Integrating Digital Technology to Augument Your Entire Sales Process is the Way of the Future - and a Matter of Survival

As COVID-19 has continued to make its effects felt throughout our society and the economy, businesses have strived to constantly adjust to the virus’s ebb and flow. 

Many equipment distributors have found ways to adapt, making the necessary changes at some point during the pandemic, and even taking advantage of new opportunities. Key among these: the push toward digital technologies, many of which were certainly available before the virus hit – but were not always utilized.

Astute dealers are recognizing that the investment in and the application of digital technologies can have wide-ranging benefits to their businesses: from lead development and qualification to sales closing, support after the sale, customer retention, marketing, and more.

Phoning it In
With salespeople and support staff largely sidelined by government-mandated shutdowns or simple caution during the pandemic, most have taken to working remotely. Now, more than ever, they’re being tasked with working the phones to solicit new customers and service existing ones. Technology, however, has morphed those phones into more productive tools.

“Before the pandemic,” says Tony Yeung, chief operating officer of Action Sales in Monterey Park, California, “we encouraged our salespeople to use their own cell phones to make calls and send texts or emails to encourage customers or potential customers to visit one of our showrooms or attend cooking demonstrations in our test kitchen. Since those personal visits are no longer possible, they’re now using Zoom or Microsoft Team online meetings more, as well as social media.”

Video conferencing, a FaceTime or Skype novelty not so long ago, is now commonplace. Some companies, like Rapids Wholesale Equipment Co. in Marion, Iowa, even brought it in-house. “We’re a bit over a year in,” says Paul Adams, director of marketing. “Our entire team has access to direct chat, group chat, and videoconferencing built into our VOIP [voice over internet protocol] phones. And the really cool part is that our teams can use this system to interact easily with our customers.” Many staff members offer a quick link in their email signature lines.

Prospecting with Tech
With customers unable to shop dealer showrooms in person, they’re increasingly going online for information, advice, and products. Savvy dealers are spending more time improving their SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) so their company names and websites pop to the top of online searches more regularly.

“Videos are an essential marketing tool for us,” says Catalina Evans, digital marketing director, ACityDiscount Restaurant Equipment, Norcross, Georgia, “and video is good for SEO. Also, we’re constantly adding new content to our website – snippets or answers to questions, new product items, blog entries – and we use Google Analytics as well as our own reporting tools to see what categories or pages are getting the most hits.”

Rapids Wholesale migrated to a new e-commerce software platform that provides tools to help the company improve SEO and SEM. “We now have the ability to parse our catalog in a way that helps our SEM team group items appropriately for different strategies across various search engines,” Adams says. “Using Google’s AI helps us be more efficient in capturing these customers and finding other similar purchasers. The same applies with Facebook’s AI in social-media campaigns. The more time you spend in a specific product category, the more we know about what you’re homing in on until, eventually, you’ll see an ad or offer from us when you’re ready to buy.”

Social media has become fertile ground for prospecting sales leads, and dealers are becoming increasingly proficient at it. Like Adams, Evans attracts new customers on social media, grabbing social-media users on its various channels via third-party cookies (tracking codes) and then targeting ads to them.

Action Sales uses social media a little differently: “It’s made the biggest impact not only for us but also our customers,” Yeung says, “particularly Instagram because we can post really eye-catching photos.” In the past few years, new marketing people the company has hired to handle social media have posted items like congratulations to customers on new openings and images of customers’ dishes on a bi-weekly basis. Posts also include special discounts such as $5 off a purchase for signing up for emails on Facebook, or to write a review on Yelp. Often, these become fun contests for the Action Sales staff to see who can bring in the most new customers.

Bringing eyes to websites is, of course, a major goal. Once there, the objective is to get customers to stay, spend time on the site, and ultimately make a purchase. To do that, many dealers have redesigned their sites to attract and hold visitors longer. Culinex, in Fargo, North Dakota, has a virtual showroom on its website allowing visitors to walk through, aisle by aisle. Company president Mark Howes hopes to eventually make it possible for customers to virtually pick up products off the shelves as they do their walk-through, and drop them in a shopping basket for purchase.

A welcome video on the Culinex site also lets would-be customers know the value in choosing Culinex over other suppliers. Plus, the company has repurposed the video – embedding it into a physical prospecting card that plays the “who we are” message when a recipient opens it; Culinex can snail-mail the card, hand it out at trade shows, etc.

