The 2020 Mid-Year Economic Update_long

4 Ways Distributors are Using Technology to Catch Up with Savvy Buyers

While some sales reps are getting back in the door, now is the time to embrace tools that can help customers save money and increase their efficiency despite challenges in their own businesses, such as extended lead times.
Chatbot conversation with smartphone screen app interface and artificial intelligence technology processing virtual assistant with customer support information, business hand holding mobile phone.

Today’s buyer is better at buying than many of today’s sellers are at selling. That’s the harsh reality of the market. With so many options at their fingertips, buyers are looking for companies that not only provide them with the products they need but service them well, too.

At the same time, COVID-19 has intensified the demand for digital options, mobile apps and automated services that serve customers whether the sales rep can be there or not. While we can’t predict the future, research shows customers won’t likely go back to how things were before the pandemic. Adding to the complexity, more manufacturers are also using e-commerce to go direct to the customer, making relationships more important to your business goals than ever.

With so many competitors vying for your customers’ attention, taking care of their needs is paramount to success. Many distributors found in 2020 that resisting technology – such as vending and e-commerce – hurt them, as social distancing kept them away from customer facilities. That opened the door to competitors who already had those services in place.

After all, maintaining adequate stock for operations is a challenge in itself, but managing those needs off-site during a pandemic made that nearly impossible without an assist from technology.

While some sales reps are getting back in the door, now is the time to embrace tools that can help customers save money and increase their efficiency despite challenges in their own businesses, such as extended lead times. If you can help your customers serve their customers better, loyalty will grow.

Here are a few ways distributors are using technology to be more responsive today:

1. Strategic Interactions

Customers expect to reach their supply partners through multiple channels. Even in a post-COVID-19 world, we can expect a greater demand for digital options, including e-commerce, chatbots, mobile applications, onsite inventory management technology and more. Distributors should pay close attention to their customer preferences. Then, use these tools to increase engagement with your customers and drive efficiency and profitability in their organizations.

If you’ve avoided tools like vending in the past because you didn’t want to be like your largest competitors, rethink that stance. These tools don’t take away from your relationships. They improve them.

2. Increased Efficiency

Help customers consolidate suppliers to gain efficiencies. For example, many distributors will place vending machines and, in exchange, the customer will commit to moving more of their spending to them – whether that spend is going through the machines or not. That benefits the distributor with greater wallet share, and the customer by reducing administrative costs associated with managing multiple suppliers.

Technology is also helping sales reps be more efficient, saving hours of windshield time so they can add more value to the customers who need it by focusing them on the right accounts and saving time on rote tasks. Examples of this technology include marketing automation and sales enablement tools. Vending and the cloud software that supports it also gives sales reps eyes into the customer’s usage, even as customers are refilling the machines themselves.

3. Forecast Customer Needs

Data and analytics is an underused area for distributors, but one that with advancing technology can prove to accelerate growth by uncovering new sales and pinpointing opportunities for improving efficiencies. For example, inventory control software provides detailed views into trends, both past and present. This gives distributors added insight into inventory needs and provides pathways for timely replenishment and cross-selling opportunities. It also reduces inventory investment for the customer.

4. Break down the distance with technology

The lesson of 2020 was that if you’re not keeping up with technology that the customer wants, relationships will suffer and you’ll fall behind – while competitors spring ahead. Re-evaluate your go-to-market strategies and identify technology that can contribute to improving your customers’ operations to create a stronger, more positive customer relationship.

Mark Hill has 40 years of experience in industrial distribution and vending. He is the founder of vending machine and inventory control software company 1sourcevend. Reach him at mhill@1sourcevend.com.

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