Relationships or Websites? Both, Please - Modern Distribution Management

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Relationships or Websites? Both, Please

How to develop personal and digital relationships with middle school customers.

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog about how outside sales relationships with customers and suppliers have historically been the dominant drivers of your B2B distribution business. Early in my distribution career we had a one-line B2B sales plan: “Build personal relationships with your customers at all costs, because people only buy from people.”

Those relationships made it easier to discuss and implement win-win solutions for both businesses. But in the digital age it’s more complicated to leverage those relationships. You only have to look outside your door this holiday season and see all those Amazon packages to know those personal relationship-only days are over.

In my previous article I categorized B2B distribution customers into three basic relationship categories: old school (where relationships rule); middle school (relationships and digital); and new school (where digital rules).

Today, let’s look at ways to develop better personal and digital relationships with your most unpredictable customers: the middle schoolers. 

Middle School Rules

This customer type is unpredictable because they seem to value the personal and digital relationship equally. They want distributor partners that have both knowledgeable salespeople and a full suite of digital tools to support their needs. At times they ask for a full-service solution; at others they seem to want self-service only.

For example, one week they may order online over the weekend because they don’t want to deal with your salesperson, but the next they may be calling that same salesperson to set up on-site technical training. The unpredictability of the middle school customer can drive your sales team and leaders crazy. Their buying behavior is consistently inconsistent. 

Here are two proven ways to break through with this group to maximize their B2B distribution buying potential:

  1. Develop hard-to-digitize services: These are valued-added services such as inventory management, vending, assembly, repair, engineering, job take-offs and kitting. These service programs can break through with middle school customers because they solve problems, save time and can help them be more profitable. Another big benefit to you is that these services are like moats around your castle to help defend your long-term distribution business from digital attack. The challenge is that, by itself, this old-school value-based selling isn’t enough to help you protect and grow your business. Which brings us to:
  2. Develop digital service capability: Your middle school customers also want a full slate of self-service options. This doesn’t mean you need to have 100 percent point, click and checkout capability like an e-tailer website. What it does mean is you have to give customers the ability to digitally find invoices, check shipping status, view past orders, look at product specifications and re-order their most commonly ordered items. The challenge is it can be hard to monetize the value of digital services, but if you don’t have the right capabilities some of your business with middle school customers will drift away. 

To serve this group most effectively you need both the value-added, people-driven services along with a suite of digital tools. Serving these customers is kind of like running a pizza business. Sometimes customers want to sit down and at eat at a full-service pizza place, and other times they just want to order delivery using an app.

Finding value-added solutions and developing digital capabilities for your middle school customers will help you to have a winning sales strategy for all your customer types. In B2B distribution, it’s still all about the relationships. But the customer and how they define a relationship is changing. If you have a one-size-fits-all sales relationship strategy, it might be time to consider some new approaches. 

As always we value your feedback. Feel free to comment below or contact me at


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