Bright, fresh ideas are a big reason why Amazon has become one of the world’s most successful companies. While so many others choose to sit comfortably, opting to do business the way they always have, Amazon quickly grows restless — always seeking some grand new plan to revolutionize e-commerce. 

Despite innovation being one of Amazon’s greatest strengths, jan/san distributors can also leverage new ideas and practices to help them stick up against the growing threat. In fact, creativity and innovation might be the jan/san distributor's best defense, says Mark Dancer, founder of Network For Channel Innovation, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Distributors should not try to defeat Amazon,” says Dancer, who is also a fellow with the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence in Washington, D.C. “Rather, they should offer a new and innovative value proposition that resonates with their strengths. For example, distributors are ‘here to help’ customers; that is, they’re willing to work side-by-side with customers to improve their operations and procurement results.”

Distributors must strive to offer something genuinely new, not just a repackaging of what they’ve done in the past — innovation that requires a change of mindset at the leadership level, says Dancer. It’s going beyond “continuous improvement” (which is just about getting better at what is already being done) and coming up with something entirely different that adds value to the customer experience. In this effort, what Dancer calls “conscious curiosity” is vital. Focusing on data (the distributor’s ERP and customer data, as well as the customer’s own data) is another way to go the extra mile and provide data-driven solutions for their customers.

“Distributors can win by helping their customers win,” says Dancer. “Customers are striving to redefine their businesses in the digital age. Distributors must find ways to help them do so, and as they do, they will become a highly valued partner for now and the future.”

Distributors can initiate the change by coming up with new customer experiences or by serving new customers, says Dancer. After that, distributors can align those changes with supplier partnerships, business processes, and education and skills to create the experiences.

“This can be a team effort, followed by brainstorming, looking for ideas and thinking wide before narrow,” says Dancer.

While creativity is important, jan/san distributors can also put themselves in a better position by leveraging the contributions they receive from their salesforce, the online shopping experience they offer and the supply chain. To do this, distributors must ensure they carry the right inventory, have high fill rates, offer quick shipping and have implemented other operational efficiencies, says Peduto. Their online shopping/ordering must be transparent, easy to navigate and must not require pre-registration. The salesforce component is perhaps the most essential of the three resources.

“The distributor’s most sustainable competitive advantage is their salesforce,” says Peduto. “The salesperson should be their defining value.” 

The best companies are those that benchmark their sales leadership, salespeople and their infrastructure to pinpoint exactly where and what they need to improve, says Peduto.

An effective salesforce, he says, is especially important in a disrupted market.

“It requires managing and coaching the salesforce in a far more effective manner than is traditionally the case,” says Peduto. “It also requires data-driven decision making and senior leadership commitment.”

Ensign considers a company’s employees its “greatest asset” when it comes to standing out from Amazon. Their “second strength” is the training and education they provide to their associates as well as to their customers.

“Often, prospects and customers alike will state that anyone can teach people how to clean,” says Ensign. “We know better from doing what we do for 112 years and five generations. Having local support and expertise when called upon can greatly enhance the distributor’s advantage over Amazon.”

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