Many distributors are reporting that the Coronavirus crisis is leading to an increase in online ordering and virtual interactions with their customer service reps and inside salespeople. As this trend takes root, it may shift customer interactions away from a distributor’s field salespeople. As a result, salespeople may be defensive or uncomfortable. However, if customer behaviors are changing, there is a huge opportunity for your sales force around creating new value for customers.

Without a plan and a push, sales behaviors may snap back to the old normal as the crisis subsides. With creativity and drive, however, distributors may crack open the door for game-changing customer value.

At its core, unbundling activities from traditional sales roles and rebuilding a new sales force for the future is about redefining job descriptions, competency models, business processes and sales compensation. As I discussed in a recent blog post, your first-line sales managers are essential for translating a new vision to practical execution. In a time of crisis, big ideas are needed to build momentum for change.

Defeating the COVID-19 pandemic requires that you and your team imagine the unimaginable so you can mobilize your resources and mitigation strategies. Opening the door for game-changing value starts with imagining the unimaginable — new customer experiences that represent a leap ahead, not a gradual transition. Winners will look to the future and then look back to decide how that future can be achieved.

In the interest of moving quickly and building momentum, here are a few bold ideas for new customer experiences. To be sure, these ideas are just a starting point. They must be better defined. There may be better ideas to come. For now, I offer them to help you seize the moment and go on offense:

  • Host data meetups. Launch an ongoing series of Zoom calls to discuss articles, podcasts, books and more about the future use of data, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). Include people with cross-functional roles across your company and your customer’s business. Don’t ask your salespeople to lead the discussions but build a process for them to follow up and identify ideas and open issues. Invite guests for a Q&A. Get answers for the next meetup. Build a foundation of ideas and knowledge from one meetup to the next and a shared vision about future uses of data.
  • Create forward-looking account reviews. Work with your customer to model their business and your contributions to look out two or three years. Develop signposts and milestones for quarterly check-ins. Milestones are goals that you can achieve working in collaboration with your customer. Signposts are events that, if they happen, are indicators of progress. For your best accounts, create an independent review board to monitor progress and account reviews, and hold yourself and your team along with your customer accountable.
  • Collaborate on your customer’s sell side. Hire an AI expert or vendor to work with your customer on the sell side of their business. Start by identifying opportunities to leverage AI for your customer’s benefit and commit your best data, analytics and AI employees to work on a project team with your customer and the AI resource. Identify how your company’s products and services can enable your customer’s success and consider new hires or acquisitions if necessary.
  • Pool data for total cost of ownership (TCO) analytics. Combine your data on pricing, delivery performance and other factors with your customer’s data on product performance, operational metrics and overall business results. Create a custom model to monitor, measure and optimize collaborative performance. Invite an outside expert to weigh in to ensure that you have best-in-class data, analytics and AI. Invest in training and development for your team and your customer so that you can run your shared business on data.

Above all, avoid groupthink around the emerging new normal and instead lead your customer into the future. Feel free to reach out or schedule a call if you would like to discuss these ideas or if you have better ones. This post is the start of a conversation and I will report on progress soon.

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.