Distributors may avoid outsider disruption by being human, but only if they make concrete plans to work with customers where they live and work — in communities. A new mindset is required. Segmenting customers is about selling. Serving communities is about collaborating. Relationships are built on trust, and at its core, building trust is a very human endeavor. As distributors transform digitally, they risk losing touch with customers. A distributor’s innovation plan needs to include human-centric innovations, and community outreach is the most powerful place to start.

Innovation ideas about social impact may help point the way for distributor-led B2B innovation. A recent Forbes Nonprofit Council Post identified four commitments for creating a culture of innovation — design thinking, values, strategic vision and high trust. Guided by values that commit to enabling a community, design thinking leverages organizational skills around empathy, ideation and experimentation to find innovative solutions. High trust is essential to the design thinking process as a human-centered process. Given our rapidly changing social-economic landscape, plans quickly become outdated, making a disciplined and sustained strategic innovation process essential for initiatives that target the right results.

These recommendations are aligned with our findings in Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series:

  • Helping customer communities is helping yourself. Customers are seeking to find their way in the digital age. By committing to helping customer communities, distributors can go on offense in a way that achieves scale. Communities can be defined as local towns or regions, and they can also be defined as trades, professions and the distributors’ markets at large. By doing so, distributors will identify high-impact solutions for innovating their own business.
  • Emotional intelligence training is essential for high-impact innovations. For decades, distributors prospered by hiring people from a local community to serve people in that community. This approach baked in natural relationships. As distributors serve customers further away by physical distance and virtually through e-commerce, they require a more scalable method. One approach, kick-started by Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence, is an excellent place to start.
  • Trust is never virtual. Trust is a critical requirement for doing business in B2B markets. Customers work hard to identify sources they can rely on for critical purchases and ongoing replenishment. The growing trend toward transparency in all things (e.g., pricing, delivery dates, delivery performance, etc.) points to the need for upgraded requirements around trust as our markets and workforces transform. Distributors can compete on relationships, but only if they set new and high standards for earning a position as a trusted supplier.

For distributors, turbocharging communities is about acting as leaders outside their company, where customers come together around shared interests, skills development, social values and business acumen. Serving communities is a traditional competency for distributors, but one that must consciously and proactively be reinvented as a competitive force against the power of outsider disruption.

As a Fellow for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence, I am committed to creating awareness and advancing the practice of B2B innovation in distribution. My new report Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series is a roadmap for innovation by distributors. It is much more than a report on trends; it is a foundation for distributor leadership with customers and for revitalizing the value chain. I welcome your feedback, direction, and questions. Please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].