By Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria and Sonja Coleman
The future has arrived, and with it, new expectations about digital business. Distributors and manufacturers alike are faced with challenges to keep up with the demands of the end users.
Accurate product data is the backbone of a successful digital commerce initiative. It empowers distributors to provide their customers a consistent purchasing experience no matter how they buy: online through a webstore, electronically with EDI, through a punchout list, over the phone or at the counter. Not all customers want to purchase products the same way, but they all want readily available, accurate data. When data is consistent across all levels of the supply chain, it’s easy for a company to present a uniform experience, whether the purchase is made in a brick-and-mortar location or online.
Digital commerce can be a particular challenge for electrical distributors. Even though they may know and understand the value and benefits, multiple obstacles may present themselves in the transition from manual to digital. For example, developing a webstore or EDI platform requires time, effort and a deep knowledge of customer purchasing habits. A successful e-commerce platform fuses technology with human behavior to deepen relationships with both new and repeat customers.
Accurate product data with rich marketing content touches nearly all parts of a business, from digital sales strategy to the online storefront, to EDI platforms. And as younger end users demand the most product information to make purchasing decisions, distributors are under more pressure to deliver timely and accurate data than ever before.
Despite the obstacles that stand in the way of digital commerce, distributors and manufacturers can overcome these challenges by understanding and accommodating the expanding demands of their trading partners and end users. But to do that, it’s essential to identify potential hang-ups and pain points to take full advantage of the benefits of data synchronization.
Obstacle 1: Start-up costs and fear of failure. Distributors fear that start-up costs may turn to losses as they transition from analog to digital processes. Traditionally digital commerce has been seen as selling products through a webstore, but much has changed. Now, e-commerce can include EDI or other methods of electronic business. Launching an e-commerce platform is expensive, often requiring a six-figure investment, with many questions along the way. How much staff will be required to manage the platform? How much data is enough to populate an e-commerce site? And then when all is said and done, what happens if there are technical glitches? There is a real fear of developing an e-commerce webstore, only to have it fail to meet expectations. And putting off development of an e-commerce platform may not be an option as more distributors integrate data synchronized platforms themselves.
Yet many distributors are looking beyond webstores for a more comprehensive approach to digital commerce. Would it be more financially beneficial to set up more customers on EDI and expand electronic orders in that way? Or does a distributor need to do both?
Solution: Examine your needs and come up with a game plan. If a distributor knows its strengths, sales metrics, and how its customers want to buy products, this provides a good base to build on. Not all customers are necessarily buying online, but the availability of the product information likely sways purchasing decisions. Some customers may want to browse products online, but buy through EDI or other more traditional methods. The key is to build an infrastructure that meets customers’ needs now, but will be flexible to adapt to purchasing trends as time progresses. The approach should be evolutionary, enabling distributors to adjust to a changing customer base over a period of years, not months. Companies like IDEA have been helping distributors of all sizes and needs to adapt and achieve for decades. IDEA walks distributors through the process of digital commerce and e-business, helping distributors avoid pitfalls by determining the right workflow adjusted to their specific needs. Instead of spending hours researching what the best course of action is, it may be best to receive guidance from a company that has already been there and done that.
Obstacle 2: How do I know customers will buy using digital commerce? It can be difficult to anticipate which pieces of product information customers want, and how they want to adopt new technology to save them the most time. Not only is technology changing rapidly, but so are people’s attitudes and expectations. Some customers may see it as double work, and some may be confused by the format of the e-commerce platform. Still others may not be convinced that it will improve their ordering process and may believe it’s the beginning of the end of a long-time sales relationship. Yet others demand that the industry adopt every new technology and tool and threaten to take their business elsewhere if distributors don’t keep up.
Solution: Consider an omni-channel approach with the customer in mind. Don’t get overwhelmed. Combining a digital and physical method of ordering may be what it takes to appeal to a varied customer base with different workflows and internal business systems. No matter where a distributor is in the process, an omni-channel approach may be what it takes to bridge the present to the future.
When considering the omni-channel option, an important goal is to ensure a consistent shopping experience no matter what method the customer is using. If the heart of your efforts remains focused on the customer’s needs and wants, it can be a powerful guiding force for change. Make it a mission to be as authentic when connecting with customers through digital means as you do over the phone and in person. This also means using search engine optimization (SEO), a digital marketing strategy, and a shopping experience that matches or exceeds a customer’s experience in the physical store. When efforts build customer relationships for the long-term, steps taken with digital commerce have more bang for the buck.
To be sure, developing a digital commerce strategy represents a significant change in a company’s infrastructure and direction, but there’s a lot of help and guidance on how to do it right. For the electrical distributor who wants to know where to begin, or needs help to envision the next steps, resources are available to help you ask the right questions and devise a strategy. Check out articles in industry publications like Electrical Wholesaling, connect with others at industry events, or reach out to IDEA at idea4industry.com.
Marjorie Romeyn-Sanabria is a communications specialist with IDEA. She can be reached at [email protected]
Sonia Coleman is one of the founders of NeuConcept Productions Inc., a provider of web development and marketing & public relations services. She can be reached at [email protected].
Sidebar 1: Five ways distributors can move forward with their digital commerce efforts
1. Talk to trading partners and discover what routine processes can be improved or automated.
2. Talk to internal staff and probe about how much time is spent on re-working process errors.
3. Become familiar with your customers’ software systems and see what product information they need.
4. Evaluate your order flow by type or inbound method of delivery.
5. Seek out a consultant like IDEA to learn how other successful distributors have reduced their operations cost and increased their profitability.
If you’re stumped and don’t know where to begin, or if you’ve already started and need guidance, IDEA can help. As the industry-owned technology provider, IDEA has 20 years of experience helping distributors and manufacturers succeed in digital commerce. You can reach IDEA at 703.562.4600 or by emailing us at [email protected].
Sidebar 2: Power Your Digital Commerce Strategy at the 2018 eBiz Forum
You can network and share with your peers at the industry’s e-business event, IDEA’s eBiz Forum, Sept. 24-26, Tysons Corner, VA. This is a good opportunity to network with other leaders in the electrical industry and learn about their growing pains and how they overcame with e-business.
“The networking opportunities at this event are second to none. I know of nowhere else where you can get a relatively clear vision of where the industry is heading on multiple fronts, not just solely from a technological aspect,” said Kyle Johnson, marketing manager of Viking Electric Supply.
This year’s eBiz event has a full schedule of education and speakers on hot topics, like taking data from “good to great” and roundtable discussions where manufacturers and distributors discuss latest industry trends. The event will also provide in-depth updates on the new IDEA Connector, the next generation data management platform that is being launched this year. To learn more about eBiz, and to register, visit www.idea4industry.com/ebizforum.