With the nation’s leading economists predicting a downturn within the next three years, it’s time for distributors to refocus on their customers and put those buyers at the center of every conversation.
In Part I of this article series, Dirk Beveridge talked about how good times can camouflage poor performance, with a particular emphasis on how when business is booming, distributors and suppliers tend to focus more on the tasks at hand and less on the long-term success of their relationships. In many cases, customers also get lost in this shuffle. After all, if your company has more business than it knows what to do with right now, what’s the sense in allocating more resources to customer service and retention, right?
Wrong, says Beveridge, founder of Chicago-based UnleashWD and author of INNOVATE! How Successful Distributors Lead Change in Disruptive Times. In fact, he says the customer needs to be the focal point of everything that a distributor does in both good and bad economic conditions. “It all starts and ends with the customer,” says Beveridge, “plus the middle. It’s all about that buyer.”
One of the best ways to embrace this reality is with a dose of empathy. In other words, just put yourself in your customers’ shoes. For example, let’s say a recession does rear its head within the next 36 months. As your own company’s profits are being disrupted and your business pipeline reduced, your customers will be dealing with the same challenges (or worse). “Their business will be in just as much of an upheaval as yours is,” says Beveridge.
Adopting a Customer-First Approach
If the curtains close on the economic recovery sometime in the next two to three years, your customers will probably tighten their belts, buy only what they absolutely need, try to find more discounts, and look for real value for every dollar that they spend. They’ll also be dealing with a litany of internal issues, including an ongoing struggle to attract talent. “If your contractor-customers can’t find talent to put out on their jobs, that’s a pain point that you can help with,” says Beveridge. “By doing so, you’ll be approaching those customers through a lens of what can we do for you versus just what can we sell you?”
In creating a customer-first approach, electrical distributors can also dig deeper into how their customers’ businesses are morphing now, and how those operations will change even more in the future. By adopting that mindset, Beveridge says distributors can literally get out in front of their customers and figure out which new products, services, and solutions those customers will need in any economic conditions.
Beveridge tells distributors to get their suppliers involved in these conversations in order to add yet another layer of expertise and insight into the mix. “This is an amazing ‘whiteboard opportunity’ for manufacturers and distributors to get in a room together and orchestrate a thinking exercise,” Beveridge points out, noting that key questions to put on that white board include:
- What are the challenges that our “dual customers” are facing today?
- How is technology changing the way they do business?
- How is the war on talent creating bigger obstacles for them?
- How will an economic downturn change their businesses and/or business approaches?
- How is the political unrest going to change that?
- How will monetary policies change that?
- And, how are the social movements going to change that?
“Take the answers to these questions, look three years out into the future, and then come up with some assumptions about what’s going to happen to your customers’ businesses,” Beveridge says. “That conversation in and of itself can obviously drive new thinking, but it will also help you come up with new solutions, new partnership opportunities, and so forth.”
Make Your Customer Your Focal Point
If making customers happy isn’t the number one priority for every employee at your distributorship, then it’s time for some training on what’s most important now, and what will be more critical than ever during the next economic downturn. In other words, every warehouse employee, receptionist, inside/outside salesperson, channel manager, and merchandiser should have his or her eye on one prize: the customer.
“If you ask your receptionist what her number one job priority is, and she says it’s to answer the phone and direct calls, then it’s time to regroup and get your team focused on what’s most important,” says Beveridge. “Even the salesperson who feels his most important job is to bring in new orders is wrong.” The right answer, he says, should always be “identifying and satisfying customer needs” (and to find a way to do that profitably).
“If someone can’t attach his or her job to be part of identifying and/or satisfying the real needs of the customer, that job is obsolete,” says Beveridge. “Employees that don’t understand this need to be retrained and re-skilled on new capabilities or their jobs will literally be obsolete.”
As electrical distributors brace for the unknown and continue to keep an eye on the latest economic reports, Beveridge says keeping customers as a focal point will pay off in dividends for companies that put an effort into it. “It’s not just going to be about meeting the needs of the customer, but about how to exceed those needs,” says Beveridge, “and how to thrill that customer at every single touchpoint.”
Tagged with best practices, economy