By Bridget McCrea

How electrical distributors can put their best foot forward online by simply providing extreme value and support to a customer base that still wants both.

In the increasingly crowded online world, everyone is looking for the magic bullet right now. That's because what started out as an "adjunct" to a company's traditional brick-and-mortar model—a way to scare up some extra cash by selling to tech-savvy customers that didn't want to come into the store or pick up the phone to place an order—has become a legitimate revenue generator. The problem, of course, is that as companies like Amazon have been perfecting their e-commerce formulas and stealing market share, many others have fallen behind the curve.

But here's the good news:  Customers still want what they've always wanted, even in the online space. They want valuable products and services as quickly as possible, for the best possible price, and with the best possible customer service experience. "Value and experience continue to trump price. Unless a company wants to be recognized as a low-cost provider, the value proposition of good customer service can make price less relevant," writes Shep Hyken in Forbes' Ten Customer Service And Customer Experience Trends For 2017.

"That's how smaller independent retailers can compete against big box stores," Hyken continues. He tells readers to think about how Ace Hardware stores compete against big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe's. "Ace Hardware stores are typically a fraction of the size, don't have as wide a selection, and may not have the lowest price, yet they not only survive, they thrive," he continues. "This concept is not limited to retail. It crosses into all types of businesses and industries."

Electrical distribution is one of those industries. "While Amazon is a force and a threat, with clear designs on growing in this space, some large distributors are holding ground by competing on customer experience," says Jason Hein, a partner with B2X Partners, who prior to becoming a consultant worked at Amazon, launching many of the current categories for Amazon Business.

High-Quality, Customer-Focused
Pointing to McMaster-Carr's, Gamut's, and Misumi's websites, Hein says all three of these companies use solid content standards and robust product data to create customer experiences that are not (yet) possible on Amazon. For large distributors looking to compete in the online space, Hein says the better path may be to not create a competing marketplace (which would also have to compete with the Amazon marketplace anyway, which is also intimidating).

"Instead, they can use a strategy based on a high-quality, customer-focused digital experience that provides knowledge about a product as effectively as it does a purchase point," Hein advises. "This is something that Amazon will struggle to match, given the mass of data sources it needs to wrangle."

Ultimately, competing on customer service instead of price can help leading distributor sites differentiate themselves and provide e-commerce experiences that "beat Amazon," says Hein. "This will help provide a foundation that can continue to be improved on as companies race to stay ahead of the innovation powerhouse."

Please Help Us Solve Our Problems
Justin King, co-founder of the DigitalBranch, and senior partner at B2X Partners, says his firm recently interviewed 1,500 different contractors, electricians, and plumbers. When asked why they buy from their preferred distributors, the most popular answers were:  "We can reach out to them when we have a problem and they help us solve it," and "They're the ones who can get us the product within the shortest amount of time."

"We rarely hear things like, 'It's because they are the cheapest,'" King points out. In fact, he says he heard repeated stories about contractors' 11th-hour problems that were handily solved by their favorite, independent distributor. "That's called customer service, and it's something that electrical distributors excel at," says King. "The question is, how can a company innovate on those services even when their product bases are becoming increasingly commoditized?"

"Technology has made it easier than ever to track customer preferences and history. Big data gives us trends and insights with uncanny accuracy," Hyken writes. "There is no reason to not create a more personalized experience that caters to a customer's individual needs."

Getting a Leg Up
According to King, distributors can get a leg up in the online world through employee empowerment (i.e., helping inside sales learn how to identify customer problems on the spot) and by developing a customer-centric culture that works to improve customers' lives, solve their most pressing issues, and even enhance their own revenues. For now, at least, Amazon Business is probably less focused on this aspect of the electrical supply industry.

"It's not about the technology or being the low-cost leader," says King. "It's about talking to your customers, figuring out what they want and need, and then creating a consistently excellent customer experience around that."

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McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.