Coronavirus has thoroughly disrupted the sales processes for distributors. Not only have customer demands changed, but the process of selling has also been transformed. Social distancing has forced an accelerated digitization upon distributors. Suddenly, businesses that relied heavily on personal interactions and skilled outside sales reps are unarmed. Meanwhile, inside sales, customer service and e-commerce have become key channels. In this post, I’ll explain how distributors can accelerate the digitization of their sales channels to meet the demands of this new market.

Disrupted Sales Channels

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted sales at a structural level. State shelter-in-place orders are keeping millions at home, while national social distancing guidelines encourage all Americans to avoid interpersonal contact. These interventions have massively impacted how we sell. In a matter of days, person-to-person sales have been all but eliminated, while online and phone sales have become extremely important.

This shift has dramatically impacted the B2C landscape where many companies don’t have the multi-channel flexibility that distributors enjoy. Brick-and-mortar retailers that lack remote selling options are dealing with closures, lay-offs, and tumbling sales. However, consumer businesses that rely on remote channels are booming; Online retailers, food delivery services, and teleworking software companies are all hiring thousands of workers to keep up with surging sales. Clearly, some sales structures are better suited to succeeding in the current environment.

The Distributor Advantage

Distributors, however, tend to contain an entire sales landscape of their own. With branches, outside reps, inside reps, customer service departments, marketing teams and e-commerce, distributors span the entire spectrum from personal business to digital dealing.

Where rigid B2C sellers struggled to adapt, distributors can prioritize and pivot to digital sales channels. Even better, most distributors will not really be changing direction, so much as just accelerating a process that was already underway. Distributors have been shifting toward digital commerce for years. Now, they must simply shift faster to continue serving customers that are buying almost exclusively online or over the phone.

Improving Sales with AI

Unfortunately, running a remote-first sales business is easier said than done. Distributors can pull their outside sales reps out of the field. However, their years of valuable experience won’t necessarily translate to effective telesales. Likewise, a website that is geared toward supporting business will likely not be ready to drive business. Distributors need technology that can automate telesales reps’ workflow, and website enhancements that can facilitate upsells, cross-sells and add-on sales. That is where AI comes in.

Some distributors are already using AI to support regular inside sales reps. The technology can analyze customer buying patterns to predict who reps should call, when they should call them and what they should sell. While this type of workflow and sales automation is helpful for everyday reps, it is absolutely game-changing for green employees or outside reps that are transitioning to a new job.

AI-enhancements can also transform websites from order entry sites into active sales channels. Most websites simply allow all customers to search for the same items and make purchases. However, leaders in the B2C and B2B spaces have active websites that can actually create a personalized shopping experience for each customer.

When customers are shopping online—with their carts partially full and credit cards at the ready—they are set to buy. Companies who know this, and use AI to put relevant offers and items in front of those customers, win big. Amazon, for example, attributes 35% of its revenue to AI-interventions like “recommended for you,” “customers also bought” and “related to this item” modules. Distributors can do the same.

Good Now, Great Later

AI will help distributors upgrade websites and increase rep performance. These improvements will be particularly important for as long as the Coronavirus forces remote sales. However, efficient reps and high-performing websites are just as useful in a crisis as they are in a stable situation. Distributors should move now, as an investment in AI today will pay immediate and sustained dividends.

You may be interested in my earlier post, Inside Sales Teams Sell More with AI