Jen attended the 2019 HARDI meeting in New Orleans; it was a great meeting. Schmitt ProfiTools Inc., our webstore and product content company, just celebrated its 30th year as a HARDI conference booth participant. We had attended meetings sporadically for several years before we were convinced to join. We can assure you we are there every year because the conference is about doing business, exchanging ideas and networking. Plus, you can meet a lot of really nice folks in the organization.
The topic of the meeting was “pulse” and highlighted the need to keep your finger on the pulse of the industry. A great theme and we have some thoughts for your consideration. Kudos to the HARDI staff for another great event!
There’s an old joke: It’s a dark night and a guy is crawling around on his hands and knees under a street light, obviously searching for something. A second guy walks up and asks the first guy what he is doing. He says, “Looking for my car keys.” Guy No. 2 asks, “How did you lose them?” The first guy says, “I was walking through that dark field over there and I dropped them.” Guy No. 2 is confused. “If you dropped them over in the field, why are you looking here under the street light?” Guy No. 1 says, “The light’s better under the street light.”
It’s more fun to look for customers at the country club than in a muddy ditch, a jobsite or in the customer’s small shop but, in our humble opinion, while the light is better and the environment is more pleasant, the odds of productive customer interactions are far worse. It’s certainly easier to offer shotgun-style, broad-brush sales and marketing initiatives that graze a bunch of customers than to dig in and try to understand where they are coming from and how to best serve them.
The industry and its customers are changing and evolving at an alarming rate, whether we like it or are ready for it. Some wholesalers will spend their time looking for their customers where the light is better, even when those customers are someplace far away.
We think the go-forward, successful wholesalers will be focusing on a couple of critical tasks: seeking out customers and working to better understand their needs and pain; and working to build operational best practices so the normal day-to-day activities of wholesaling (filling orders, delivering product, invoicing, collecting and replenishing) are conducted without stress or drama.
Being busy in a successful operation is quite different from being busy due to days of screw-ups and fire drills. There still seem to be some wholesalers who are surprised and feel the need to celebrate when they can ship a standard stock order — complete, without errors and delivered as promised.
Tune In, Not Out
• R-E-S-P-E-C-T. “Find out what it means to me …” This lyric is from an old Aretha Franklin song. Her point was that respect is in the eyes of the receiver. It’s your customers’ ongoing refrain. Respecting customers is not what you conveniently want it to be; it is what they think it is. Respect is very individualized. While there are some universal basics we believe ought to be the norm, each customer feels respected and disrespected on a very personal level.
So how do you figure out what people need to feel respected? Listen to them, measure what they do, analyze the data and then create initiatives and actions that are responsive to the gathered information.
• Listen carefully. The best sales and marketing people we know have mastered the art of listening without, consciously or unconsciously, inserting their personal biases. It is extremely difficult since most humans have a personal agenda that influences how they receive information.
• Record the information. The listener must record the information he gathers so that he, and others, can reference it later. Exact quotes are the best. Audio or video recording is even more reliable, although they take enormous amounts of time to review.
Without accurate notes, you must rely on a person’s memory, and that is often the proverbial hot mess. Some studies have shown that human memory is a tricky thing. How we remember “facts” and “events” is influenced by the events in our lives that have occurred since the memory was created. Something we hold in our memory as an absolute fact can evolve and change over time. (At least that’s how we remember the results of the study.)
• In their place of business. If all your interactions are in carefully managed events at your store or a local restaurant, you are probably not getting to a nitty-gritty understanding of the customer and his needs. Seeing a contracting firm’s shop and trucks always provide additional insight into who the company is, what it does, how the business is run, who the players are and how you can best serve them.
• In their trucks. To quote Yogi Berra, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Riding in a customer’s service truck is, at the very least, a reminder of the challenges facing your customers and may offer revelations into the opportunities for you to serve them.
• With your sales team. The practice where sales managers and executives ride along with the outside sales team on customer visits seems to have fallen into disfavor. We suspect the tradition has faded away because the external sales team resents and dislikes ride-alongs. Many feel that observations and coaching will somehow impact their perfect performance. Also, sales management has too many other reporting and executive duties to manage their sales team.
What could they possibly learn from watching their sales team interact with customers? How could a sales manager developing a personal relationship with key customers help bond the customer to the company as opposed to the salesperson? How could a second point of view about the customer help to prevent myopic salespeople from leveraging the full opportunity with a customer?
• The arrogance of success. Many successful manufacturers and wholesalers think they know what’s best for their customers. Some even believe their customers are stupid or second-class business people. They think they can tell their customers what they should want and what should make those customers happy. This worked to some extent for many decades but, as we all know, the Internet has created a more democratic environment where customers and consumers can hear other ideas and points of view.
• The future is mass customization. That’s building operational systems and processes you can offer to many customers but are adapted to meet each customer’s needs and habits. We certainly won’t pretend to know what your customers want and need, but you and your team certainly should.
• The dogs won’t eat it. There is an old business case/urban legend describing how a pet food company developed a new dog food brand. It built an expensive advertising campaign, spared no expense on the packaging, and had experts formulate the product so it was safe and healthy. It added the perfect amount of artificial coloring so pet owners would feel reassured by providing a meat-like product to their pooches.
The manufacturer conducted focus groups and feedback sessions with pet owners who couldn’t wait to start feeding it to their dogs. It was well on its way toward a multi-million-dollar launch of this new product when someone pointed out that they had never actually fed the product to any dogs. As it turned out, the dogs wouldn’t eat it. Fun story.
Our recommendation would be to use one of the techniques used in agile software development: Get things in front of real customers as quickly as possible, get as much feedback as you can, then adjust based upon that feedback. One hour after you show something to a customer, you are infinitely smarter than you were before.
This works for new products, new markets, new services, new anything. Any new initiatives should be piloted to a small group of target customers before a broad rollout unless you like risking a broad rollout disaster.
• Analytics. Most people associate this term with their website or their online store, but it can refer to other activities you can measure and analyze for nuggets. Most wholesalers try to offer new products or services but never measure the impact of the initiative. Most websites and stores offer a wealth of information that is ignored by the wholesaler. We suspect that marketing management is too busy with golf outings and market reports to dig into what the customers are doing on the company’s webstore.
• Machine learning. This is the new name for part of what people used to call artificial intelligence. The essence of machine learning is that programs will now look at available data and notice trends and patterns that may not be apparent to humans. Since machines can slice and dice data quickly in many ways, the patterns may be about products, manufacturers, customers, geographies, etc.
These machine insights must then be interpreted, possibly dug into and acted upon by the wholesaler’s team, but the machine learning helps to identify where to focus.
One last nugget from the HARDI meeting (if you want more, attend next year!): You can observe a lot by changing perspective. Borrowing from HARDI’s closing keynote, Vinh Giang demonstrated a magic trick where a volunteer had to determine which of his two hands held a tissue. Vinh would wave his hand in front of her face as he counted; on the third count, he released it directly over her head.
While the audience from afar could see plainly what had occurred, the volunteer was clueless as her full focus had been on his hands and the problem directly in front of her. He noted that sometimes problems can be impossible to solve when we’re focused too deeply on the objective. In many if not all cases, we need to zoom out and take a look at the bigger picture to make the impossible possible.