As business goes virtual in the digital age, distributors can carve out a dominant, differentiated position by redefining what it means “to do business as humans for humans.” It’s not that distributors should refuse to do business online. Distributors must embrace offering virtual service for customers. But, the most potent roles for distributors going forward are not about doing “what’s left over” after digital disruption. Instead, if distributors are to win by being human, they must pursue human-centric innovations in parallel with digital transformation.

A recent article on Medium, Hacks I Picked Up from a Visit to Chick-fil-A provides several value insights and a starting point for distributors. The anonymous author, TryingTooHard 超勉強, is a self-described middle manager, and his (or her) writing is based on personal experiences, research and curiosity. After naming Chick-fil-A and a few other retailers that regularly outperform industry leaders on store sales and sales productivity, the article identifies three recommendations. I share them below in the author’s words, followed by my interpretation and implications for distributors. These are my observations; I recommend that you read the article and draw your own conclusions. For additional insights on human-centric innovation, read my earlier post, Are Craft and Artisanal Channels on Your Radar?

Practice Making the Tough Decisions of Diverting Your Resources into People

Digital technology gets the lion’s share of distributor innovation investments. If human-centric innovations are to take root, distributor leaders must start by encouraging regular conversations among teams. Time, in a sense, is free. Ask your teams to discuss their personal and work goals, and the goals of their customers. These conversations are an uncomfortable task for many humans, but repetition combined with sincere leadership will lead to better and better insights. Ultimately, the goal is to gain a more in-depth and actionable understanding of your customers as people and to look for opportunities to align your people’s efforts with your customers’ needs. Over time, you will identify the behaviors and values that define your company’s culture of doing business as humans for humans.

Drive the Numbers without Driving the Numbers

In part, this recommendation is about how to encourage your people to acquire new skills through a combination of setting hard-to-achieve goals, jumping in and taking ownership, and always pushing for measurable results. The author mentions the need to explore (or account) for feelings in a way that seems to go to the need for managers to master the skills of “emotional intelligence” — the ability to be aware of, manage and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships sensibly and empathetically. These are worthwhile goals since digital transformation and business innovations always boil down to driving organizational change.

The concept of “exploring feelings” also goes to a critical aspect of human-centric innovations, one that may be overlooked or uncomfortable for the practical, nuts-and-bolts management style of many distributor leaders. The idea is that one of the most critical measures of doing business for humans is how your company’s services make your customers feel. Feelings are an inherently human characteristic. Doing business online can make a customer feel a certain way about the experience, but the experience is one way. Machines can not feel. Artificial intelligence (AI) may monitor behaviors as data and guide offerings to optimize outcomes, but AI cannot create a human-to-human bond. By arming the people who handle every customer-facing role with emotional intelligence skills and business processes designed to address the customer’s business needs and human feelings, distributors can further carve out a differentiated position and reputation around doing business as humans.

Allow Criticism to Jump-start Your Humility

The author’s last recommendation is a call to boldly go forward to do business as humans. State your objectives. Ask for criticism. Listen to feedback. Commit to change. All are wise words. For us, we have taken the challenge of developing world-class capabilities around human-centric innovations and will report our findings, insights from distributors, tools, and recommendations in the next Facing the Forces of Change® report, which will be released in November! You can sign up here to be notified when you can preorder it.

Should distributors listen to the advice of a self-described middle manager? I say “YES.” Should distributor leaders engage their middle managers in the cause of defining what it means to do business as humans for humans? DEFINITELY. Middle managers are on the front line of change and they play an essential role in executing every distributor’s strategies and building a competitive culture for the digital age. This author’s article is not one of a seasoned thought leader opining on the need for change and methods for success. But it is heartfelt. And if carefully read, powerful.

The author is on to something extraordinary — just as leading retailers can win through the actions and values of their people, so can distributors. The opportunity is huge. The methods are not well-defined, but the ability to succeed may not require huge investments in digital technology or other enablers. And most importantly, winning by being human is perhaps the ultimate differentiation against the forces of virtual disruption.

I found the Medium article that I referenced here as part of my ongoing research for the upcoming Facing the Forces of Change report. As always, if you read the article and have different experiences or ideas, please reach out to share your takeaways with me at [email protected].

NAW’s next Facing the Forces of Change study will be published in November. If you’d like to be among the first to preorder it, submit this form.