How To Differentiate In Distribution

How many different ways can customers buy the products you sell? Sales guru Paul Reilly provides tips on how to differentiate in a meaningful way.

Too many distributors just sell products. If you’re just selling product, you’re missing opportunities to differentiate. If you’re just selling product, Amazon wins every time. How many different ways can customers buy the products you sell?

Customers view commodity products sold by similar suppliers as the same solution. Salespeople preaching the same message fuels this perception of a commodity solution. When you sell a commodity solution, price is the only thing that matters.

Customers want more than just a cheap price. If customers just wanted a cheap price, then Harbor Freight Tool would be the top selling distributor…but they’re not. Customers want more than a cheap price. Customers are willing to pay more if your solution is different in a meaningful way.

Here are some tips to help distributors differentiate in a meaningful way.

Differentiate with service

Most distributors have good service. All distributors claim to have great service. The question is what makes your service different from everyone else? Customers have heard it all from sales organizations, including the promise of great service. To differentiate with service, clearly define the unique attributes of your service. Here are some sample differentiators…

  • We’re the only local distributor to open at 5:30 a.m. We can also arrange weekend office hours upon request.
  • We’re the only distributor to guarantee one-hour delivery within a 25-mile radius.
  • We’re the only distributor to offer monthly training courses for our customers.
  • We’re the only local distributor that offers an extended warranty on our tools.

Brand your service

Distributors that brand their service create a Unique Selling Proposition. Distributors amass a list of value-added services to define their brand and customer experience. The branded service experience is unique to the distributor.

For example, one distributor’s list of value-added services could be branded the “XYZ service guarantee.” A customer can buy a tool anywhere, but they can only experience the “XYZ service guarantee” at XYZ Distributor.

A branded service answers the question, “What makes your distributor different?” 

New service launches

Imagine launching new services at the same rate you launch and promote new products. Manufacturers continuously improve their products. Distributors should continuously improve and enhance their service offerings. There’s nothing different about new products when they’re accessible to every distributor. New services are a point of differentiation.

Ask employees what additional services customers are asking for. Directly ask customers what services are missing. Ask customers what their biggest challenges are, then find a service that can help them. The services you provide don’t have to be earth-shattering innovation, they just need to help the customer. It’s not about profound innovation, it’s about positive momentum.

Communicate your differences

You cannot over communicate your differences. Send the customer a follow-up or introductory e-mail highlighting your differences. Communicate these differences on your website. Include a list of your key differences on proposals. It takes a series of touches before the customer perceives a difference. Surround the customer with your differences.

Practice articulating your differences. In your next company meeting, have employees describe the unique aspects of your service. Ask your people, “What makes us different?” Put people on the spot. If they cannot answer the question, it provides an excellent coaching opportunity. They’ll be prepared next time.

Differentiate by solving a problem

Solving a problem can differentiate your solution. Price is less important when you solve a problem. Our research suggests that top-achieving salespeople are some of the best problem solvers. However, the customer’s problems are not always visible. Understanding the customer’s business, their industry, and your solution will make solvable problems more visible. To become a better problem solver, fully immerse yourself in the customer’s business and become the expert in your industry.

Telling customers that your service is what makes you different is overdone. Too many distributors make that claim. To differentiate with service, you have to clearly define those service differentiators. Then explain why these differences are meaningful to the customer. The next step is to brand these differences so they are unique to your organization. A meaningful difference is more important than a cheap price.


Paul Reilly is president of Reilly Sales Training, a St. Louis-based, privately owned company that specializes in training sales professionals, sales managers, and service professionals. Reilly Sales Training offers public seminars, in-house sales training programs, and hiring and training assessments.

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