The Distributor’s Guide to Customer Experience

This article first appeared in NBMDA’s publication, Channel Connection, on October 13, 2020.

The age of customer experience has officially arrived. The concept has been swirling for years, but the disruptions to everyday life in 2020 have forced all product categories to rethink how they serve the customer.

Distributors might not immediately see how this trend impacts them. Brands do most of the consumer marketing, while the people who buy from distributors (dealers, contractors, fabricators) are the ones who talk to the end-user. By understanding the shifts in consumer habits, distributors can find innovative ways to contribute to the modern customer experience.

What is Customer Experience?

There are many misconceptions about the definition of customer experience. To make it simple, customer experience is all the different touchpoints and interactions that happen from the time a consumer decides to start considering a purchase all the way through the service they receive after a purchase is made. You might also hear people talk about the “customer journey”, which can work as well.

The key word here is “all” the touchpoints. A focus on improving customer experience means finding ways to make the end-user’s life easier, save them time, make them happier or generally put a smile on their face. Customer experience is both science and art, not just of reducing pain in the buying process, but finding ways to make it more enjoyable.

Components of the Customer Experience

Here are some key categories to consider when thinking of customer experience and some ways distributors can impact them:

Digital Interactions – I lead off with digital because there is often a perception that customer experience means improving the customer’s online journey. Digital experience is only one part of the process. We expect customers to spend time online researching a large purchase, so that experience should be as simple as possible. Can they find the websites they need? Can they navigate the website to find the information that is helpful to them? Does the website provide tools or resources that help them compare different options? While the end user will likely visit the brand/supplier website for information, distributors can add value in the digital world as well. The better your web experience is for your dealers and clients, the easier it is for them to serve the customer. Making things easy to find or providing materials that can be shared directly with end users can help make the process go more smoothly.

Physical Merchandising – Displays. Samples. These are key parts of the customer journey. Most customers want to see and touch items before making a big purchase decision. Just like a website, physical merchandising can help the customer evaluate options and narrow in on the right product for them. These are areas where distributors can start to pay more attention. In my experience, displays are often designed for the people doing the selling, rather than the people doing the buying. If a dealer has a showroom, the displays are often created to make efficient use of space on a crowded floor. They are a means to an end, but not typically something that makes the buying experience more fun. That needs to change. Samples are another example. Samples are too often designed for how well they will fit into a contractor’s truck versus to tell a story to customers. Distributors should look at this as an opportunity to innovate around customer experience. Think about the buyer, not the dealer. What will deliver a “wow”? What can save them time or make them more excited about their purchase? Challenge yourself to think differently and keep the focus on the customer.

Human Interactions – Unless an industry is fully online and consumers buy through e-commerce (most are not), then human touchpoints play a big factor in the customer experience. In fact, the person serving the end user (dealer, contractor, etc.) can have a larger impact on the end consumer’s buying journey than any other factor. It is a person who gives them good advice on the right product for them. It is a person that reassures them they are making a good decision. It is a person who says, “Call me anytime if you have any issues.” These interactions build confidence throughout the buying process for higher-ticket products or services. This is an area where the entire value chain needs to work together to improve the experience. How good are your clients at delivering a modern human experience? Do they have defined processes and conduct training for their people? Are they finding innovative ways to serve clients during the pandemic (video appointments, contactless service, etc.)? The reality is that most distributors serve independent businesses that don’t have a customer experience department to handle all these changes. Distributors should consider investing in their business partners by helping them develop new ideas, as well as the tools and training, to better serve end users.

Customer experience is not about products. Products are commodities and consumers can get them anywhere. The consumer will look for the best experience from the start, and those who can provide it will be the ones who earn the customer’s loyalty and their referrals. Distributors need to take an active role in ensuring their clients and dealers are the ones who can deliver that experience. The healthier their business, the better the distributor’s bottom line.

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