Like manufacturers and retailers, distributors are faced with myriad challenges to maintaining business as usual during the coronavirus pandemic. For Avnet Inc., a global distributor of electronic components with more than 2.1 million customers and about $20 billion in annual sales, that means expanding self-service tools to enable customers to support their business needs. These tools include accessing order history, tracking shipments, part-search that lists country of origin, and price quotes for the more than 7.5 million parts in its catalog.
In this question-and-answer article, Nishant Nishant, global head of digital strategy, shares his insights on how Avnet is adjusting the customer experience on its ecommerce sites to keep pace with buyers’ evolving needs during the COVID-19 health crisis.
In addition to supporting the launch of Ask Avnet, a pioneering platform in technology distribution that combines artificial intelligence (AI) and human expertise to streamline the online customer experience, Nishant plays a crucial role directing the development of the Avnet ecosystem, an expansive network comprised of owned companies and partners, which offers a wide range of services that guide customers through each stage of the product lifecycle. The company sells globally through its Avnet and Farnell brands, including online sales through Avnet.com and Farnell’s Newark.com.
Although Avnet does not break out ecommerce sales figures, the company notes that Farnell, with sales of $1.46 billion for the fiscal year ended June 29, 2019, processes about 70% of its orders through ecommerce.
DC360: Have your customer’s needs changed during the coronavirus pandemic?
Nishant: We are certainly getting a lot more customer visits and subsequent utilization of our self-service tools. Another interesting trend is the increased traffic over weekends. We have recently taken efforts to improve web speed in light of increased traffic, and are updating and adding new self-service tools in response to customer feedback.
DC360: Is the pandemic causing you to reconsider your current ecommerce technology platform and migrate to a more a more robust, flexible and scalable platform?
Nishant: Our digital offering is built on a best-of-breed technology platform, and while the pandemic itself is not forcing us to do anything different, we are always looking at new technologies in response to changing customer needs.
DC360: Are you making or considering changes to your technology and processes for order management, fulfillment and integration between your customer-facing ecommerce platform and your enterprise resource planning (ERP) system?
Nishant: Our customers are increasingly demanding more self-service digital tools for pre- and post-order management processes. As a digital organization, we already have all necessary integrations with our back-end system, and our focus continues to be on delivering great customer experience whether that be on our website or via APIs.
DC360: What sort of self-service tools are customers looking for?
Nishant: We are seeing increased usage across all our self-service tools, but probably the most in our parametric search tool and technical content download. My hypothesis is that customers are using digital channels more than ever, whether they are in early-stage design or a production re-run. If you think about it, it makes sense. It’s easier, instantaneous and exhaustive.
DC360: Are you taking measures, such as deploying new cloud-based systems and content delivery networks, to ensure fast page-loading times during surges in online activity?
Nishant: In anticipation of a surge in online activity, our digital platform was set up with a content delivery network that ensures adequate caching and faster page loading experience for our users. We have also enabled a bot manager to block the bad bot requests and ensure real users get most of the bandwidth, which is a precious commodity, during these times.
DC360: How are you using product information management (PIM) and related technology to ensure you have accurate, up-to-date and consistent product information throughout your sales and marketing channels?
Nishant: Our Informatica PIM system uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology from Microsoft in the process to ensure our technical data and technical content is accurate and up-to-date. Our PIM also includes a fully integrated media manager, ensuring all content from any source is being curated holistically, using the same method.
DC360: Are you deploying new technology or strategies, such as live chat, chatbots and modified customer contact centers to better assist customers?
Nishant: The “Ask Avnet” intelligent assistant is at the forefront at delivering great customer service, combining chatbot and human expertise. As with most AI products, the journey remains on-going, and we continue to update and expand the chatbot capabilities in response to the changing environment and customer feedback.
DC360: What kind of customer feedback are you receiving about chatbot capabilities?
Nishant: Customers like the convenience of a 24/7 chatbot and rely on it for quick responses to simple tasks such as ‘order status,’ ‘price,’ etc., so we continue to evolve the Ask Avnet functionality to meet our customers’ expectations.
However, we also acknowledge the technological limitations of chatbots today and believe in augmenting the experience with human expertise. This is why we call Ask Avnet an “intelligent agent” that combines chatbot technology and human expertise to offer customers a holistic experience. Wherever the chatbot has a limitation, we transfer the interaction to an Avnet agent, so a customer’s needs are always addressed.
DC360: How are you keeping field sales and other reps involved and providing more value in customer interactions?
Nishant: Our digital platform, in combination with our marketing automation and CRM solution, enables us to give our customer-facing teams timely and contextual information they need to be most effective. Leveraging the connectivity between our web, marketing automation and CRM platform, we are able to provide proactive support when a customer’s behavior triggers a request for help.
This can be in the form of an abandoned basket, page-load issues, etc. Additionally, we are able to feed aggregated and anonymized insights to our teams to inform our purchasing and sales strategy.
Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Illinois-based freelance journalist covering business and technology.
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