Introducing any of these jobs — product manager, chief digital officer, sales enablement manager, trusted adviser and director of inventory — has the potential to make your company more open to change, better embrace the customer experience and streamline operations to meet evolving business demands.
Once market differentiators, distribution’s core value propositions — assortment, availability and delivery — are being commoditized. B2B e-commerce marketplaces are on the rise, dangling the opportunity for greater penetration into multiple markets and the 24/7 convenience of digital sales. Add in A.I. and its immense ability to collect, synthesize and learn from data, and all of these factors make the case for why leading distribution executives are looking to stretch themselves beyond traditional core values and the job functions associated with them.
For example, at the recent National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors 2020 Executive Summit, panelist Sean McDonnell, founder of TruPar.com, stated one of the ways that distributors and manufacturers can insulate their companies from seismic shifts is to buy a small tech startup and give its millennial employees the freedom to unearth ways to modernize traditional ways of doing business.
If you’re not ready or able to make such a leap, several speakers at the Summit referenced the importance of the following:
- strategically investing in educational resources to help you and your team become more tech-savvy — starting with learning more about A.I. and how to leverage it;
- adding technology-ready talent; and
- incorporating nontraditional roles on staff.
Benj Cohen, NAW panelist and founder of distribution tech firm proton.ai., said that everyone should have a product manager on their team but not in the traditional sense of the term. Cohen referred to a product manager as the person charged with understanding the customer’s goals, priorities and challenges.
Product manager, chief digital officer, according to NAW speakers and other thought leaders, these roles are not traditionally found in distribution but can prove invaluable in redefining distributors’ value proposition and disrupting themselves.
How can you incorporate them into your business? MDM asked NAW speakers and thought leaders to share the details.
1. The Product Manager: Your Window into the Customer’s Mind
Andrew Creamer, proton.ai COO, explains.
The product manager sits between the customer and the producers of a good or service. Their job is to understand the customer — their goals, priorities, challenges, current pain points and more — and use that knowledge to develop new solutions, or improvements to existing solutions, that will help the customer. This role is most often found in tech companies, but the same concept can apply in distribution.
Traditionally, the “customer” means an external customer of the company, but distributors can also hire product managers to focus on internal customers. For example, a distributor building time-saving software would count its sales reps as the internal customer for that product.
Activities a product manager will typically undertake to better understand their customers include interviewing customers, observing customers, analyzing any data available about the customer and running experiments to see how they impact customer behavior.
Note, Creamer says, that the product manager is not responsible for selling the product. It can be tempting when observing customers to try to convince them to use a feature they’re not using, or to educate them on how to use your solution if it looks like they’re having trouble, but this is not a product manager’s role. Instead, the product manager should reflect on why the customer isn’t using a feature or is having trouble, and then think about how the solution can be improved to solve this problem for all customers, not just one customer.
“In companies as small as proton.ai, everyone inevitably ends up wearing multiple hats, so I sometimes join sales calls in addition to being the main product manager. But at a minimum, when I’m in product-manager mode, I try to turn off all sales instincts,” Creamer says.
Characteristics to Look for in a Product Manager Role
Experimental and data-driven: Product managers usually learn more from what customers do than from what customers say. Many product managers, including Creamer, have fallen into the trap of building a software feature because customers said they wanted it, only to see customers never use it after it’s released. Good product managers are extremely data-oriented and have the ability to extensively analyze the data on how customers actually behave.
Customer empathy: The best product managers really get inside the head of their users, anticipating how they’ll feel about new products, whether they’ll actually spend the extra effort or money on something.
Industry outsider: Creamer found being an industry outsider to be helpful in the role of product manager. It forces humility, meaning there’s no temptation to think, “I already know what the customer wants” without doing the proper homework. It also makes you more likely to question assumptions that others may take for granted, he says.
2. The Chief Digital Officer: Digital Transformation Requires A Dedicated Presence
Alex Moazed, Applico founder and CEO, explains.
The chief digital officer (CDO) has one primary responsibility: Oversee the digitization of the core business and help the traditional organization embrace technology-driven business opportunities, according to Moazed.
He or she is a strategic thinker who understands the business implications of technology. This is someone who has straddled both worlds, a senior leadership role on the technology/product side of the business as well as a head of strategy, business development or head of a business unit.
This position should report to the CEO. If a Chief Information Officer (CIO) exists, the CDO is responsible for owning change and pushing the organization into the new digital frontier. Whereas the CIO is responsible for making sure the existing business operates accordingly, the CDO needs to have the ability to take risks and fail fast while figuring out the best path forward for the organization.
