By Stacy Ward, Editor in Chief, and Janice Hoppe-Spiers, Contributing Writer
Throughout his 20-plus years in B2B, e-commerce strategist and author Justin King has worked with a lot of distributors and manufacturers, starting with his time at former marketing firm Brulant, where he helped mega distributors integrate their ERP systems and other complex backend processes into their e-commerce strategies. It was that introduction to channel dynamics, he says, that gave him an appreciation for the supply chain and eventually led to the start of his e-commerce consulting agency B2X partners.
Now, he lives in the distribution niche and has been putting his past life as Oracle’s chief evangelist, B2B e-commerce and customer experience, to good use. Turns out, most distributors and manufacturers hoping to transform their legacy processes, via digital tools and strategy, all seem to be consumed with the hows. That’s what King is hearing from his customers and those he routinely connects with at digital forums. “When it comes to e-commerce, or digital, or digital transformation,” he says, “distributors and manufacturers say, ‘I just don’t know what I don’t know. I don’t know what to do first or second. I don’t know what technology I should evaluate. I don’t know what people to hire, and even if I knew who to hire, I don’t know how to manage their skill sets.’”
FEDA distributors and dealers have echoed similar struggles, which is why the Association’s leadership has developed a digital strategy of its own focused on equipping members with the resources to integrate digital into their processes, manage the daily deluge of data and translate both into value-added services.
Tired of hearing about digital disruptors? Get used to it and start thinking about how to adapt and innovate, says King, who warns about indifference. “The company that kills you will look nothing like you,” he says, referencing the title of a former keynote. “The premise is that what makes most distributors good at being distributors today will make them bad at innovating and digital. So, what can a distributor do? How do they compete in this new world of technology, digital, and Amazon?”
For starters, think of how you would compete against yourself, says King, the author of Digital Branch Secrets: e-commerce Playbook for Distributors. He and other distribution B2B digital experts—product data content strategist Denise Keating of DATAgility and industry analyst Jaimy Szymanski—will be leading interactive breakout sessions at the FEDA Annual Conference, April 3-6 in Phoenix. It’s a good first step for FEDA dealers and distributors that do not have a digital strategy in place.
“Distributors are continually faced with threats from competitors in alternate channels,” says Keating, who has worked closely with many distributors and manufacturers in the National Association of Electrical Distributors to help them measure and improve the quality of their performance data. “It is important to identify those threats and find ways to differentiate so that they will remain the channel of first choice for their customers. Developing an online strategy is key to thriving in the ever-changing landscape.”
“Think Strategy. Lead the Change.” is the theme of the FEDA Annual Conference. It’s a fitting call to action and a key part of FEDA’s efforts to help its dealers and distributors compete in the digital era. Afternoon breakout sessions on Thursday, April 4, and Friday, April 5, will feature a roster of innovative thinkers and industry leaders that are primed to help members better understand the technology and trends shaping the global marketplace. Below is more of what attendees can expect.
The Amazon Effect
Amazon has dramatically changed the way consumers shop. Whether they are online or in-store, consumers want the same experience—frictionless shopping with close-to-immediate results. Denise Keating, the co-founder and CEO of DATAgility, will lead the “Using Data to Drive the Online Buying Experience” breakout session on April 5, where she will examine the Amazon Effect and explain how Jeff Bezos’ behemoth is targeting and disrupting traditional channels.
“Developing an effective online product content strategy is the secret for continued growth and success of your e-commerce initiative,” says Keating. “This session will identify lessons that can be leveraged by distribution so distributors can adapt and thrive in order to remain the channel of first choice for their customers “
“Using Data to Drive the Online Buying Experience” will help executives, sales professionals and those responsible for e-commerce and digital strategy understand the distinctions between product relationships and product bundling, and strategies on when and where to use them. Attendees also will learn how to apply the power of persuasion with techniques that lead to increased upsell opportunities.
Changing a business model and incorporating new technologies can be a daunting task for distributors, but small changes can reap big rewards, notes Keating. “Improving the overall customer experience is about the sum of all the touchpoints a company has with its customers and I hope they will gain a better understanding of how to accomplish it,” she adds.
The backbone of the distribution channel is how businesses move products between the manufacturer and the end user. Improving that process by creating efficiencies can result in major advantages for distributors, allowing them to deliver products faster and at a lower cost than competitors.
In the session entitled “E-Commerce Strategies for Heavy Transportation,” Kevin Brink, senior director of sales operations at ReTrans Freight, will discuss the how-to steps to offer customers the same simple transaction process they’ve grown accustomed to with parcel shipments, only with LTL cargo. The session will focus on the integration and automation of LTL costing methods, documentation, tracking and other deliverables to customers that align with consumer (residential and commercial) expectations formed from their experience with small package/parcel in both their personal and professional lives. “This is truly most relevant to all attendees because every FEDA member is shipping LTL freight and has to manage how they currently quote and accrue for this expenditure,” Brink says.
FEDA members may be surprised how freight carriers are affected by the continuous evolution of an e-commerce-fueled world and how shippers can help themselves during this “revolution, of sorts,” adds Brink. “Historically speaking, foodservice equipment distributors relied on brick-and-mortar facilities that typically covered a specific territory. There have not been many true national distributors over the years,” he adds. “Over the last five to 10 years, however, many distributors have taken steps to become a national distributor/dealer by selling online and expanding their territory and going direct to consumer. The integration of LTL shipping costs and affiliated deliverables into shopping carts, purchasing software, sales software and other platforms has been elusive to so many, so folks end up using historical data and estimates to do something that can be automated.
