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Change is scary and, for some, so is new technology. Trying to understand how futuristic-sounding technologies like “machine learning” and “bots” belong in today’s distribution company can feel overwhelming. But these new technologies are here now, and they’re already disrupting the industry.
The cloud enables many of the technologies outlined in this article. It refers to software and services that run on the Internet instead of on your server or desktop computer. Your data isn’t literally in a white fluffy cloud, but it is stored in a way that makes it accessible from many locations, through a browser or dedicated mobile apps. Apps that run in the cloud allow you to more easily combine data sources and then integrate those with data from productivity apps like Office 365 and outside sources like weather, traffic, product pricing, customer sentiment and other third-party data that could be relevant for your business. That is giving distributors unprecedented visibility into their planning and operations.
Other great benefits of the cloud include the ability to store documents and serve data at scale without additional capital investment and access to technology like machine learning and bots, which would be far more expensive and difficult to manage internally.
Machine learning enables computers to use existing data to forecast future behaviors, outcomes and trends. In its most basic form, machine learning works by teaching the software to find patterns in the current data so that it can seek out patterns in future data. You already use machine learning in everyday life, including pricing on ride-sharing apps and predictive text when you send a text message on your phone. Here are some examples of how distributors are applying machine learning in the business world:
- Sales forecasting, incorporating a much more robust set of data, such as weather and traffic, as well as internal data on seasonality, discounts or promotions
- Strategic pricing, which is the Holy Grail of machine learning, based on price elasticity, lost sales, historic sales and promotions
- Identifying unusual occurrences, like fraud or abnormal equipment readings
- Scoring late customers by how likely they would be to pay if your accounts receivable team contacted them
Cognitive services build intelligence into applications for a more natural interaction between user and the technology. For example:
Vision.Vision services can look at an image and not only identify what it is but also provide descriptions and similar images, read text within the image, and perform facial recognition. You can, for example, take a picture of a piece of equipment within a customer’s facility, and then use a digital assistant like Cortana to provide an identification and description of that part.
Language and speech. Examples of language and speech services include speech recognition software, which can be used in an order-taking application from the plant floor. A customer could pick up their mobile device and verbally place their order, which would then be authorized based on the voice, no customer login required.
Knowledge. When cognitive services amass data about customer behavior, they can make predictions about that customer’s future behavior. That facilitates the suggestions in an online store for additional product a customer might need. For example, if you buy a notebook computer, the knowledge portion of cognitive services might recommend a pen, a cover or a docking station to go with it. Cross-selling and upselling are powerful applications of knowledge services.
Digital assistants – the most widely known are Cortana, Siri and Alexa – have already changed the way we do tasks in daily life, such as choosing music or plotting a route to a restaurant across town. A similar seismic shift is coming to business. Soon we’ll be able to interact with clients and markedly improve customer experience using these digital assistants. For example, customers can ask how much inventory is on hand, or when their next order is coming in. They could also ask a digital assistant where the delivery truck is. All without needing to sit at a desk.
Bots, or web robots, are software applications that run automated tasks over the Internet. Typically, bots perform simple tasks, but do it much faster than a human can. For distributors, bots give your customers the ability to communicate with you on their terms. A customer support bot, for example, can tell your customer where their order is and when it will be delivered, down to the minute. That information tells the customer whether he should have workers stick around late to unload or send them home. And your customer, who probably isn’t sitting at his or her desk very often, will have that information at their fingertips, wherever they are. Within the next year, progressive distributors will be using these chatbots as a regular part of operations.
What to Do Next
These technologies are going to disrupt the distribution business, and soon, if they’re not already. Distributors that embrace them will find doing business becomes easier and more profitable, reaping benefits like more efficient operations, improved customer service, and increased stickiness and wallet share with existing customers.
Don’t wait to embrace these disruptive technologies until they become par for the course; by then it will be too late. Build a strategy to respond now. Technology that enables and delivers this kind of functionality is now accessible to distributors of all sizes. Don’t be left behind.
Matt Petersen is the Senior Director of Industry Solutions at ENAVATE, which provides consulting and wholesale distribution-focused enterprise software solutions based on Microsoft Dynamics 365, AX and CRM platforms. Reach him at email@example.com or visit enavate.com.