RS Components is the world’s largest distributor of electronic, electrical and industrial components. Freestyle’s Oliver Forrester sat down with its President of EMEA, Mike England to hear how he turns theory into practice and inspires digital transformation on a global scale.
What changes have you noticed in the marketing of industrial products in recent years?
Mike England: If we accept that brand loyalty over the past four decades has been the key driver.
That is, if people feel emotionally attached to your brand, then you ultimately win. Then that has fundamentally changed. All the statistics we look at tell us that brand loyalty alone doesn’t cut it anymore.
Customer experience, and that can be the way people receive marketing and marketing messages, as well as the customer experience when they engage with companies through a click or a phone call, will fundamentally determine whether a customer wants to do business with you or not.
Brand loyalty absolutely has a place. Indeed, RS Components has been in the market for over 80 years, we’ve got significant heritage in the industrial market space. But that alone is not enough for us to win. And that’s a really key point for companies to recognise.
What marketing challenges do you feel are unique to manufacturing?
You’ve used the phrase “challenges in marketing”. I would flip that and talk about opportunities. Absolutely in my mind, and the mind of RS Components, the opportunity now for successful marketing and communications is limitless.
For RS, uniqueness is about recognising that we’re not just a manufacturer and distributor of a broad range of innovative products that we sell, but we’re advocates of new technologies, solutions and services that are coming onto the market. And these new technologies are blending and converging all the time.
For example, we have the conversion of electronics with traditional mechanical engineering in ‘mechatronics’ – an everyday application of which might be lightbulbs that use sensor technology to diagnose when they are going to fail.
So, we have to be thinking differently about what that’s going to mean for the customer and their buying journey.
Having said that, we need to remember that despite the emergence of new technologies, a lot of manufacturers are working with legacy systems and machinery. So there’s a cross-over that says, ‘Ok, if we were building a new factory tomorrow, we would put all the new technology in. But I’ve got cost constraints, so how can you help me integrate new technologies within more of a legacy environment?’
I think that’s the problem with IoT at the moment. Companies are joining the conversation talking about it as a general theme. But that doesn’t necessarily answer the question faced by the customer of ‘What does this mean for me? What are the simple things that I can do in order to start on that journey? To become more connected?’
Most manufacturers certainly haven’t got million’s in their pockets to suddenly switch on a smart factory. The marketing opportunity here is to jump off the IoT sales talk and think, ‘We need to put ourselves in the customers’ shoes’ and provide them with information to help them solve their problems.’
RS Components is sponsoring the ‘Supply Chain Excellence’ category at this year’s The Manufacturer MX Awards – the UK’s largest celebration of manufacturing.
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What does digital transformation mean to your business?
It starts with leadership and culture. We have to be very, very clear on the type of company we want to be and the type of company we’re not. I’m a firm believer that in a highly digital world, we need to have higher levels of emotional intelligence. Command and control has had its day.
Ultimately businesses must recognise that you need to have that blend of experience and youth. You need to jump generation gaps by getting younger generations to educate more senior employees about new tech and new ways or working. Celebrating the digital world rather than fearing it, is critical.
Here role modelling is really important. If you go on my LinkedIn feed, you’ll see I’m regularly posting content. You’ll see me doing one-take videos where I’m comfortable being human and open. And I encourage all the leaders at RS Components to make videos if they want to communicate, rather than sending out memos. Make it human. Make it interactive. Make it personal. That’s what digital is all about.
How do you go about personalising experiences for your customers?
At RS Components, our customer segments vary hugely. We serve individuals, who might be designing prototype environments, who need a very specific part in an emergency. But we also get to work with some of the largest manufacturers in the world.
We’re looking for long-term partnerships with customers that adds significant value. And here it’s not a discussion about buying a widget, it’s a discussion about a partnership. It’s about helping the customer.
Using data in order to understand your customers is about more than understanding their industry segments. It’s about getting right down to personalisation and recognising deeply what role they do, what their preferences are in terms of buying behaviour, what channels they use etc.
We naturally assume that people want to come on our website, but actually some people like to use the telephone and have a conversation. Some people want to walk into a local RS branch. Some people like to send an email. It’s about choice.
For the new generation of engineers and graduates, they don’t want to have emails. They’re used to social media; they’re used to video content. It’s just their expectation now.
Understanding this diversity of audiences is crucial. There are a lot of different audiences that you have to understand deeply, and one size doesn’t fit all.
How do you approach digital content and campaigns at different stages of the buying journey?
Clearly we need to recognise that more customers are using Google and other search media to find products. But as well as finding, people want to learn about products – hence the thirst for video content. People want to know how to fit the product, what features to be looking out for, how it will help them. The customer experience needs to evolve.
Engineers are very precise. So there’s an expectation that your marketing content will be accurate. Your ability to be able to provide really good technical information, develop that information and be the first to talk about it in the engineering community is key.
