Our research for Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing of Forces of Change® Series revealed a massive new opportunity for distributors: the future of business is up for grabs! Every customer of every distributor in every line of trade is working to understand how their business can survive and thrive in the digital age. Customer change is about harnessing the power of technology- and human-driven forces and reinventing how work is done and how individuals and organizations learn. The opportunity for distributors is to help customers transform for the future of business. In doing so, distributors can carve out a spot as a valued source and essential partner.

Distributors are in a strong position to enable the future of business for customers, and they can build on their reputation for customer service and support, including product advice, training and ad hoc recommendations for improving customer operations. But much more is needed. Distributors must have in-depth knowledge of the customer’s market dynamics and competitive challenges, and they must offer foresight about what the future holds. Commitment starts at the top, and leaders must establish new processes for working with customers and metrics that are about achieving customer success measured in terms that are relevant for customers. Successful distributors will build a culture that goes beyond responding to customer requests. They will suggest innovations, line up resources for execution and work to implement plans.

One approach is to conduct annual innovation audits that involve working with customers to identify the critical business processes and end-customer experiences that will determine their fate. Then, by harnessing distributor relationships with suppliers, subject matter experts and service providers appropriate to the customer’s future, distributors can act as a project lead for designing solutions. Distributors have a unique empathy for customer challenges and opportunities, but they don’t have all of the answers. Over time and with each success leading to another, distributors can build customer trust and shape a robust innovation ecosystem for driving change.

The opportunity to structure a business that can help customers enable the future of business is not a secret. Not even close. Our research for Innovate to Dominate found that there is a veritable army of disruptors and service providers already mobilizing. These businesses are planning a future where they win by leveraging the power of big data and artificial intelligence, robots, B2B procurement platforms, robotic process automation, drones or autonomous vehicles and more. Some are powerful disruptors already known by distributors and moving from B2C to B2B markets. Others are start-up businesses with big ideas and venture funding.

Competing to win in the war for enabling the future of business for customers will place distributors on a large and complicated battlefield. Many distributors will wait to see how the future unfolds and follow up on changes driven by others. This approach is comfortable, but now without risk — as customers decide how they will work and learn in the future, they will also determine what they value in a source for products. Distributors may find themselves left out in the cold if they are not in the game of helping customers before the future arrives.

Ultimately, customers will evolve and embrace the future of business. Businesses that are not distributors will help them get there. The choice for distributors it to lead, follow or get out of the way. If a distributor wants to control its future and perhaps construct a new, more profitable business, then leading customers may be the best option, even if it is the most difficult.

Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing of Forces of Change® Series is every distributor’s essential roadmap for innovation. If you haven’t already, I hope you will order your copies and use it with your team as an essential tool. This blog post is the first in a series designed to work side-by-side with your team as you apply the findings and recommendations in Innovate to Dominate. You can find a discussion about the age of B2B innovation and an overview of future questions here.

P.S. I hope to see you at the NAW Executive Summit: Innovate to Dominate, January 28–30, 2020, in Washington, DC, where I’ll be a featured speaker. And, as always, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].