By Bridget McCrea
In both good and bad business climates, the distributors that put time and effort into building their brands will emerge as the overall winners.
Coming off a strong 2015, many electrical distributors watched their sales rise during the first two quarters of the year and then slowly taper off as 2016 progressed. Now, with everything from election-related uncertainty to possible interest rates hikes to global issues like Brexit threatening to impact the business world during the year ahead, some distributors are apprehensive about what 2017 will bring (Check out tED magazine’s Uncertain About the Economy? You’re Not Alone).
Before you start battening down the hatches and preparing for the worst, take a look at all of the work your firm has done during the good times to find new customers, explore new markets, align with new manufacturers, and build its overall brand. Then, take that momentum right into the New Year with you, even if it seems counterintuitive to your company’s usual approach to business and/or economic slowdowns.
In fact, there’s no time like the present to pay more attention to your distributorship’s brand—that combination of image, familiarity, and reputation that creates lasting recognition among customers—and make sure it’s still enticing prospects to say things like, “Wow, this is amazing! I need to switch suppliers right now and buy from this electrical distributor instead.”
In the absence of that “wow” factor, Graeme Newell, president at 602 Communications in Raleigh, N.C., says distributors will be hard pressed to stand out in any market conditions, let alone more challenging ones. “As budgets begin to shrink and marketing efforts are put on hold, the focus on building and cultivating the company’s brand tend to diminish,” says Newell. And while any type of industry shake out (i.e., where competitors that can’t “hang” begin to leave the market) will help offset some of the marketing and branding cutbacks, that can’t make up for poor overall branding.
“Branding is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Newell. “It’s about crafting your message and approach in a way that reassures customers that your company is a strategic partner that will sustain and prevail through any business conditions. These are the reassurances that lend themselves to incredible, long-lasting customer bonds that can offset any market fluctuations.”
5 Ways to Build Your Brand
While branding and the benefits that go along with it may sound good in theory, Newell says most electrical distributors see it as an afterthought, or something to devote time and money to only when there are adequate resources available to do so. When those resources aren’t available, when no one has time to devote to marketing and branding, or even when business is going like gangbusters, the efforts tend to get put on the back burner.
“Oftentimes, marketing is an afterthought, and not something that companies think about 24/7/365,” says Newell. For electrical distributors that want to reverse this tide and do a better job of creating, cultivating, and/or building their brands in 2017, Newell offers these five tips for success:
- Make it a customer-driven imperative. Rather than looking at branding from the “inside out” perspective, kick off your efforts by looking at your customers and what they want from your company, your people, and your brand as a whole. “Become a resource and an asset for your customers,” says Newell, “and shape your branding around delivering rewards and value that will pay off for decades.”
- Open up lines of communication with your customers. Don’t try to guess at what your customers might want from your company, says Newell. Instead, get out there and ask them for good, honest feedback about how your company and its people are doing, where they’re falling short, and what they could be doing better. Then, use those insights to build an even stronger, customer-centric brand. “When an irate customer calls up to complain, very few companies see that as an opportunity to provide even better service in the future,” says Newell. “In reality, these interactions can help you operate more efficiently and build a brand that’s sincerely focused on creating top-notch customer experiences.”
- Get your salespeople involved in the effort. A distributor’s front-line sales reps can be one of its best branding tools, yet very few companies leverage these valuable assets. By setting up a simple “listening program,” Newell says companies can obtain valuable information from their sales teams based on questions like: How are we doing overall? What are we doing well? What are we not doing well? What do we need to work on to be able to provide better service, products, solutions, and support? “When business is good, it’s easy to ignore the feedback that comes through the sales channel,” says Newell, “but by getting out in front of any problems, you can avoid losing valuable customers (most of whom will just “go away” without providing much feedback) while also attracting new ones.”
- Use technology to your advantage. If the idea of initiating a new—or dusting off and improving an existing—brand strategy sounds like a lot of work, there are a few tools that you can use to make the process a little easier. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, for example, allow distributors to share brand-related messages and invite 2-way communication with customers. Online survey platforms like SurveyMonkey let you “poll” your customers on important points (usually at no or low charge), and then use that information to make smart branding decisions. The latter can be particularly effective for those customers that want to give “anonymous” negative or not-so-nice feedback.
- Go the extra mile. Any company can provide the basics, but very few (in any industry, for that matter) actually go the extra mile to meet their customers’ needs. By thinking out of the box and getting into your customers’ heads, you can figure out exactly what they want and need, what their pain points are, and what type of service and support they’ve received in the past. Then, show them that you can do more. “Tell them that you’re in it for the long haul and that you have their backs,” Newell advises, “and throw in a little freebie or bonus once in a while to prove your point.”
McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.
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