As a distributor building a digital strategy and creating digital solutions, I’ve worked with advanced and basic software solutions. I’ve been fortunate to be on distribution teams and work with distribution clients over the past 15 years learning sometimes the hard way, the key mistakes to avoid on a digital journey.
1: Mistake of Investing in technology instead of talent
The distribution business presents a lot of challenges for digital that are often overlooked by digital non-distribution outsiders. You have a huge number of SKU’s you sell with long and complex nomenclatures (e.g., a 2BLT233LADPLP940 is only 14 letters and numbers for a standard light fixture). You often represent 200+ manufacturers who may not be able to provide great data or images for your digital initiatives. That combination of 100,000s of SKUs, Long part numbers, and poor data and images from manufacturers means there is not a software silver bullet that is going to magically make digital easy for you.
The digital menu and detail you need to provide is much more extensive and difficult than 95% of B2C businesses.
I’ve found that a well-resourced team with access to training and open-source software like WordPress is often more effective than an overworked, under-resourced team with advanced software every time. The Talent first option almost always outperforms the software first option. You have a complex business and having talent on your digital team that knows your business is critical to success. You aren’t selling many products or solutions that your customers are using Door Dash to pick up and deliver.
The most important thing you can do for your digital strategy is to invest in the people who will be executing it. This team will be responsible for taking your business goals and turning them into tangible results. Once you have the right team in place, they can guide you into purchasing the right software.
Additionally, many software options are becoming more and more commoditized. It’s less about which technology you use and more about how you use it that will set you apart from your competition.
Marketing automation software features have become common across many different platforms. There is less separating the top providers with the lower cost options. You can get what you need for a few thousand dollars a year and invest in talent to help you leverage the technology.
I’ve regularly seen my teammates and clients use lower cost software like MailChimp and Active Campaign to help industrials win at digital while their previous attempts using enterprise software like Pardot or Marketo yielded little to no results. Your technology is table stakes, it’s the team you build that will make all the difference.
2. Making the mistake of building a solution that doesn’t really understand your customer needs
It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people in B2B Distribution don’t do this. Your digital offering should be built for your ideal customer, not for your boss, or copying something you like on a B2C site. As a B2B distribution business you know the digital solution you need is different for a Grainger type customer versus a customer who is buying high tech automation products.
You can change this perspective by making the customer the focal point of your team’s success metrics and ensuring their perspective is weighted the same as senior team members.
If you do this, you’ll find stakeholders are far more receptive to customer feedback and your team can make decisions based on data and what the customer wants.
3. Not embracing an agile approach as a strategy for digital
Sometimes, the qualities that make you a great distribution leader can work against you with your digital strategy. The traditional way we manage in distribution is based on control, predictability, and processes that were established over the course of our careers. For example- It makes sense to manage warehouse throughput by breaking workflow into small tasks that can be completed by workers with minimal training. That approach would not be as effective in digital.
The best way to manage digital is by using an agile methodology which values collaboration, customer feedback, and continuous improvement. If you focus on your digital strategy roadmap, developing value-added digital services, creating an innovative and agile culture, and implementing tried and true processes for achieving innovation.
The Final Word
The B2B Distribution business with highly engineered and specialty products requires talent (with a digital and distribution business background), that is built to meet your customer needs, and with an agile project approach is a winning combination for digital success.