Delivering for Best-in-Class Wholesaler-Distributors
February 21, 2017  |  ByMark Dancer, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Fellow
NAW-Forget Strategy. Look for Inspiration From Your Customers – Distributors in the Digital Era #5

Over the years of working with wholesaler-distributor leaders, I have often heard that leaps of progress around the use of digital tools happen when things just click. Some distributors have used the phrase “aha moments” to describe these situations. Sometimes, they happen in the middle of a planned, sustained effort to adopt and use digital tools. At other times, aha moments happen when they are least expected – a customer says something, a simple phrase, observation, or request – and all the pieces fall into place. Aha moments are intensely personal and specific to one’s business. They are not broad generalizations about how digital tools will be used across all wholesaler-distributors in an industry’s value chain. Aha moments are about what your company should serve your customers while creating competitive advantage for your business.

In Getting Results From Your Digital Investments, I organized nearly 100 distributor quotations, each an aha moment critical for that company’s digital progress, into 40 distinct categories. Across four chapters, I shared these aha moments as they apply to meeting evolving customer preferences, creating channel strategies, leveraging data to power change, and methods for creating new and differentiated value. Each category and aha moment comes with analysis and suggestions, but ultimately, I leave it up to readers to select those that are important for their business, and encourage readers to go out and find their own.

In this post, I share distributor aha moments for five categories associated with customers, each with select quotes. I also list the five remaining customer categories. My goal is to share insights that reinforce the importance of looking for inspiration as you follow a disciplined process for creating or strengthening your digital vision. The power and emotion of these distributor comments should be an excellent start. One or two ideas are often enough to galvanize a digital vision and the best ideas for getting started frequently come from customers.

Aha Moment: Customers Want Social Learning

There is no denying the importance of social media, as one wholesaler-distributor explained:

“We sent our millennials to meet with their peers at our customers’ locations and talk about where they go for information. What we found was consistent with what is said about millennials. It had a big impact on how we provide information, but also provided an opportunity for learning from our customers. Millennials like social media because they can connect directly with other customers. The conversations are collaborative. The answers are there when needed. It’s about interacting with people the way people interact today. Videos fit here, too. YouTube is filled with user reviews for relevant personal purchases, and they carry over into getting information for business decisions.”

Another distributor described the impact of social media for his business this way:

“It’s really not about a kind of advertising. Yes, social media can help us get our message out there, but if we think about doing old things in new ways, social media replaces some of the conversations we have always had with our customers. We used to rely on our salespeople to ask customers about what is happening in their business. More and more, customers are having that conversation somewhere else — on blogs, LinkedIn groups, and YouTube. We need to go where they are.”

Aha Moment: Self-service Is the New Normal

Customers want self-service, and a wholesaler-distributor emphasized:

 “Clicking for answers is just the tip of the iceberg. Customers expect to find what they need online, whether it’s an answer or a purchase. They want to serve themselves. Not every time, but it’s growing. For us, it means we are taking a look at when customers place orders through phone calls, salesperson visits, faxes and the like, and seeing if we can make it easy for them to place the order online. We look at the questions our customers ask our customer service people and see if we can answer the common ones on our website through videos, FAQs, and so forth.”

On the surface, distributors that say, “My people are here for you,” may seem to have compelling value, but business customers know services come with costs. Some costs are the actual cost of the people who provide the service, which must be recouped somehow. For customers, having to get help on the distributor’s schedule, the way the distributor wants to provide the service, is also a cost – measured in time and convenience. Using digital tools to meet customer self-service demand is about letting customers have it their way, when they want it. Distributors benefit in providing less human support and lowering costs – or by saving human interaction for when it is really needed, thus improving productivity.

Aha Moment: Be Easy and Familiar

Digital and online customer experiences must present customers with an environment that is instantly familiar to their needs as a business buyer:

“We tried to make our customer experience on our website different, because marketing says differentiation is a good thing,” said another wholesaler-distributor. “But customers are online all the time in their personal lives and more and more at work, and they form opinions about how things should work – down to the details about where to find a shopping cart or how to click and place an order. Now we look at where our customers are going and try to provide similar experiences – unless we are absolutely sure that our difference has value to the customer.”

Aha moment: Personalization Means “Tell Your Customer’s Story, Not Yours”

The term “personalization” is a bit of digital jargon, but it is important. Successful companies realize that personalization is not about selling your story, it’s about telling the customer’s story:

“The last thing we want customers to see on our corporate website is our line card and the list of industries we serve. Those things can be there, but the first thing we want them to see is something that goes to the problems they are facing. We show pictures of our customers before we show pictures of ourselves. We don’t want our site to be about ‘here’s what we can sell you.’ We want it to be about ‘you can find what you need here.’ Once a customer is in our online store, the same principle works. We want them to see the things they have bought before or new things they might actually need, without wading through a lot of irrelevant content.”

Aha Moment: Instant Value

Customers don’t have time for idle chit chat. They don’t want a sales pitch. They don’t want to be made afraid or promised a solution. Rather, in the digital age, customers want instant value. According to one distributor:

“We started requiring our salespeople to deliver something of value to a customer in the first five minutes of a conversation. Then we shortened the time so that the first thing they say or do has value for the customer, on the customer’s terms.  We call it ‘instant value.’ Digital tools help because the salesperson can review a customer’s purchase patterns and participation in our marketing programs before he or she walks in the customer’s door or he or she can access the same information instantly as the need arises when talking with a customer.”


The remaining customer-centric aha moments shared by distributors are organized and discussed in Chapter Two: Digital Change Starts with Customer, and are summarized here:

  • At the Speed of Right — Move fast to match the speed of your customers and use data and experience to avoid mistakes.
  • Track It for Me (TIFM) — Track, organize, and analyze your customer’s unique transactions and digital footprints on your e-commerce platforms and websites.
  • Do It for Me (DIFM) — Go beyond showing your customers how they interact with your business and offer services that apply that knowledge and data to improving your customers’ business results.
  • Mobility Rules — Mobile devices put information into the hands of your people and customers, and achieving the right balance means leading or supporting your customers as you create new value for them.
  • One Version of Truth — Data is essential, but it often comes from different platforms. Integrating data and making it available to everyone is a primary task of critical importance as you implement your digital vision.

I’ll share more aha moments from other chapters in future posts. In the meantime, get started by listening to your customers and finding insights and inspirations to move your digital vision forward.

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Mark Dancer, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Fellow

Mark Dancer, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Fellow

Mark Dancer founded the Network for Business Innovation to drive awareness, advocacy and excellence for B2B innovation, and to enable an exchange of ideas between leaders on business transformation, technology adoption, social impact and community engagement. For more than 30 years, Mark has worked with leading companies to achieve go-to-market excellence across a wide range of industries in developed and emerging markets.

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