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Getting a Leg Up on Amazon Business, Part II

Getting a Leg Up on Amazon Business, Part II

Here are five ways to get your sales reps in on the ground floor of beating Amazon Business at its own game.


In Part I of this article series we told you that Amazon Business’ low-price, quick-delivery method can’t stand up to the superior customer service and technical knowledge that independent electrical distributors specialize in—and that their customers need. And while speed, information, data, and rich content all have to be factored into the equation, even the smallest distributor has an ace in the hole when it comes to getting a leg up on Amazon:  its inside and outside sales reps.

“Your sales organization may actually be best suited as solution experts because it has a deep historical and industry knowledge that Amazon can’t simply acquire,” says Charlie Lawhorn, chief customer officer at Riversand and veteran distribution expert. Extracting that knowledge and leveraging it in the digital world is a big charge for the distributor whose business model relies on one-to-one interactions between reps and customers (i.e., in person, at the counter, via email, and on the phone).

“Too many B2B distributors force their customers into the old model of, ‘Let me talk to Ralph, the sales rep,’” says Lawhorn. But many of them don’t want to talk to Ralph. They just need something now and want to use their iPads, mobile phones, or desktops to find what they want, place the order, and have it delivered quickly. To accommodate this, distributors have to be able to replicate “Ralph” in some other format—namely, via a website, mobile app, or other digital means. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Use application knowledge to create a strong digital presence. In Part I of this article series, we told you just how critical data is and how difficult it is for companies like Amazon Business to replicate. Use this to your advantage, says Lawhorn, and tap into your sales reps’ tribal knowledge (i.e., any unwritten information that is not commonly known by others within a company) of electrical and construction applications to create a strong digital presence. “This is the stuff that your reps are really good at, and where Amazon falls short; they have no application side,” says Lawhorn. “Amazon may have reviews from customers that bought this or that, but it really has nothing to do with B2B electrical distribution.”
  2. Gather the troops and pick their brains. The typical outside sales rep operates autonomously, meeting with customers, learning their wants and needs, and then working to fulfill those requests. Along the way, he or she gathers a lot of intelligence that can serve as the cornerstone for a solid e-commerce strategy. “Focus on gathering as much of their experience and deep product and solution information as possible into a single repository,” Lawhorn suggests, “so that your customers can search and find what they need, rather than having to call in and talk to your team.” This will probably require a cultural shift, and particularly for the distributor that’s operated with the same model for the last 10-20 years. “As customers become more digital-first,” says Lawhorn, “you have to meet them where they are, and it’s not at your counter or on the phone. It’s online.”
  3. Create a self-service model for your customers. Put the customer at the center of the conversation and your chances of beating e-tailers like Amazon at their own games will get that much easier. Realize that the facilities maintenance pro who needs a specific part knows how to key that into Amazon and get a quick price and delivery quote, for example, but that the contractor who’s putting in a bid on a large job will likely need some handholding in the process. To accommodate both ends of that spectrum, Lawhorn says electrical distributors need to get their data strategies into shape. “These days, a lot of customers are self-educated, accustomed to doing product research, and are Googling everything to get their answers,” says Lawhorn. “The problem is that many distributors lack a self-service model to accommodate these buyers.”
  4. Build your own “Digital Ralph.” When developing a self-service model, distributors should combine both product data and application/fitment/usage data to create a cohesive solution that customers understand. The challenge is that most of the data is in the sales rep’s head—yet another reason to gather your team and work to create a central repository (or, “Digital Ralph”). Short online videos, for example, can focus on very targeted applications and then be used over and over again by customers who need quick tips and hints. “How-to-do-it videos draw people in and educate them while also positioning your distributorship as a product/service source,” says Lawhorn. “When they see that an application fits, they’ll hopefully go ahead and place an order on your site.”
  5. Start with some simple FAQs. Every new initiative needs a starting point, and the distributor that’s just kicking off an effort to extract more tribal knowledge from their sales reps can start with some simple FAQs (frequently asked questions). This content can serve as the foundation for a digital help desk where contractors can go to get answers without having to pick up the phone or send an email. Add an online chat function to the equation and the FAQ then becomes an interactive treasure trove of content that customers will come to rely on. “Those FAQs come together to form a ‘mini Wikipedia’ of solutions for your customers,” Lawhorn points out. “After all, that’s really what customers want. They don’t want to shop around, they don’t want to physically talk to anyone, and they don’t want to work with a sales rep. They just want to buy.”

 Make Your Move Now, Not Later

With Amazon Business already biting off what Lawhorn refers to as the “commodity stuff” in the electrical space, now is the time for distributors to step up their application knowledge and technical expertise games. Do this before your customers start trusting Amazon to handle their more complex wants and needs. “Over time, as customers get more and more comfortable with Amazon as a service provider,” says Lawhorn, “those customers are going to start trusting it for more complex products and solutions.”

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Bridget 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 bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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