July 30, 2014

IMARK Now article – The Drive for Data: A Manufacturer’s Perspective

View the article in IMARK’s IMARK Now  

Manufacturers share their insights and best suggestions for how distributors can work with them to cultivate data that is timely, accurate and reliable.

According to 2011-2013 surveys released by The National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) and Electro-Federation Canada (EFC) members, distributors consistently identify the receipt of reliable, timely and accurate product and pricing data as their most critical priority. The April 2014 issue of IMARK Now responded to these results with a feature on NAED’s DataFirst Program, a data quality score-carding effort designed to enable distributors to clearly communicate their specific data requirements and establish a reporting process which evaluates a manufacturer’s ability to fulfill them. Based on the findings of these reports and the launch of the NAED DataFirst Program, there’s no doubt that the drive for better data remains one of the most pressing issues that the industry as a whole has to contend with. But logistically, there are still miles to go before uniform, data-collection processes are in place. In the following article, IMARK NOW delves deeper into the crux of this issue, seeking out insights from the perspective of those on the front lines of data collation and collection—the manufacturers. 

The Need for High Quality Data 

With Web-based sales environments growing in popularity and accounting for an increasingly larger portion of an electrical distributor’s business each year, the demand for high-quality data from vendor partners 
is continually on the rise. 

“There’s been a steady demand for Leviton product data from distributors as there continues to be a big push towards the creation of online e-stores,” confirms Mark Richards, director of e-commerce for the Melville, New York-based manufacturer, Leviton. 

Kathy Wendorf, senior marketing project manager for Juno Lighting Group by Schneider Electric in Des Plaines, Illinois, concurs.  “Demand and expectations continue to increase.  Having directional and decision-making data and tracking information available all the time is becoming the norm these days,” she says. 

The same holds true for Pat Quinn, chief information officer at the Conyers, Georgia-based Acuity Brands. “Demand is growing, especially in terms of the number of data elements per product, as more distributors enhance their digital marketplaces.”

The Difficulties of Attributed Data 

At the same time, however, the difficulties of providing reliable and high quality data to distributors in specially-designated formats are well known to manufacturers.

While a large part of the data requested through IDW satisfies the requests, Richards says a formatting “disconnect” between the way data is required and how it’s ultimately presented remains a great challenge.

“Understandably, distributors want the manufacturer to customize data to fit whatever format is required for their business system, but this customization process can be time and labor intensive on our side,” he says.

This is a “pain point” that Scott Bausch, the east regional vice president of sales for Legrand North America’s Electrical Wiring Systems division in Syracuse, New York knows all too well. “Because the distribution channel has broad attributes and SKU requirements, the amount of resources for a manufacturer can be significant. There’s a sense on the part of manufacturers that the data being requested isn’t relevant to certain product sets, or that SKUs are being requested which no longer exist,” Bausch says.

“We have a full-time team dedicated to developing and implementing tools and processes for entering and maintaining the product information necessary to market and sell our products,” says Quinn. “We have another team focused on delivering that information to our partners.” Quinn notes that at any given time his company has 10-12 associates engaged in these activities. “The biggest challenge is getting our engineering and technical resources to enter and maintain all of the necessary information in our database, as this can be tedious and time consuming, plus it must be kept current,” he says.

The bottom line for manufacturers? Some requests require culled resources from IT, marketing, packaging, product management and other varied company functions, which can take excessive time and resources to coordinate and validate. “Requesting manufacturer’s data isn’t a ‘one-off’ event, it requires a commitment from manufacturers,” Wendorf confirms.

Hope on the Horizon

With product attribute fields like size, dimension, images, material content, spec sheets, applications, installation instructions, country of manufacture and RoHS status being among those most popularly demanded, manufacturers report that they’re making headway in supporting their distributor partners’ requests for data.

“The industry is doing a good job of giving manufacturers a solid foundation when it comes to the data fields required by distributors,” Richards contends. Specifically, the IDW-driven ‘SAID’ data structure (Specification Sheets, Attributes, Images, Documents), which allows a manufacturer to provide its customers with the essentials to successfully market their products online.

“It has proven to be very important because as a manufacturer, it becomes a lot easier to satisfy your customer when you have a specific goal laid out for you. In the past, we sometimes got pulled in many directions, but the IDW allows us to focus on putting our data in a single place where we can further concentrate on its quality and completeness very efficiently,” says Richards.

Richards says that since the SAID elements were instituted there’s been a definite spike in requests to organize the data in a way that can be translated into a Web search hierarchy. “This way the distributor can adapt directly into their online store fronts.”

Formation of IDEA’s Innovation Advisory Council, or IAC, is also helping to address some 14 data ‘gaps’ that IDEA, distributor and manufacturer representatives identified to be of highest priority. According to Wendorf, “The work of IAC is extremely beneficial, as it gives both distributors and manufacturers the opportunity to understand and decide how to implement standards once approved,” she says.

Quinn agrees, noting that the IDW’s efforts “provide a very efficient and effective way for distributors to get manufacturers’ product data into their marketing and sales systems.”

“The IAC committee’s work is very important for the industry,” Bausch concurs. “It should define the challenges and key paths for moving to a better IDW solution in many areas, but most importantly in the area of servicing data demand for online distribution volume.”

Moving Forward: Tips for IMARK Members

Richards suggests that to effectively gather the most robust data from their key suppliers, distributors should continue to collect data from the IDW, but should work closely with their IDW contacts to ensure that the systems which manufacturers are being asked to comply with are consistent with their business system requirements.

“Doing this will allow for a more seamless integration of manufacturer data into distributor systems,” he says. “In addition, they should continue to make their requirements clear and concise to further ensure that manufacturers hit the mark.”

Bausch agrees, confirming that distributors will achieve the greatest success by being more focused with their requests and limiting the requested attributes to specific needs. “Also, they should bucket products more appropriately to build correct attribute data around them,” he says.

For Wendorf, it’s all about keeping it simple. “Don’t overbuild or think you need everything all at once,” she advises distributors. “Think about the quickest way to narrow down a data result for each industry segment, because in today’s B2B environment, most people aren’t shopping or killing time—they have a project in mind and know what they want. Think about what documents are the most important to them (e.g., spec sheets, instructions, etc.) and keep this information in a summary view.

She explains the ‘three click’ system simply isn’t realistic anymore. “Use the supplied attributes as filter functions to narrow a product search. While this could take 4-5 clicks, it ultimately involves less time, offers users exactly what they’re looking for, and delivers a better experience overall.”