Then further up the funnel, there’s a thirst for more emotionally-led content and campaigns. For example, we have run a programme called ‘For the Inspired’ which has won several accolades. It’s all about inspiring engineers and people in the industry to reflect on their childhood dreams – ‘what did you want to be when you were young?’.
As children we grew up with big ideas and active imaginations which led us to think we could do anything we wanted. So we’re sharing stories of amazing inventions and engineering achievements based on that childhood sense of curiosity and experimentation. It’s about inspiring engineers within the industry, as well as the next generation of engineers.
We’ve got some great video content, from using a jet-engine suit for human flight to the story of a dad who created a hydraulic arm for his son. This thought-provoking content gets a significant pull, our YouTube views are into the millions – for me that’s transformational marketing!
Video is set to make up more than 80% of all web traffic by 2021. It’s about recognising this and organising yourself and the business to meet this challenge.
So many B2B businesses pump out content which simply says ‘we sell this’, ‘do you want to buy it?’. It’s lacklustre. But if content is emotional, if it connects to a greater cause, you can get that cut-through, you can get 10,000 likes.
How do you inspire your teams to create content that brings ‘non-sexy’ products to life?
We’re a company that puts innovation at the heart of what we do and we want to empower our people to be creative. We want them to know that it’s ok to fail. By setting that culture up, you see unbelievable talent coming through and you see the potential in people. With the ‘For the Inspired’ campaign, we went out to multiple media agencies, but the best outcome actually came from our own people because they were so invigorated by the whole subject and what we wanted to achieve. They knocked the socks off the external agencies.
That said a lot about our people and our culture. It just shows if you’re able to release the potential of people, they will always surprise and inspire you.
There’s a great example of a guy at RS called Sean Suleman. He’s a Safety Product expert but also a drummer in a band – quite a big band actually. And he puts out these LinkedIn posts where he combines his two passions and talks about drumming and safety kit at the same time.
Some businesses would say, ‘What they hell are you doing, Sean?’ That’s crazy’. But we think it’s inspiring and refreshing. It shows somebody who is thinking outside the box. So we actively encourage rather than discourage it.
How do you go about measuring and improving your customer experience at RS Components?
We operate a number of customer experience programmes. We regularly survey website visitors to get information which allows us to measure our Net Promoter Score. We’ve got a company-wide dashboard, where we’re regularly pulling down statistics on customer types, which can be broken down by different customer sub-sets and groups.
We can look at different areas of our business, whether that’s the search environment, the find environment, or the checkout environment.
We invite customers into our tech labs regularly and ask them to talk through their experience of working with us. We have a constant sense of what’s driving the customer experience and then we change our activity towards improving that. All of our investment in customer experience is led by what our customers are telling us.
Equally, we do a significant amount of upfront market research to check people’s experience of RS from a marketing perspective. We ask people if we’re providing the kind of content they need, we take that feedback and we adjust. Looking at customer experience through multiple lenses is critical for us.
We drive the majority of our marketing, sales and web experience based on having these multiple data points. We should be constantly listening to the voice of the customer and adjusting as we go. And if people don’t understand their responsibility to make the customer journey as amazing as it can be, then they shouldn’t be in the job.
Another initiative we have is the ‘customer conscience’ where we literally take these 6-foot, free-standing customer images into meetings and ask: ‘Well, what would Pippa want?’, ‘How would Pippa feel about this?’ If we can’t solve Pippa’s problem with the conversation we’re having, then we probably shouldn’t be having it. It forces customer centricity in every conversation.
What can B2B manufacturers and distributors learn from consumer brands?
I don’t think any business can survive unless you’re constantly immersing yourself in what’s happening in B2C.
It’s just a fact that when we need something as a consumer, we pick up our phones, we have an experience and we expect something to just be delivered. Or we expect immediate information. If you can’t provide that for your customers in a B2B world, and meet those expectations, then you will ultimately fail.
That’s the biggest piece of feedback we’ve had from our customers – they’re telling us they want, and they expect, these B2C experiences. And I genuinely believe that the B2B and B2C worlds are converging.
At RS Components, we don’t benchmark ourselves against the leaders in our sector. We benchmark ourselves against market leaders in B2C. Those companies that have put customer experience at the heart of all they do, and we are constantly learning from them.
Above all, we are data-driven. If you’re not able to capture data, manage data, utilise data, and use it to power your decision making, whether it be in marketing, sales, buying, or supply chain, you’re going to get weaker and weaker as a business.
Those companies that focus on the utilisation of data, and can convert those insights at pace and have the agility to change and evolve, are the companies that will continually succeed.
This is the second of a growing series of ‘B2B Spotlight interviews’ by Freestyle, more of which can be found here.
Freestyle started working with RS Components in 2013, delivering strategy, creative design and technical expertise for their digital campaigns. An overview of their work together can be found here.
*All images courtesy of RS Components.