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The Distributor’s E-Commerce Crystal Ball

The Distributor’s E-Commerce Crystal Ball

By Bridget McCrea

The business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce momentum is building. E-tailing behemoths like Amazon Business are infringing on electrical distributors’ turf. Large distributors continue to hone and refine their e-commerce offerings. And finally, mobile e-commerce (or, m-commerce) – driven by the consumer who has grown more comfortable making purchases on smartphones and other mobile devices – is on track to hit $700 billion by 2017, according to research firm Digi-Capital.

These aren’t the only e-commerce trends taking shape right now, but they should be enough to make the typical electrical distributor sit up and take notice – especially the one that still relies heavily on traditional and manual ways of selling and doing business. With 80+ million millennials making their way into the workforce, and already digital-savvy and expecting real-time responses and same-day deliveries, burying your head in the sand is no longer an option (and neither is a “calling card” website that’s not e-commerce enabled).

“As e-commerce continues to grow and evolve, it cannot be ‘business as usual’ for industrial distributors,” says Jamar Cobb-Dennard, a sales and marketing expert in Indianapolis who has designed and executed sales and marketing strategies for numerous companies. “To compete in the 21st Century e-commerce marketplace, they need to implement a number of strategies – with thought and integration – into their traditional sales and marketing efforts.”

Getting up to Speed
Poking around at a few different industrial distributors’ active websites, Cobb-Dennard sees a lot of companies trying to squeeze one last ounce out of their circa-late-1990s/early-2000s online efforts. “The sites are very eye-catching or informative and most of them are just online catalogs,” says Cobb-Dennard, who doesn’t advise distributors to run out and try to pack their sites with all of the latest bells and whistles. Instead, he tells them to step back and try to catch up with some e-commerce basics.

“Look at what the leaders in and out of your industry are already doing online,” he suggests, “and try to get on par with what e-commerce is doing in terms of increasing user experiences and value online.” Cobb-Dennard sees that “user experience” piece as a critical focal point for the future of e-commerce. For distributors, that means going beyond “flat pictures” of products and parts and presenting them in a way that truly stands out online.

And remember that your customers are probably using three criteria when searching online: the best relationship (with a supplier), the best delivery time, or the lowest price. By offering up a 360-degree product view or a video of it in action, distributors can help to enhance the sales process and help customers think beyond price.

Cobb-Dennard says distributors interested in doing a better job in the e-commerce realm in 2016 should be using business intelligence to determine who is buying, what they’re buying, the likelihood of a repeat purchase, and other data. Then, use that information to create a very tailored marketing approach for buyers at all stages (existing, past, or prospective). “In some cases, you can reactivate commoditized relationships if you do it at the right time,” says Cobb-Dennard, “and if you have the right e-commerce tools in place to streamline the process.”

Also on the sales side, Cobb-Dennard says reps should be using RSS feeds and/or Google alerts to stay up to speed on new projects and initiatives that could be fed into their sales pipelines. “Search for some simple keywords that align with your industry and past projects,” says Cobb-Dennard, “and then use that information to be proactive, rather than waiting around for RFPs to come through the pipeline.”

The Time is Coming
Just because your customers aren’t screaming for and demanding the ability to transact online right now doesn’t mean you can ignore the call of e-commerce. “If you’re not going to at least get started with e-commerce, someone else will,” says Ian Hobkirk, managing director at Commonwealth Supply Chain Advisors in Boston.

“Maybe it will be Amazon or maybe it will be one of your competitors, but there aren’t many barriers to online order placement at this point,” Hobkirk continues. “It just takes some capital investment; but it’s not cutting-edge technology.” Hobkirk works often with distributors, helping them with distribution center design, transportation management, and broader supply chain issues. For these entities, he says it’s simply not enough to sit back and hope that the issue works itself out on its own (or, that sub-par systems will be enough to satisfy your discerning, demanding customers).

“Distributors need to prepare now for a world where e-commerce dictates the need for shorter order cut-off times, the ability to consolidate orders, and a more sophisticated approach to order management within the four walls of the DC,” says Hobkirk. “The electrical contractors and other customers you’re working with may not have reached this tipping point yet, but that time will be here before you know it.”

Get With the Program Now
Looking into his own crystal ball, Cobb-Dennard sees three areas where distributors could be doing a better job of getting up to speed with e-commerce without breaking the bank or having to hire a whole new team of employees. Here are three good starting points that he suggests:  

Application-based distributor management. Don’t know which of your products your sales reps are pitching? Don’t have an easy way to push product and sales updates to your web of agents in the field? “Utilizing app-based technology, the distributor’s outside sales force can quickly and easily see inventory levels, enter orders, communicate with internal customer service, receive product updates, and enter quotes,” says Cobb-Dennard, “all from a single push-button interface.”

Content marketing. Your customers need products and knowledge to stay ahead of competition and thrive in today’s business environment. To become an even more invaluable part of a client’s business, Cobb-Dennard suggests producing regular content that is directed toward helping “target” clients achieve more within their business. “Content marketing should not necessarily all be about a distributor’s product,” he warns, “but should be slanted toward what the client cares about most—making more of their products and closing more deals in their industries.”     

Business intelligence driven by follow-up. For distributors that are selling a low-priced, high-volume product, it can be hard to identify when to follow up with customers for repeat purchases. By tying a predictive business intelligence system to a website and customer relationship management (CRM) system, Cobb-Dennard says distributors can give their salespeople “the edge they need to follow up with the right people at the right time with the right product offering that increases sales- per-call.”

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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