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This article appeared in Industrial Distribution's March/April print issue. To view the full digital edition, click here.

In today’s fast-paced economic environment, businesses of all sizes and types are experiencing some common challenges: increased competition, diminishing customer loyalty, and a growing pressure to deliver quality products that will fit shrinking budgets. Unfortunately, industrial distributors and manufacturers often have a limited view of one another’s role in growing sales and addressing these mutually intensifying competitive challenges. 

Manufacturers are sometimes viewed exclusively as product suppliers that are supposed to deliver a quality product at a competitive price, have it in stock, and be able to supply it on time. 

Industrial distributors are expected to fully embrace a manufacturer’ products, learn their benefits and functionality, and promote them exclusively to their end use customers.

Faced with fierce competition and commoditization in most categories, it takes a more creative business approach in order to differentiate, offer increased value, and profitably grow sales. To accomplish these goals, a change in the business mindset is required – one that fosters closer relationships and goes beyond merely supply chain management. Here are just four examples of how distributors can take advantage their suppliers’ capabilities to foster closer relationships, which in turn will make them more relevant to their customers:

Gary Nuttall, President, Gray Tools Canada

Product Training: Industrial distributors are expected to offer the right product solution for a specific need, and be a one-stop supplier for a variety of products across many different categories. For this reason, distributors need to have access to a variety of suppliers and build a broad and complex inventory. Distributors’ sales forces face a mammoth task – to learn the features and benefits of every product and the need it is supposed to solve. 

This is hard to accomplish without guidance from the manufacturer. Otherwise, some important features that distinguish a product from competition might be overlooked. Reputable manufacturers are willing to schedule in depth training sessions for the distributors’ sales force. 

Modern technology makes product training easier and more convenient than ever. From pre-recorded videos and other materials available for download on demand, to live training sessions delivered over the internet or in person, there is no need to delay keeping the sales force updated on the products in your catalog.

Joint Sales Calls: Another initiative that complements product training is joint end user sales calls. This is a great opportunity for your sales force not only to refresh their knowledge of a particular product or program, but also to understand the approach used by the manufacturer to convey to actual end users how their product best satisfies their needs. In the end, this initiative will positively enhance your reputation as a distributor and position your company as a valuable solutions provider.

Custom Product Development: There are situations when a standard product is simply not suitable for a given application. Instead of walking away or, even worse, suggesting an improvised solution that might have a negative impact on user safety, it is always a good idea to work with the manufacturer’s design and engineering team and suggest a custom made product that has been properly manufactured and tested to ensure its functionality. 

Joint Marketing Programs: Regular communication with your end use customers is mandatory if you want your business to remain top-of-mind. At the same time marketing is becoming increasingly complex, as more and more communication tools are developed across different platforms, each designed to reach a specific target audience.

Distributors should take advantage of manufacturers’ dedicated marketing teams to help them get their messages out. Joint collaboration can take many forms – from custom printed flyers with the distributor name and address, to emails designed specifically for the distributor’s client base. 

Today’s interconnected economy requires that suppliers and manufacturers to work together in order to remain competitive. It is not easy for distributors to be a one-stop-shop industrial supplier. In the end, both distributors and manufacturers share the same objective – offer industrial customers quality products that improve productivity and workers’ safety, accompanied by excellent customer service.

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