In Part 1 of this two-part series, a variety of electrical distributors nationwide shared mixed results concerning their first-half 2019 sales performance and expressed cautious optimism for the remainder of the year and beyond.
In this following second part, tEDmag.com tapped two industry experts/consultants — Gerry O’Brion, founder of What Big Brands Know, and Dirk Beveridge, founder of UnleashWD, a two-day, Chicago-based innovation summit for future-thinking distributors — for top tips to help distributors stay (or get back on!) track to meet their goals this year.
tEDmag: Based on your ears to the ground, how was the first half of the year for the electrical distribution industry? Do you foresee any challenges or opportunities ahead?
O’Brion: The top economists I speak with say that the back half of 2019 will be a slowdown followed by an economic dip in the first half of 2020 and a recovery in the second half. Honestly, we may need this — the economy has been running so hot for so long that many CEOs I talk to need a little breathing room.
Beveridge: The challenge for leadership continues to be executing the plan for today while innovating and driving change for the future. The message I continue to hear from electrical distribution C-Suite leaders is that the pace of change continues to accelerate. Among the many forces working against the average distributor is the fact that the traditional electrical distribution sales model is being disrupted by technology, which is and will continue to play a significant role in our relevance and success and will require a digital transformation strategy in place. At the same time, the expected turnover of personnel over the next 3-10 years will render human capital strategies paramount. On top of all of this, our customers are changing, which means that the process of understanding their needs, wants, and desires is a moving target. These forces will all require leadership to address. In the last half of this year, distributors need to ensure that they have at least one of these significant forces in their sights with plans to initiate needed change and innovation.
tEDmag: If distributors didn’t make their first-half goals, is it too late to revise them? How do you advise that distributors modify goals they set months ago?
O’Brion: If you didn’t make your goals, the next 12 months is going to be a great time to step back and evaluate what’s working, what’s not, and what to do moving forward. The distributors who are well-positioned to leverage the next growth period are those who are learning how to add more value to their customer relationships now to become so-called “next-generation distributors.” For example, skilled trades are going to continue to be understaffed well into the future, but distributors have the opportunity to help their customers navigate this challenge. How can you help your customers to not only be more efficient operationally, but also more successful and profitable as business owners? Distributors need to embrace the fact that they’re experts in the industry and that their customers are looking to them to share their expertise. Distributors who haven’t transitioned from the basics of great selection, in-stock products, and fair pricing to being consultative partners won’t be well-positioned to compete into the future.
Beveridge: Before thinking about revising the goal, be sure to facilitate an honest assessment of the execution of your plan. I was recently in a room with an electrical distributor and supplier partner as they were going through a six-month review of the plan they’d developed. After realizing that “nothing had been accomplished,” they admitted that any further discussion was focused on “inevitable failure.” The plan was solid and the project management was in place, but the commitment to execution simply wasn’t there. So before you look to modify the goal, facilitate an honest self-assessment of the execution of the plan. For instance, was there alignment to the plan? Was ownership assigned? What worked? What didn’t work? Were the behaviors of the team consistent with the plan? Was there a consistent process for self-correction at the first sign of veering off track? If you could start the year over, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently? The military calls this discipline “After Action Reviews.” After each mission, they look for the lessons regarding what did and didn’t work and whether the mission had been accomplished. In business, we sometimes get overly hung up on the numbers at the expense of defining the behaviors, commitment, and accountability required to execute the plan.
tEDmag: Any quick tips you can offer distributors to help them stay strategic and focused in the second half of this year? Are there any general targets or opportunities you recommend they reach for to maximize their year (or 2020)?
O’Brion: Those distributors who become indispensable partners in their customers’ businesses are the ones who will continue to thrive as everything changes. The commoditization of distribution isn’t going to slow down. Now’s the time to become a “next-generation distributor.” It takes time, so get started now.
Beveridge: Get closer to the customer. C-Suite electrical distribution leaders continue to tell me that “we don’t know the customers the way we should”; one recently told me that “we know our customer of 10 years ago.” Distributors should make the next six months an epic learning experience for their company executives. Have every VP or higher in the organization commit one day a month (minimum) to meet with and listen to customers. The purpose isn’t to sell or to build the relationship, but rather solely to go out and listen. Ask customers questions like, What’s on your mind? How is your business changing? What strategies do you have in place for growth? What dangers do you see on the horizon? What opportunities are you looking to seize? What strengths do you hope to leverage? How is technology changing the way you do business? Where are you personally spending your time? As you do this as a distributor, think about the quality of your strategic planning for 2020 and beyond. You’ll have hundreds of new insights and data points about your customers to build plans and strategies around.
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