As industrial distributors, many of us have spent our careers focusing on specialization. Distributors traditionally win when they can become the best at selling very specific things at very high volumes—but that can also lead us to being very slow to change the way we get things done.
Today, as we watch the industry shift rapidly toward an online, data-driven world, most of us as distributors are realizing it is time to make big changes before it is too late to take advantage of the opportunities offered by new tools such as e-commerce.
Now, as someone who moved my family to the U.S. many years ago, I can’t help but think of this shift in our industry in much the same way as any great migration. So what makes a migration successful and how can industrial distributors use those same principles to conquer the move to e-commerce?
Let’s take a look at a few simple tactics:
1. Never Fly Blind
Years ago I asked a teacher of mine how birds know where to go when they fly south. That teacher had no clue, so he simply said, “Nature.” It turns out he was right. Even the simplest migrating creatures lean heavily on complex planning tools like star patterns, changing positions of the sun, or even the earth’s magnetic field itself.
With distribution being so complex, successful migration will never be completed without a solid game plan from the very get go. As you consider moving your business to an e-commerce solution, you should know as much as you can about the potential risks and opportunities.
- What are your competitors doing well/not well/not at all in this space?
- What do you know about your current customers and how likely each type will be to buy online?
- What tools do you know you need to support this shift and what tools might be a bonus?
- What will your catalogue look like at launch versus three, six, and 12 months in?
Most of these plans will likely change and some of your projections will be flat out wrong, but the more you understand and plan for up front, the easier it will be to adapt quickly down the line.
2. Assimilate Gradually, Adapt Quickly
If you move from Boston to Austin in February you certainly shouldn’t obsess with changing your accent to match the locals on day one. But by day two, I’ll bet you will have traded in your parka for a nice pair of shorts.
One huge mistake too many distributors make when migrating to e-commerce is trying to do everything at once. Worse yet, I see distributorstaking on too many simultaneous tasks because of trends they learned about from a consultant or competitor.
The key to a smooth migration of any kind is focusing on improving your position without losing your current strengths.
- Maybe you need to focus first on building a stronger digital brand…
- Then maybe you select a small number of products to sell online…
- Then maybe you add "X" amount per quarter…
- Maybe your SEO needs consideration…
- Or your customer management tools…
Remember though, your world is changing around you, so you have to be able to keep building, adding, and adapting all the time—just don’t bury yourself by taking on too much.
3. Observe Obsessively in Order to Evolve
Anyone that has ever jumped head first into a new culture can probably attest that there are no better learning moments than those times you do something seemingly natural to you only to see baffled faces on those around you. From the simplest eyebrow raise when I put a question mark at the beginning of a sentence, to the outright shock whenever I would mispronounce an English word and accidentally curse at some innocent soul, my mistakes were easy to spot.
Just the same, migrating your business to e-commerce will entail a huge number of bets and experiments which will require you to keep your ears and eyes open and monitor exactly how your customers are reacting.
- Are people coming to your site, but never converting?
- Are shopping carts being filled, but products not bought?
- Are the right customers being targeted on the right devices at the right time?
The wonderful thing about e-commerce is that questions like these have real, definitive answers thanks to hard, unwavering data.
Just like learning those cultural tics that make you a more functional member of your new society, monitoring these benchmarks, behaviors, KPIs, and conversion flags will make your business a more fruitful one in the e-commerce space.
4. Build Allies by Building Trust
In your new life, you don’t want to be accepted, you want to be embraced. In any migration, your ceiling gets exponentially higher the larger your trust base gets, and you only do that by being reliable, respectful, and accountable.
Just as you can win over your new neighbors by keeping your yard tidy, hosting killer cookouts, or happily offering to dog-sit, you can build immediate trust with your customers by providing more convenient tools, marketing to them more accurately based on their needs, or identifying opportunities for them to add value even before they do.
But, if your tidy yard starts to turn brown, your cookouts turn into all night raves, and their dog starts returning with fleas, that trust will disappear fast. So concentrate on adding new conveniences for customers, but only if you have the bandwidth and tools to follow through on those promises at a near-perfect rate.
5. Get Good People on Your Side
As you set out on your business’s migration, a herd mentality is a solid one to have. That means both having good people in house on your team and having specialized partners that can help you navigate bumps in the road.
In house, put someone in charge of the initiative as a whole and charge them with coordinating the different elements of the migration. They should be part project manager, part therapist, and part evangelist, consistently moving the mission forward and keeping everyone focused on the big picture opportunities ahead.
Outside your own team, partner up with specialized teams, who can help you inject your business with the proper tools (like simplified data analytics management) that you need to accelerate the migration process while avoiding critical mistakes.
6. Remember Why You’re Moving in the First Place
Migrations don’t happen on a whim. They happen because a population looks around and realizes there is nothing left but struggle, stagnation, or decline for them where they are, or because they foresee better opportunities somewhere else.
As elements of a migration become challenging, it is easy to forget just how ominous a situation you were in before. Keep driving toward the more promising future you rightly know is ahead—the future that sees your business skyrocketing through e-commerce.
Now is the Time to Make Your Move
As Brian Beck discusses in his book Billion Dollar B2B Ecommerce:
It is really important for management to set clear objectives around the ‘why’ for digital transformation, and then consistently manage against these goals. Significant return on investment is available around incremental revenue, increased efficiencies, and higher profit for companies that are grounded in executing digital efforts.
Whether you are ready to migrate at the speed of the digital revolution or prefer a piece-by-piece approach, the most important thing to do is just to start moving. Make a plan, map your pitfalls, prepare to stumble, and keep driving your business toward a better future.
I promise you that the grass—and your profits—will be greener on the other side.
Nelson Valderrama is the CEO of Intuilize. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.intuilize.com.
A version of this article appears in the March 2019 issue of Industrial Distribution.