The Two Areas of Business Distributors Must Focus on If They Want to Win

Written by Mike Marks, Dan Horan on Wednesday, 30 December 2020. Posted in Business Strategy

talent and tech

This article was originally written in September 2019 and was updated in December 2020 to take into account COVID-19 shifts.

As practices continue to shift, there are two trends distributors should be paying close attention to in today’s market. One is understanding the role of technology, and the other is attracting and retaining talent.

Attracting and Keeping Talent

It cannot be denied that recruiting qualified talent is no easy feat. There has always been tension between the way “things used to be” from the experience of more mature leaders and “how it is today” from the mindset of younger professionals. That has not changed.

Distributors must revisit their recruitment strategies to reflect these questions. Training and education opportunities must remain at the top of this list. It does not end there. Compensation packages alone are not enough to lure potential applicants; they want to work for a company that values work-life balance and prioritizes social responsibility. Like it or not, that is the truth.

COVID-19 pushed most administrative jobs out of the office and into people’s dining rooms and home offices. There was growing pressure from employees over the last several years around working from home, which many companies resisted. The genie’s now out of the bottle and the focus needs to be on how to ensure employees retain the connection that sharing a workspace with colleagues provided. Forcing this with happy hour calls or other cyber-events is something Boomers would think is a good idea, but younger staff might find artificial.

Another consideration in keeping the team engaged: Despite having more time available from not having to commute it seems we’re all busier.

We all have nine hour-long conference calls scheduled back-to-back every day and end up running behind with our shirts advertising what we had for lunch. This might feel productive but it’s not. Try extending the duration of calls so there is time for catching up with your teams. Try to buffer calls by 15 or 30 minutes so there is time to digest and reflect on any new information that was received instead of just rushing to the next call, for which of course you’re already late.

Working from home has always brought productivity and data security concerns, but there are many ways to monitor these. The mistake not to make is to apply a lowest common-denominator approach and let the potential of having one bad apple guide policies that are big brother like and apply universally.  

The “we can attract millennials by having cool breakrooms” phase is over. A previous client went as far as to put a golf simulator in to try and attract millennial talent. It was never used. In fact, it became a company joke that the only employees that used it were already on their way out (or high enough up that no one could fire them for not looking busy all the time). Focus instead on training and work flexibility.

In terms of retaining top sales talent, there are additional considerations. Instead of throwing them to the wolves as was common back in the day, build them a playbook. Consider each employee as part of the team and teach them the plays they need to win. Specialize your sales team. Give each player their own job, their own unique set of responsibilities based on their experience and their ability. This will free up your most expensive talent to do the most valuable work at the greatest return. There is no reason your top-performing salesperson should be doing inventory counts.

Using Technology and Data to Add Value

Along with securing top talent, it is no secret that technology and data are driving the future, but there are pitfalls to collecting data that you will never use. If you are a data geek, you can never have enough data.  But if you are a normal human being, eventually the data becomes overwhelming and you suffer from data fatigue. Even if you collect every piece of data under the sun, only share what your employees really need.  Some distributors are using adjustable dashboards where leaders see the full picture, but employees only see what was necessary to their function. They are changeable in real time and data can be removed and added as needed, even throughout a day, week or month. This removes the noise of historical or non-essential at the end of a day when everyone is in crunch mode trying to get orders loaded.

Rather than throwing money at the latest and greatest software, invest in effective technology that can collect data that will help predict customer needs, anticipate market fluctuation, and make better business decisions.

At the same time, invest in getting employees comfortable with data. Putting in a CRM system and starting to collect data does not go far if employees are not onboard. A recent client had a robust Power BI setup that no one was using. The company was trying to force and mandate usage and it was having no effect or a negative effect as employees actively avoided using it. On our recommendation, they were able to shift their approach and pull employees along by showing the value the system could have to them. Employees who embraced and checked their Power BI dashboard were the ones that saw it make them more money (or helped them catch  sales or an error they would have normally missed). The key was to not get too frustrated with the lack of adaptability and instead learn why and prove the value in the only way sales reps understand ($$$).

Companies must blend experience with the data. Even the best data models could not have predicted the rapid change that COVID-19 has brought about. The models that have survived the best are the ones that used both data and the expertise/experience of people that have been through uncertain times. Trust and verify. Finding someone that can call BS when the data has holes (or no historical precedent) will be invaluable in time of uncertainty and rapid change. Distributors must know that if they continue to play with the old set of rules, they will lose.

Learn how Indian River Consulting Group's strategic advisory, sales compensation and speaking services can help you respond to and leverage disruptive forces in the coming year.

About the Author

Mike Marks

Mike Marks

Mike Marks co-founded IRCG in April 1987. He began his consulting practice after working in distribution management for more than 20 years. Over the years, his narrow focus in B2B channel-driven markets has created an extensive number of deep executive relationships within virtually every business vertical in construction, industrial, OEM, agricultural, and healthcare.

Mike has led project teams that improve market access by aligning resources to growth opportunities serving manufacturers, dealers, and distributors. Clients have ranged from small privately owned firms to many of the industry’s market share leaders. Ownership structures have included owner-operators, private equity, ESOPs, and publically traded firms. Mike is proud of the teams work and the confidence clients have shown with additional project work.

He has written extensively, and is frequently quoted on many industry issues. He has substantial board experience on both public and private distribution firms. His contributions to the field include serving multiple terms as a Research Fellow with the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, permanent faculty at Purdue University’s University of Industrial Distribution, eight years as Graduate Adjunct Faculty in the Industrial Distribution Program at Texas A & M University, and rendering several precedent-setting expert opinions in contract disputes between manufacturers and distributors.

Prior to forming IRCG, Mike held the position of Executive Vice President at Lex Electronics, an $800 million vertically integrated electronics distributor in Stamford, CT. Mike’s path to management in his early career was through increasing responsibilities in sales and sales management. He also completed a tour of duty as a manufacturer’s representative.

Dan Horan

Dan Horan

Dan Horan is an associate consultant at IRCG. Joining in 2016, Dan brings his expertise in sales, marketing, branding and communications strategy to the IRCG team.

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