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Guess What Distributors? Turns Out, You Can Fight What You Can’t See

Guess What Distributors? Turns Out, You Can Fight What You Can’t See

By Bridget McCrea

Our expert shows how putting a focus on value and expertise versus just taking orders can help your distributorship stay relevant and profitable in these disruptive times.

Distributor salespeople are in an interesting position right now. On one hand, the economy is in full recovery mode, new construction is popping out of the ground everywhere, renovations are on a tear, and business is brisk. But something happened on the way to getting back to “business as usual.” E-commerce took off like a rocket and e-tailers like Amazon Business dipped a toe in (and then jumped right into) the business-to-business (B2B) pool.

“For the last several years, the sales rep has felt threatened by something that he can’t see and that he doesn’t really understand,” says John Sonnhalter, founder of Sonnhalter, a business-to-business marketing firm in Cleveland. “Because of this, he’s now pretty resistant to change in an era where the days of being an ‘order taker’ who slaps the customer on the back and chats about baseball are long gone.”

According to Sonnhalter, this doesn’t mean the sales reps’ days are numbered, but it does mean that some shape-shifting is in order—at least for those reps and distributors that want to stay relevant and valuable for their customers in both the near- and long-term. Here, Sonnhalter gives electrical distributors some advice on how to make that happen:

Q:   We know what the environment is like and what challenges companies are facing right now, so what’s the first thing an electrical distributor needs to do to compete more effectively in this market?

A:  Get a user-friendly website that’s responsive and that works on a mobile phone. Go to a jobsite today and you can’t find a contractor who doesn’t have a smartphone and/or iPad in his hand. They’re doing business on those devices all day long—getting quotes, researching products, ordering stuff, etc. Those devices are literally attached to their hips, or at least within arm’s reach in their work vehicles.

Q:  What does a distributor stand to gain by putting the time and effort into “going mobile?”

A:  In order to do business in today’s world, you have to adapt. It’s plain and simple. Distributor salespeople aren’t order takers anymore. In fact, they don’t need to physically “take orders,” and that’s a good thing. But this also puts more traditional-minded sales reps in the interesting position of having to adapt to this new selling environment.

Q:  What type of re-training is needed for veteran reps that now need to embrace and work within an e-commerce selling environment?  
A:  Well for starters, distributors have to assure their sales teams that the Internet is their friend and not their foe. When reps go out to visit job sites, they need to be promoting their company’s mobile application or user-friendly website with offers like, “Hey, if you place this order online or via our mobile app by 4 p.m. today, tomorrow morning it will be at will-call for you at 6:30 a.m. for pickup.” Or, if we’re talking about an “A” customer, then it can be delivered to the jobsite first thing the following morning. Make it easy for customers to use the tools that they want to use to place orders, and enable your sales team to support this shift—not fight against it.

Q:  Where do you see distributors going wrong in this area right now?

A:  They forget that they’re there to add value, and that anyone can go online and place an order with pretty much any distributor and have it delivered the next day. This is just the reality of the online selling environment, but getting things delivered the next day is not the best use of an experienced, knowledgeable distributor sales rep. A better move is to just stop comparing yourself to the “big boys” and figure out what sets you apart from them. For example, the average tenure for a distributor sales rep is about 10-15 years; that is simply ancient in today’s job market, so promote the heck out if it.

Q:  What are some other ways that distributors can leverage their reps’ tenure and experience?

A:  Have them do product training on the jobsite for their customers. Make the training sessions “lunch and learns,” bring in pizza and soda, and turn them into fun and educational events that your customers will remember. Do them during lunch hour so no one has to be taken off the jobsite to participate. You can also do more formalized training programs, but regardless of the format make sure the event focuses on, “Here are our newest products, and here’s how to use them in your own business.” This will help endear your customers not only to your company, but also to your suppliers (who can also participate). That makes it a win-win for both the distributor and the manufacturer, and it really helps to add value in the customers’ eyes.
Q:  It’s no secret that one of the “big boys” that a lot of distributors are worried about right now is Amazon Business. What can they do to set themselves apart from this 300-pound gorilla of the e-commerce world?

A:  Amazon sells convenience, and most manufacturers have their stuff on Amazon not because they want to, but because they have to. When you buy stuff from Amazon—or even from a general line distributor like Grainger—you buy it for convenience and not for price. In fact, Amazon is not typically the cheapest option. The most important piece of advice that I can give the smaller, specialized distributor is don’t be intimidated. For example, if you have the goods in your warehouse, you can deliver them tomorrow morning too—just like Amazon can. Or better yet, knowing that an electrical contractor drives by and/or stops into your location daily (or, at least several times a week), have the products ready for them. Just make it easy for them to do business with you. That’s the first step in competing on the “convenience” side of the equation, and it’s not that hard to do.  

Q:  Any final tips for a distributor that needs to start doing a better job in this area?

A:  Yes. Start by looking at the value that your company and its sales reps provide to customers. Analyze each salesperson individually and determine their levels of expertise on specific applications, for example. If you find out that Harry is very good in certain fields of commercial work, then he should be calling on as many commercial customers as possible and telling them things like, “Go to our website or mobile app whenever you have a problem and get a solution directly from an expert, who has 20 years of experience in this field.” Then, all the contractor needs is a mobile phone to get a direct link to that expertise. Let’s say you have a half-a-dozen sales reps with expertise in various areas. It doesn’t take long for that advantage to multiply across your entire customer base and turn your company into a go-to resource regardless of exactly how an order is physically placed.

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.



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