Delivering for Best-in-Class Wholesaler-Distributors
June 21, 2017  |  ByMark Dancer, NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence Fellow
NAW-It’s Not Too Late … Do You Know Your Customers?-Distributors in the Digital Era #21

A few decades back, a public service announcement was aired every evening, asking a simple question: “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” With all the disruptive changes underway in today’s marketplace, it seems that an updated message might be appropriate for distributor leaders. It could ask, “It’s not too late. Do you know your customers?” Here’s why …


The original public service announcement was designed to combat social ills by asking parents to do a better job of parenting. The message was in part a scolding, asking parents to live up to their responsibilities and do a better job of parenting. But, it was also enabling, pointing out that parents have a unique opportunity to address the problems of the day. Children have a world of possibilities before them, and they make their way by trial and error. Since parents had “been there before,” they could lend their experience and shorten the path to reach better outcomes. The message was true and timely—parents could help their children make better decisions and cure some of the problems of the day.

In today’s digitally disrupted markets, distributors are in a unique position to help their customers make better decisions—if only they will leverage their experience in the value chain and point out how customers can leverage online shopping and digital tools to create value for their business. Customers aren’t children, and today’s digital disruption is creating positive outcomes for markets, not negative ones. Still, in my conversations with customers and distributor leaders, I find an opportunity for both to work together to leverage the power of digital tools for mutual gain.

Change is happening, driven by disruption and the power of digital tools. The future is not yet locked in, however. Customers are making their way, mostly by trial and error. Virtually every customer I interview has found that they can go online in the earliest steps of their buying process and find helpful answers. They search a question about a new product or brand and get answers. Or, they go to a disruptor like Amazon and find out about brand options and prices. Online searching for product, brand and price information is empowering, but for many business customers it is only the start of a buying process. Business customers make decisions by including inputs from users, buyers, influencers and decision makers, and then they make rational economic decisions. They follow a process. When I ask customers about how they leverage digital tools across the entire process, not just at the very beginning, I hear crickets.

When I ask distributors about the impact of disruptive changes in their markets, I almost always hear about the impact on their own business. Distributors are concerned that disruptors will intercept evolving customer buying behaviors and take a slice of the market, maybe a large one. They are looking to strengthen their own business against this challenge and seeking to leverage digital tools for their own advantage. E-commerce platforms are evaluated to capture customer orders and drive distributor productivity and efficiency. Website investments, combined with CRM and other marketing automation and mobility tools, are a way to leverage the power of digital marketing and develop a digitally enabled sales force. Change is unlocked by investing in new and upgraded analytic teams, churning the distributors’ data to find opportunities, reduce costs and support margins.

All of this is well and perhaps very good, but it misses a critical opportunity. Distributors can leverage their value chain expertise and long-standing, trusted relationships with customers to help those customers make better decisions around the adoption and use of digital tools. They can help customers with ideas and benchmarks gained from a distributor’s full knowledge of the market including what other customers are doing, what manufacturers are offering, what vendors are selling, and if they work at it, what disruptors are disrupting. Distributors can act as stewards of the value chain as it evolves, informing customers of their options and helping them to make better decisions.

In Getting Results From Your Digital Investments, we offer a tool that can help you get started in the form of exhibit 2.3 on page 40. The exhibit is titled “Mapping a Customer’s Buying Process” and we have repeated it here for your convenience and offer it as a question:

To use this exhibit as a starting point for helping your customers to make better use of online shopping and digital tools, I suggest the following five-step approach:

  1. Substitute “pre-purchase” for “presale” and “post-purchase” for “postsale” to ensure that you are focused on how your customers buy and not how you sell.
  2. Consider each of the bullets as an example of customer activities or needs in each phase, and update them through conversations with your customers.
  3. As you complete Step 2, also update your knowledge about who the customer involves in making purchase decisions, how decisions are made, and how the process and decisions vary from one decision to the next.
  4. Starting with your best customers that will partner with you, ask them what they already know about online buying and digital tools, and what they would like to know.
  5. Use the answers to all five steps and go out and get answers from your own people, and from your suppliers, vendors and other experts. Put together answers for your customers about how they can gain advantage, and share those answers with them. Then update your own digital vision and business plans for your own business.

In times of change and when facing threats, it is natural to think first about your own survival. This will be the path for most distributors, which means that some distributor leaders see opportunity through a broader perspective. These distributor leaders recognize that disruptive change is happening, with or without their actions. Moreover, they understand that by gaining new knowledge about their customers—knowledge about how customers can benefit from online buying and digital tools—they can cement their customer relationships and find new opportunities for their business.

With all of this in mind, we offer an updated public service message for the community of wholesaler-distributors: “It’s not too late. Do you know your customers?”

For more ideas about how customers are changing their buying behaviors—given online shopping, digital tools and the impact of disruptive players in your value chain—please see “Chapter Two: Digital Change Starts with Customers” in Getting Results From Your Digital Investments. You may also enjoy these other blog articles focused on “customers”: Inside Sales Teams Drive Excellent Customer Experience, Forget Strategy. Look for Inspiration From Your Customers and Why Data Sharing Leads to Better Value for Customers.

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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.