Dealers like ACityDiscount and Rapids Wholesale are using chat bots to engage and retain visitors to their sites. Both companies have a live chat feature during normal business hours.

“Our chat feature gives visitors a chance to browse uninterrupted for a little bit, then fires off a proactive message letting them know there’s a real, live foodservice expert waiting to answer any information they can’t find,” Adams says. “If so, a quick question posed to visitors routes their inquiry to the appropriate person – product questions to a sales professional, order follow-ups to customer service, and so forth.”

Closing the Sale
Beyond a website or even a web  store, dealers find e-commerce sites suit a variety of their needs. The most obvious, of course, is an easier way for customers to access their inventory of products. Some distributors, like ACityDiscount, were early e-commerce adopters and have easily adapted to pandemic conditions as a result. Many dealers now implementing their own e-commerce sites, however, don’t intend to compete with companies like Amazon or even other equipment dealers that specialize in e-commerce.

“Our business model has been built on inside salespeople working with many of our larger chain and commercial accounts and walk-in customers,” Yeung says. “We’re starting our e-commerce site as a convenience for existing customers, not to compete with Amazon or big players in e-commerce.” To do that, Action Sales is creating its portal in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese (among others) to cater to its multi-lingual customer base.

Culinex also made a huge investment in technology in the past couple of years, which Howes expects to pay off as the company learns and utilizes more of its capabilities. The e-commerce site the company built using SuiteCommerce enables customers to enter the portal from anywhere and on any device. Customers not only can browse and order products, but also see their order history, pay bills, and more. The site also enables Culinex to anticipate customer needs and make sure products are in stock when customers place orders.

“We want customers to use our system to make it easy for them to work with us,” Howes says. “The key to everything we do is that as customers get comfortable with the technology we offer, the real value we offer them is our experience and professionalism – and that will never go away.”

Retaining Your Customers
Attracting customers to your site and getting them to buy is only half the battle: “Of course we want your business,” Adams says, “but more than that we want your repeat business,” he stresses.

Rapids Wholesale uses a semi-automated sales follow-up system. Customers receive automated order status and shipping emails after the sale. In addition, they get requests for product and performance reviews and NPS [Net Promoter Score] scores. The company offers customers incentives to participate, and the responses enable the company to determine what works and what doesn’t. Longer term, the company uses different email platforms to re-engage customers who haven’t been active in a while, with some missives more personal and others more value/reward based.

ACityDiscount does much the same thing: The company utilizes follow-up emails, using feedback from product and service reviews to improve the customer experience or spend more time training so sales associates are better able to handle customer questions or requests.

Action Sales uses Constant Contact email blasts to let customers know what’s on sale or to deliver coupons. The company also is working on an automated text notification system for delivery teams to alert customers to impending deliveries or delays.

Beyond the short-term, after-sales communication generated by these systems, many of these dealers also use their CRM systems to nudge salespeople to contact customers personally. “Sales reps can’t visit customers due to COVID,” says Howes, “so our new system makes it possible for customers to get what they need and turns reps into more than simple order-takers. They’ve had to morph into a new role as consultants.”

Plus, ERP systems are now enabling dealers to tie together all the data and communication, from prospecting and lead generation to after-sales support and customer retention. Culinex, for example, invested in NetSuite, an all-in-one ERP with CRP, e-commerce, and other modules. ACityDiscount, meanwhile, developed its own proprietary system in-house. For both, the goal was to integrate all sales functions in a single database.

Digital technologies have also proven themselves to be invaluable when it comes to the building block of sales: forging relationships. “Our brand-new ERP system streamlines the entire process,” Adams says. “It frees up our sales and marketing teams to make more of those personal, meaningful connections.”

Making the Investment
“Our efforts to expand our digital footprint and implement more digital sales tools came to a screeching halt last March,” says Ryan Smith, purchasing and operations manager for Horizon Equipment LLC, Eagan, Minnesota. “But we do see the potential for technology – and as we look to the future, we have things we’d like to roll out.

“In the meantime, the pandemic has changed how we do business and forced us to figure out how to work remotely,” he continues. “Now we’re more comfortable working in the cloud, and the pandemic has given us time to work on the fundamentals and has made us better at the way we do things.”

Investing in digital technologies is no longer just an advantage, dealers have learned, it’s a necessity – especially when it comes to sales. If your company has yet to implement digital technologies throughout your sales process, now’s the time. By doing so, you’ll find yourself not only in a better position to prospect, but also to close sales, retain customers, and ensure your company’s profitability.