“Not having this essential method of transportation automated puts a strain on the operation and on the sales cycle,” says Brink. “All FEDA dealers and distributors need to continue to embrace current transportation technology in order to modernize the industry and continue to grow as generational change is starting to alter the way people do business.”
How can owners and managers get their purchasing people to start thinking about the financial impact of their purchases? Jason Bader, a 30-year distribution industry veteran and principal of The Distribution Team, will provide FEDA members with ways to drive a return-on-investment mentality using inventory metrics and data analytics during his session, “Using Data to Turn Buyers into Investors.”
“This analysis will help FEDA members develop a customer-centric view of inventory management,” says Bader. “By focusing on what the customer is really asking for through their transaction patterns, distributors will provide superior customer service while living within their own financial constraints.”
During his presentation, Bader hopes attendees will learn how to perform data-driven ROI analysis, discover strategies to improve poor-performing buy lines and use ROI data as a tool in vendor negotiations. “I think attendees might be surprised how much information about their customers’ wants and needs is captured by their distribution software,” he says. “They might also be surprised how simple these concepts are and that they are probably almost 70 percent there.”
Customers come to distributors because they want to work with a business that possesses expertise in their field and is better equipped to solve their problems. Finding ways to enhance the customer experience can further differentiate distributors from transaction-based competitors, says Michael Berro, CEO of MMS Distribution. Drawing from his own experience as the director of special projects for convenience store distributor HLA, Berro will host “Making the Connection Part I– Integrating Consumer Touch Points,” a session that will explore how to create a sales technology strategy that will impact both your customers and sales process. Immediately following his session, Andrew Johnson, vice president of business development at Ai2, will be hosting “Making the Connection Part 2– Improving the Customer Experience.”
During their sessions, Berro and Johnson will address the role of sales technology in B2B and B2C shopping experiences; what implementing an omnichannel sales strategy does for an organization and its future; how to create realistic technology adoption targets; and other topics to help distributors navigate through the new landscape.
Foodservice equipment distributors will not only need to be great customer service machines and supply chain experts, they also will need to be technology companies, say Johnson and Berro, adding that judging by their backend systems, many are not equipped to make the transformation. “Michael and I will be bringing our real-world experience into a presentation series that will create awareness and prepare distributors to engage in commerce the way it is done today and will be done tomorrow—both from a strategic standpoint and at a sales level,” Johnson says.
What motivates buyers to purchase from distributors and which services help distributors differentiate themselves from the competition? Angela Baraks, the director of sales and marketing at DATAgility, will be leading the conversation on “Differentiating Your Brand through Value-Added Services,” helping FEDA attendees develop a strategy to not only promote the value-added services they offer, but position themselves with identifiable benefits to the buyer.
During Baraks’ session, executives, salespeople and mangers with influence over the mix of products and services their company sells will learn how other industries are using new technologies and discover what can be applied to the foodservice equipment industry for capturing new sales opportunities. Key takeaways will include finding new ways to market products and value-added services, discovering new ways to bundle products and services for personalized selling and applying the latest technologies to your business.
“Value-added services help companies differentiate their brand from other distributors,” says Baraks. “As more threats to the channel are identified, distributors must find ways to stand out and offer services to their customers that help them truly partner with them and offer solutions.”
“To remain a leader, FEDA members must align their leadership with a digital transformation direction, collaborate across hierarchies, develop digital capacity and plan for future disruption,” says Jaimy Szymanski, industry analyst and founding partner of Kaleido Insights.
Szymanski will be hosting “Digital Transformation: The Driving Force Behind Seamless Omnichannel CX,” an interactive breakout session that focuses on empowering leaders by covering the principles of digital transformation. The first portion of her session will look at how companies approach digital transformation by defining what it is and what it takes to be a leader. During this time, attendees will assess the maturity of the “Six Phases of Digital Transformation” within their companies and determine the areas that need prioritization. Secondly, attendees will learn how to rethink the customer journey and omnichannel experience by understanding where customer data lives. Finally, Szymanski will focus on how AI can transform the customer journey and how to prepare for machine learning within your company.
X eCommerce System
Distributors know they need a digital strategy to compete, but many do not know how to execute the Xs and Os, says Justin King, the president and CEO of B2X Partners and the author of Digital Branch Secrets: eCommerce Playbook for Distributors. What’s the X eCommerce System? It’s King’s answer to a systematic approach to driving digital growth with a customer-centric focus.
Executives and sales teams, plan to leave this session with a 30- and 90-day plan to kickstart your e-commerce journey and start innovating with digital and technology. “A distributor’s digital presence, e-commerce and digital tools are critical for the success of an organization,” emphasizes King. “Amazon Business grew from $1 billion in 2016 to $10 billion in 2018. This is happening—distributors must meet the challenge.”
Today’s foodservice equipment and supplies dealers and distributors must respond with a sense of urgency. These breakout sessions will help equip you with the tools and resources to develop a digital strategy, manage the overwhelming flow of data collected daily and translate both into value-added services to differentiate their brand in the marketplace.