As distributors rush to put up e-commerce platforms that can sell anywhere and anytime without human interaction, they are reinventing their business as one that is digital, virtual and data-driven. But, like a retail mall decimated by online shopping, distributors have failed to reposition their most crucial core offering. Distributors are inherently local businesses staffed by humans. Distributors can’t win by being what they once were, but they will lose if they do not redefine the value of being local in our disrupted and increasingly digital world.

Does anyone believe that a business must be local to predict demand? Or to answer questions? To solve problems? To guarantee timely delivery? The uncomfortable answer is “No!” Internet searches provide instant answers. Faraway inside sales and service people provide supplemental human support. Automated warehouses operate at scale, powered by data analytics and artificial intelligence. Barcoded packages self-report their movement from shipping to receiving. Robots, both physical and digital, are assuming human tasks. Drones and autonomous vehicles may soon do the same.

In Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change® Series, we devote an entire chapter to the largely overlooked discipline of human-centric innovation. The chapter “Reboot the Real World” can give shape to an innovation summit or retreat, but three recommendations stand out:

  • Don’t accept the mandates of our technology masters. Distributor leaders and organizations need to become experts at artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, robots and other technology forces of change so that they know what they can do — and what they cannot do. It’s not enough to wait for best practices and then blindly implement them. To do so cedes the future of distribution to those that do not have a stake in the game.
  • Don’t target segments; serve communities. The usual approach of segmenting, targeting and positioning is about proactive, targeted selling. Serving communities is not so mercenary. It’s about working to help communities understand their goals to overcome their challenges, and thereby building a company’s reputation, brand, loyalty, business and profits.
  • Win by being human. Trust and empathy are uniquely human characteristics, and the foundation upon which business is done and loyalty is given. Distributors can win by empowering their people with skills around active listening, emotional intelligence, and continual education, and by setting modern professional standards for roles and positions.

Innovate to Dominate is every distributor’s roadmap for innovation, small and large, in every line of trade. If you haven’t already, I hope you will order your copies and use it with your team. This blog post is the second in a series designed to help apply the findings and recommendations in Innovate to Dominate. You can find a strategic discussion about the age of B2B innovation, including a conversation with a leading-edge distributor and an overview of future questions here.

As a Fellow for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence, I welcome your feedback, direction, and questions. Please feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].