Many distributors have been doing things the same way for years. In some cases, what worked then still works now. Yet, part of preparing for the future is preparing for the unexpected — whether that is economic volatility or other industry disruption, such as the Coronavirus.

There are three kinds of information. Facts, informed opinions and guesses. The worst case is when everyone has high anxiety but no facts or data. The key is to be rational and focus on data. You want to be recognized in your supply chain for being responsible and making informed decisions based on the data at hand.

Disruption leads to opportunity. We don’t know what the long-term effect of the Coronavirus will be on the market. And while some companies will be tempted to retreat in the face of unforeseen challenges, the best approach is to play the game, stay competitive — and maybe do things a little differently than you have in the past.

Here are a few ways to stay competitive in the face of disruption in 2020 and beyond:

Embrace Digital Transformation

Distributors have access to better technology than ever before, with more data to analyze and drive decisions than in the past. New updates to ERP software can help companies both big and small take a closer look at their operations, make improvements and do business better.

Additionally, new tech has helped us to be more connected than in the past, giving us greater access to worldwide marketplaces. Distributors are learning that it is about more than just selling on the web, but about reaching people where they are — whether digitally or in the field. Distributors need to up their game and continue to innovate to stay competitive.

Elevate the Human Element

We are analog beings living in a digital world. And despite the rise of new tech like machine learning and AI, there is still benefit in the human touch. Buyer needs are changing and evolving. For instance, Millennials represent 35% of the workforce, and we consider most of them as digital natives fluent in modern technology. Many distributors are worried about this, but being anxious about it won’t do anything. The smart play is to embrace the evolving workplace, bring in young people and start to test out new ideas. Consider incentive options and opportunities for employees to learn and experiment. When they have the freedom, flexibility and support to achieve success, they will make a greater impact on the business and the customer — who likely wants the same things.

Consider Your Customers

An economic slowdown or global health crisis is no time to withdraw. Rather, it is time to reconsider your goals, take strategic action and listen to your customers. Ask your customers how they are affected, and how their needs are changing. Take the time to drive customer engagement, especially when people are concerned and markets are shifting. When you know your customer better, you will have the competitive advantage of having nurtured that relationship, plus the insights to their evolving pain points. Consider taking this time to provide education around safety equipment and products, create engaging videos or do more training around commodity products.

In the face of economic disruptions or scares like the Coronavirus, don’t sit and worry. Instead, focus on the ways where you can continue to innovate, both internally and within your customer-facing strategy. Integrate your different capabilities and focus on differentiating your services. Performance takes ability and willingness, and the thing that kills willingness is complacency. There is still a lot of opportunity out there if you are willing to go after it.


History is the same things happening over and over again. When COVID–19 is in the rearview mirror, what will your customers, employees and suppliers think about you?  This is just the latest disruption. Why are so many leaders surprised when the next disruption shows up? Were you part of the anxious and fearful pack, or were you the one who engaged with caring, facts and concern with how you could help them?

“Playing life as an iterative game changes how you play. Positioning yourself for the future carried more weight than winning in the moment.” — Farnam Street blog