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Care, Communicate, Plan: Distribution Value Will Weather a Coronavirus Crisis

A major part of the equation that has built so many incredible ongoing success stories in distribution face-to-face communication and interaction has virtually overnight been removed from the table indefinitely. But the real strength has always been in the depth and quality of our personal relationships, writes MDMs Tom Gale. That won't change.
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Less than two weeks ago, I was in Paris. The two-day seminar in Brussels I was supposed to lead was canceled; I got home as fast as I could. It was a very different world then, and it has jolted daily since this past Friday. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of media and political misinformation that is not supporting businesses to make sound decisions. I believe we need to take this seriously — even overly-cautious — simply because there is so little data today to know how this will evolve and its ultimate impact on us, our loved ones and friends. 

Our team at MDM has been focused on researching the distribution-specific impacts of the coronavirus to provide you with guidance and perspective to support your response; we’re committed to not adding to the noise out there. We’ll be sharing more from our survey (please take a few minutes to share your response to coronavirus in this survey link here), as well as many interviews and conversations the past few weeks. For now, I’d like to share the most important things I’m hearing and distilling from distributors. 

Communicate & Look Forward

I sent this to our team on Sunday: “We are a great team that works together respectfully already. Let's support each other with extra patience and care. Working from home brings its own set of challenges — particularly as kids and family members will likely be home for a while. Please reach out to me or others on our team if you need help with something.” 

It’s important to communicate quickly and clearly with employees, customers and supplier partners. There is a lot of fear, confusion and misinformation. As one of our survey respondents put it, “[T]he quality of information being disseminated in our rapidly growing ‘age of access to information’ is showing the dark underbelly of internet reporting.” Proactive and future-focused communication is critical. Nobody can predict how quickly the economy and social activity will rebound. It’s important to not gridlock on the negatives but rather focus on the levers your team can control to move the business forward. 

Also see: Support Your Customers: Don’t Stop Selling Because of Coronavirus.”

For employees, reassurances that leadership is committed to finding solutions to accommodate health, safety and family care needs are at the top of the list. Even if you have not developed policies yet for remote working, communicating steps the company plans to take — even in general terms — go a long way: remote working for those job positions that can, health and safety procedures in warehouse operations and delivery that require more personal contact, and just acknowledging the added stressors and potential accommodations at home for child and family care.

For customers, the frontline sales team can communicate your reliability and support based on the strong relationships that have been built. John Gunderson’s blog yesterday on the importance of sales continuity provided some strong tactics to consider to respectfully communicate with customer contacts and effectively shift from face-to-face selling to leveraging digital communication channels — carefully. 

Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best

There is very little data today to forecast the severity or duration of the coronavirus cycle in the U.S. with any accuracy. I hope the duration of the coronavirus cycle is also short for all our sakes. Nobody knows how sharp a drop the economy will experience; my completely subjective take is that it could be steep and hopefully short in duration. 

The priority is to stabilize core business processes to move forward. But there has never been a more compelling need to become as flexible and agile as possible as an organization. The obvious is working remotely and leveraging technology for virtual meetings and conferencing. 

One of the biggest impacts we’re hearing on distributor operations is in the outside sales functions and ability to visit or schedule in-person meetings with customers. At MDM, we’ve been advocating for four years the critical transformation needed to a digitally-enabled sales process (John’s blog yesterday includes a model he’s been using to help teams discuss how to address with no sales calls, lunch and learns, supplier meetings, etc.). This week is not about strategic planning, but it’s important to quickly plan how to shift gears to stay connected with customers. 

The Distribution Community Is Strong & Essential

One of the reasons why the U.S. economy is the strongest, most resilient and flexible in the world is because of the unique infrastructure of many independent distribution channels serving an even more fragmented customer base. Nearly one-third of the U.S. economy flows through distribution channels. 

It is an industry that is still built on personal relationships and customer support. I don’t believe that the fundamental model and value of distribution is dead — far from it. But the current crisis will quickly separate strong companies that have adapted to the disruptive shifts of digital and workforce changes from those companies that have not addressed and invested in staying relevant to their customers. 

Also see: “6 Quick Fixes to Mitigate Your Supply Chain Risk.”

Distribution leaders have an incredible depth of resources to rely on in the coming days, weeks and months ahead. There is a connected community of distributors, suppliers, service providers, associations, marketing groups and thought leaders who are helping focus on how to navigate and plan for what many are now labeling a “Black Swan” event — completely unexpected only a month or two ago with major consequences. 

One example is a 3½-hour live program Dirk Beveridge of UnleashWD hosted this past Sunday: Leading During the Coronavirus Pandemic. He brought together nine speakers to cover many aspects of how to respond. Another example is a communication that the marketing group Affiliated Distributors shared in its news section today. It’s an internal message from AD CEO Bill Weisberg to his team on their first day working from home — well worth reading. 

A major part of the equation that has built so many incredible ongoing success stories in distribution — face-to-face communication and interaction — has overnight been removed from the table indefinitely, but the real strength has always been in the depth and quality of our personal relationships. The need and opportunity for leadership has never been greater — at least for a decade and for many a career. I believe the best is yet to come. 

I appreciate your thoughts; please share your comments below or contact me at tom@mdm.com. And please take our survey regarding your response to the current coronavirus pandemic. It will truly help inform us to support your planning going forward. Thank you. 

 

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