distributor must strike a balance between the online and in-person contact he makes with his customers. Service through “real people”is still the most important, Griffith says.
For example, though Modern Group does sell its products online through a third-party provider, it will not sell a forklift online. Due to product liability, the company does not want a customer to buy the equipment unseen.
But the customer can make an inquiry online, and Modern Group will follow up by scheduling an appointment to meet with that customer in person.
The bottom line for Griffith is that you cannot build a Web site and hope “they”will come.
He says it takes work to build a site that will draw existing and potential customers alike. To make a Web site really work, Griffith says, distributors should:
- Make sure the back-end is responsive. Email cannot sit in the inbox for days without a response.
- Demonstrate to customers how they can use the site.
- Determine who is responsible for content. Marketing should be the provider of content; the burden should not be placed on the IT staff. Drive your offline message online.
- Make the Web site part of their logo and official branding.
- And invest in search-engine-optimization so that the company can be found online.
Can Customers Find Your Site?
What would customers type into a search engine if they wanted to find a supplier of your products?
“Most of you who do this will be highly depressed,”Indian River Consulting Group’s Mike Marks says. If your Web site does pop up (and even if it doesn’t), ask yourself these questions:
1. When they get to your site, how easy is it for potential and current customers to “touch a person”?
2. How do you look compared with your competitors?
3. What else did you find and what does it mean?
4. Have you taken actions to link yourself to your community?
Web sites are becoming increasingly important for distributors as a way to connect with customers and provide valuable information about products and services. This article looks at how you can build a simple but effective site that allows you to interact with and inform potential and existing customers.
Building an effective Web site is not about selling online. It’s about providing another avenue for customers to connect with your company. So say experts in Web site development and optimization, as well as in the distribution industry.
Increasingly, Web sites are becoming more important to and expected by customers as they seek to learn more about your capabilities and potential fit as a supplier.
Go beyond brochureware”-using just a picture of your facility and your contact information -as Indian River Consulting Group’s Mike Marks says. A distributor can only survive by forging a strong connection with its customers, and nowadays, that includes online as well as off.
“Senior executives who know their businesses need to figure out how the Web can help them,”Marks says. Work to build an interactive online presence that fits into your company’s strategic plan.
Marks believes distributors of any size can pay an outsider to come in and build a Web site or improve upon the old one, as well as build online tools to better connect with customers and track site visitor data.
“You have a marketing budget, or you should. Invest part of it in Web technology,”he says.
Marks asks: “What could you do with the recovered costs from your two weakest sales reps? Spend half of what you save on building a Web presence that really creates customer intimacy.”
What do customers want to see on your Web site? How is your field sales effort linked to your Web marketing? And how would your customers score you on how easy it is to do business with you online?
If you do not have an active Web site or want to update the one you have, a quick search online can provide some ideas. Microsoft offers these tips on its Web site: In the Web site’s design, reflect the kind of business you run.
Keep it up-to-date and in-sync with your offline marketing. Place sales, discounts, events or promotions on the front page. It does not have to be fancy.
Provide customers with information they can use, such as white papers, product information and client testimonials.
E-newsletters can be an effective marketing tool, and are relatively cheap to implement through third-party services online. If you are a safety distributor, for example, start an e-newsletter for your customers that provides information on safety in the workplace and new product uses.
Work with customers to ensure you are meeting their needs with your online presence. Manufacturer Standard Abrasives has included an survey on its Web site that asks specific questions about how easy it is to use the site and whether the information provided fits customers’needs.
Here is how two distributors in distinct sectors are optimizing their Web sites:
“We want to make our Web site a desired destination where our customers can not only go to access this information, but increasingly be able to conduct business with us via our Web site,”says Skinner President Kevin Van Dyke.
Skinner Nurseries, Jacksonville, FL, is a relatively young wholesaler-distributor of trees and plants with close to $115 million in annual sales. Skinner built its Web site, www.skinnernurseries.com, in 2001.
Van Dyke found three designers in the area and asked them to provide ideas for the look and feel of the Web site. He chose one. Skinner was careful to ensure consistency on and offline. “All of our marketing vehicles that we are using have the same look and feel,”says David Arant, vice president of marketing.
For example, on the left side menu of skinnernurseries.com, an “S”works its way from top to bottom of the menu. Though that feature originated with its Web site, the company has maintained the stylized “S”through its print marketing as well.
Skinner aims to make its site functional for its customers. The distributor offers customers registered on the Web site the ability to look up their purchase history, or pull up invoices and current statements. “When a customer can access an invoice or statement online, it provides a faster and easier way of communicating with our customers who are increasingly becoming Internet savvy,”Van Dyke says. “And it offers our customers access to information after hours when many do their paperwork, bill paying, etc.”
The feature helps customers grow more efficient, ultimately making Skinner more efficient and valuable as a supplier. “We are trying to end the exercise of faxing or after the fact helping a customer find their paperwork,”Van Dyke says.
The distributor provides informational resources on the site, including links to industry publications, associations and college programs. It also provides a series of how-tos on planting a tree and information on hardiness, tree weights and containers.
Skinner has a formal process for responding to people who register on the Web site. Each person who registers gets an automated email thanking them for registering and providing additional information about the site. Soon after, the potential customer will receive a phone call from a Skinner employee tasked with screening potential leads that come from the Web.
The distributor has an in-house policy that every email, phone call and fax be answered. It’s important to take email seriously, says Adam Fein of Pembroke Consulting.
In Facing the Forces of Change: Lead the Way in the Supply Chain, Fein gives one example of a distributor that embraced email by employing someone full-time to field emails and ask salespeople to respond to those leads.
Skinner includes a picture of all employees and management on its Web site. Under each mug shot is an email address and name. “A lot of our business is still done over the phone,”Van Dyke says. “We thought it was a way to help customers put a face with a name. People buy from people and especially people they like.”
Going beyond brochureware can mean something as simple as providing an avenue online where customers – happy or not – can connect with your president or CEO through a real e-mail address.
A construction equipment distributor, Modern Group Inc., Bristol, PA, has done just that.
Modern Group’s CEO, David Griffith, had his name and direct email address posted on the company’s Contact Us page. Most of the email messages that make it to his inbox are from unhappy customers, but that doesn’t bother him.
Griffith says he saves accounts weekly by dealing personally with those emailed complaints in a timely manner. “It’s the unhappy customers who don’t email me that I lose sleep over,”he says.
Griffith, who worked for IBM and MCI before joining the team at Modern Group, outsourced the design of the company’s site at www.moderngroup.com. He sees a Web site as a “low-cost way”to touch the customer. “I can’t imagine not having a Web site, if, for nothing else, to provide consistent information to prospects and to express Modern Group’s capabilities,”he says.
Modern Group, 100-percent employee-owned, has 22 locations and about 640 employees. It has done major revisions to its site eight times in the past 10 years, Griffith estimates; it’s important to keep up with needs of customers and changes in technology.
Still, for Griffith, the technology is only part of the picture. A