When we conduct research with distributors, a surprising number of leaders remain doubtful about the potential for online marketing and selling tools. This skepticism about their own opportunities makes these executives complacent about powerful digital competitors.
I’ve benefited from working for enlightened leaders throughout my career. I was at Grainger when the company committed to competing on the web and the lead advocate at the time was its group president, Don Bielinski. Don had been the CFO as well as the senior vice president, marketing & sales, and had the foresight, the nerve and the credibility to persuade a highly conservative company to abandon traditional modeling requirements and bet big on the internet.
The challenge for each distributor is to find its own Don Bielinski – a leader with the vision, courage and intellectual horsepower to build an effective strategy in the face of an unknown future and in defiance of the existing paradigm about how distribution “should” work. Those paradigms are creating terminal inertia in many distribution companies.
Glacial change won’t help you confront agile rivals. While nimbleness is often attributed to small companies, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has built an enormous firm that continually capitalizes on its ability to recognize opportunities and exploit them faster than its rivals. Failing to plan and act quickly right now is extremely dangerous. If your company is still doubting whether or not digitization matters, you are a sitting duck. To paraphrase a line from The Shawshank Redemption, “Get busy digitizing or get busy dying.”
Distribution is in good company when it comes to a failure to grasp how digitization is fundamentally changing industry. I was recently invited to speak to seniors majoring in marketing at a highly regarded business school. At one point, I mentioned SEO and could see blank looks in the audience. I paused.
“Have you had your digital marketing courses yet?” I asked.
“There’s only one and it’s not required,” was the response.
I was astounded and urged everyone in the class to sign up for the lone digital marketing course for their next (and last) semester and then offered to send them various online sources they could study on their own if they wanted to close what would be a huge gap in the resume of any marketer.
For a major university to award marketing degrees to students with no education in online marketing in 2017 is an egregious failure to arm graduates with essential skills they need to get jobs. Several students contacted me, by the way, and I sent them good resources from my own experience and from experts I know.
With a little online research, I found that this is a common problem – other universities I looked at also offer digital marketing only as an elective, although some, at least, offer multiple courses.
This recent experience demonstrated that many marketing graduates aren’t properly educated and also that major universities will likely be little help in preparing distributors in meeting the threat of Amazon Business. There are experts available to hire but they’re hard to find because colleges aren’t producing many of them and they’re in high demand (and thus expensive).
Distributors will need to poach from agencies, consulting firms, competitors and industries that are more digitally literate. In that sense, this is a good time to be building your digital capabilities because your oblivious competitors aren’t vying for talent. Hire yours and pay them well before your rivals get shocked out of their complacency.
A 19th century sportswriter named Hugh E. Keough is credited with the quote, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that’s the way to bet.”
Amazon Business is swift and strong and the stock market is betting the company will continue to win. Distribution companies need to recognize that the world has dramatically changed and it’s time they became digitally swift and strong too.