3. Sales Enablement Manager: Helping Sales Perform at its Maximum Capacity
Mike Kunkle, SPARXiQ VP of Sales Enablement Services, explains.
Definitions still vary widely but, in general, sales enablement is the act of hiring, training, preparing and supporting a sales force to perform at its highest possible level as sellers go to market to uncover and solve their buyers’/clients’ problems with their company’s products, services and expertise, says Kunkle. As the name implies, it’s enabling the sales force to perform.
A sales enablement manager differs from a traditional sales manager role because sales enablement leaders do not manage reps. They do not do pipeline reviews, forecast meetings, hold team meetings, conduct ride-alongs, strategize about accounts, coach reps directly, conduct performance reviews or manage rep performance — nothing that a frontline sales manager should do.
They do support sales managers by providing tools or assessments to help them hire, establish onboarding programs for their new reps and provide training to close gaps with current reps.
There are a few ways that companies usually move into sales enablement, according to Kunkle. Often, they promote someone from within who has sales, sales management, sales training or marketing experience. There are pros and cons to internal promotion and pros and cons to bringing in someone from the outside with sales enablement experience. Thought leaders and senior practitioners strongly recommend starting with a charter that defines what sales enablement will mean to the company, as well as who will be involved, how they will collaborate, what goals and objectives they’ll set, and how they will track and measure success.
There are several associations that support sales enablement professionals, including the Association for Talent Development and the Sales Enablement Society, Kunkle says.
Characteristics to Look for in a Sales Enablement Manager
Sales enablement is a cross-functional, highly collaborative leadership role that combines an understanding of the following:
- Analytical problem-solving
- Business acumen
- How to hire effectively for sales roles
- Training and development, including sales coaching
- Organizational performance improvement and change management
- Buyer personas and the market the company serves
- Sales messaging
- Buyer engagement content and sales content management
- Sales technology, software and tools
- Demand generation/lead generation
- Sales process and sales methodology
- The various sales roles they support (typically including inside sales, outside/field sales, account managers, and sales managers/leaders)
“This is clearly a very broad managerial skillset. Strong interpersonal skills, communication skills and project/program management skills are required, in addition to the wide berth of functional expertise. Not everyone who enters the role has all of the above functional expertise when they start, but they do need to develop it over time to deliver maximum value,” says Kunkle.
It’s also important to note that sales enablement leaders don’t do everything themselves, but they do need to collaborate with functions such as marketing, sales operations, IT and engineering, as applicable, and other leaders to ensure the sales force has what they need to succeed.
Advice should always be contextual, but Kunkle recommends that company leaders find someone with experience in sales enablement when possible, and teach them the business/industry, if necessary.
And even then, the previous sales enablement leader may need ongoing development in some of the above areas. Working with an experienced consultant can help accelerate progress, effectiveness and ROI, he says.
4. Trusted Adviser: An Advocate for the
Thoughts from economist Alan Beaulieu on this traditional role.
This role is somewhat traditional but also disruptive and innovative, says Beaulieu. It differs from an account executive or salesperson in that they seek to provide a product to a user at a fair price, on time, and with a level of expertise the end-user can depend on.
The trusted adviser asks, “What else can I do for you so you can make more profit?” with the understanding that both sides can make more money.
The distributor should be asking about inventory management at the client’s location, automatic replenishments and services associated with that inventory.
For example, a paint distributor has a client who buys $1 million in paint a year. Often, the end-user would buy more except they do not have enough people to apply the product. Products are delayed, which means paint orders are delayed. “What if the distributor also provided a painting division that guaranteed a response time to its top three customers? The division would be kept very busy and would make money, the client is more captive to the organization, and the distributor sells more paint,” says Beaulieu.
5. Director of Inventory: The Glue Between Buyers and Warehouse Personnel
Jon Schreibfeder, president of Effective Inventory Management, explains.
“What I am seeing in the field is a need for close coordination between replenishment personnel (i.e., buyers and inventory planners) and warehouse personnel,” he says. “There needs to be someone to oversee both of these areas to be sure their efforts are coordinated.”
The responsibilities of the director of inventory would include:
- Ensuring that adequate warehouse space is available for the inventory that is purchased.
- That neither receiving or put-away personnel are overwhelmed by the rate of stock receipts (e.g., being overwhelmed with a dozen containers arriving at the same time).
- Product description and other information is consistent to avoid the duplication of item records.
- Verifying that bills of material are accurate and there is an easy way to make corrections.
- Coordinate information concerning new products, discontinued items and special buys.
“The goal is to avoid staff working in silos,” Schreibfeder says.