We’ve come through a year where businesses turned inward – more than at any time in our careers – to survive, adapt, reshape and rebound. The most important work may be now. With customers.
Zoom fatigue, WFH, online marketplaces, digital/business model transformation – welcome to 2021 and this century’s version of the Twilight Zone. This is the dimension of imagination, as the original show said in its intro. Imagination and execution are going to define how market share shifts over the next 12-24 months, but these next six months will be the most critical to tee up success.
Consensus economic forecasts indicate a strong positive business cycle this year, with the rate of vaccine deployment and the pandemic being the key factors on timing. For the sake of argument, let’s call it the third quarter when the wind fills the sails (or sales in this case). As in every upturn, we’ll see supply/inventory shortages (compounded by the unique events of 2020) and related cash shortages driven by order increases.
That’s the classic formula for putting customer relationships into a higher risk category for defection and market share loss or gain. And why I see the first half of 2021 as a Twilight Zone we have not experienced in past cycles. This time, customers have much better tools to do the research themselves. There are more alternate channels – including manufacturer-direct and online marketplaces. Customers are more motivated and savvy.
What’s Different in 2021? Customer Experience
How does a supplier fight this? Those distributors with a clear, differentiated value proposition plus strong customer service levels will end up on the other side of the Twilight Zone with more share and positioned well to leverage the growth cycle. There’s a window in the first half of the year to reshape how your team creates a customer experience.
What has traditionally been called customer service is the frontier in 2021 that has to be redefined to elevate existing customer relationships and support the expectations of new customers. The most resilient distributors in 2020 were those who immediately connected with customers and shaped their rebound around how to best triage and then deepen the core relationships.
But as MDM explored throughout the year, the pandemic and recession put additional strains on the core roles and viability of the outside sales force. And e-commerce platforms. And other technology systems and all the other critical support people and systems that together define what a customer’s experience is with your company. The traditional definitions of customer service were often not enough to meet the volatile needs of customers.
The opportunity around customer experience (and what MDM will continue to research and report on throughout 2021) is in the many ways that distributors can elevate it into their core strategic capabilities and deepen their value going forward. It includes many of the technology dimensions – automation, e-commerce, digital self-service tools – we first think of about the term. But the quality of that experience depends on analytics and metrics to gauge the experience, deeper understanding of the customer lifecycle and journey, systems and process to create seamless and positive interactions at every touchpoint with the company.
We’re in a Twilight Zone between a pandemic-induced recession and a predicted strong recovery. This is the time to recalibrate and upgrade how customers experience your company’s value. Many reading this invested pre-pandemic in some of the technology tools and reshaped internal processes to weather the shocks; they were well-positioned to keep customers connected and maintain customer service levels. But I think every company can shift their perspective to look harder at how customer experience can drive strategy for the year.
How are you going to navigate through your own unique Twilight Zone in 2021?
Join Us for the 2021 Industry Outlook
I hope you can join Baird Senior Research Analyst Dave Manthey, NetSuite’s Ranga Bodla and me for our 2021 Distribution Industry Outlook webcast today, Jan. 21 at 1 p.m. EST (or register for on-demand version). This is the 10th annual edition! You’ll get a view on 2020 impacts to industrial/construction distribution and customer segment sectors, as well as how the 2021 markets and economic outlook is shaping up. We’ll also discuss the key business model transformation trends in distribution – including customer experience.