer your product will get this documentation whether you put it behind a wall or not.  If you are using user registration to facilitate your sales process, be sure that you don't annoy your customers in the process (my colleagues avoid Keyence for this reason).
  • Ensure that your SEO is such that googling your products' documentation will lead to the latest versions--not some old PDF.
  • Aggressive sales tactics might sell cars or gym memberships, but rarely will influence an engineer's design decisions in a positive way.  Make sure your sales team are an asset for your customers, not an annoyance.  A simple email introduction with contact info is fine; repeated unanswered emails and calls are not.
  • Your mass emails should include the company name in the "from" field.  An email from "Duane Benson" looks like spam to me, but an email from "Duane Benson, Screaming Circuits" or "Screaming Circuits" looks like a legitimate mass email.

Ultimately, it's not the best products that get selected by your customers--it's the best-supported products that do.  Investing in better support is the best way for you to increase your sales.

Thanks,

Sandheep

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