As distributors imagine business after the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing consensus that the crisis will lock in a trend toward customer preferences for virtual experiences. While a sustained shift in buying habits is very likely, that outcome does not reflect the full impact on the future of business. Yes, social distancing has forced remote working and online ordering. However, the crisis also reveals that we are all members of cherished communities, and the path forward is about people working with people to solve problems.

After all, the Coronavirus is attacking us as humans, and the damage is measured in human terms. Virtual technologies are powerful, but only so far as they enable people to live their lives and do their work. Digital technology is an enabler of the human condition, and not a replacement.

In an article in Grocery Dive, Randy Edeker, CEO of mid-western grocer Hy-Vee, shares how his company has responded to the pandemic. Hy-Vee’s approach is very much a blend of technology and human innovation. Aisles Online, Hy-Vee’s e-commerce platform, is “on fire” and experiencing record growth and volume. Hy-Vee has ordered “more than 120,000 masks for workers and made telehealth services, including mental health visits, more affordable” for workers. Employees are enabling pickup services for customers and working inside the store, human-to-human, behind plexiglass barriers at checkouts. Home deliveries are fulfilled through platform businesses like Shipt and DoorDash. At the very end of the article, Edeker observes, “I think this is going to be a time that the regionals really get stronger, that the communities that they’re in feel more of an affinity to them.”

All of this reminds me of critical findings in Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series. The best innovations demand that we take the best of what technology can offer as we take the best of what humans can offer and put them together for an innovation. Human and technology innovations are connected. One does not lead the other. They go together. On NAW’s Blog Distributing Ideas, we explore “how to win by being human” and the “value of being local.”

Distributors have a hard-earned reputation as local and people-centric businesses. Edeker’s comments about the affinity held by customers for regional businesses highlights the value of community relationships built in the real world. The emerging new normal will not be about choosing to offer virtual customer experiences over those delivered by humans. It will be about recognizing that virtual experiences create value for humans, and that human experiences can be optimized by technology. They go together, hand in glove. Developing innovations from one perspective without considering the other will not delight customers, nor will it achieve sustainable competitive advantage. Instead, doing so is a formula for making your business ineffectual and irrelevant.

If you believe this, I suggest five questions to pursue with your customers. As you explore your customers’ answers, look for opportunities to marry virtual and human innovations to achieve the best possible results:

  1. Has your response to the pandemic strengthened or hurt your brand in the eyes of your customers at every level and across every function, from senior leaders to workers on the front line of doing business?
  2. How can you leverage virtual / augmented reality tools to enable human connections while solving your customers’ critical needs during this current crisis?
  3. How can you leverage smart lockers enabled by artificial intelligence to move inventory from your warehouse to a location closer to where your customers need your products to do their work?
  4. How can you enable re-shoring customer purchases from a global supply chain by offering local services for setting up new operations, mitigating risk and working side-by-side at your customers’ facilities?
  5. Do your customers respect your foresight about how the crisis will impact the future of work? Do they learn about your foresight through your salespeople or your social media?

This post is a continuing conversation about avoiding groupthink, owning the new normal and leading customers to the future. Feel free to reach out or schedule a call to discuss these questions or share questions of your own.

As a Fellow for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence, I am committed to helping distributors come out of the Coronavirus crisis stronger than before and to leading customers and suppliers to the future. To help with this endeavor, my latest report, Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series, is a roadmap for innovation by distributors. More than a report on trends, it is a foundation for advancing distributor leadership with customers and for revitalizing the value chain.