Last month, I attended the Executive Summit for the National Association of Wholesalers (NAW) in Washington, DC. I can’t tell you how good it felt to be back in person, seeing old friends and colleagues, and hearing about the latest trends within the wholesaling industry.
Back in 2020, the NAW Summit was the last conference that I attended before everything shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the Summit went ahead in 2021 virtually, being able to get back to an in-person conference setting was a breath of fresh air after a couple years that have been undeniably difficult on everyone. The whole event had an air of joy and optimism, a sense of finally being able to connect with other industry professionals, meet new people, and share ideas.
Amid that atmosphere of positivity and connection was a sense that big changes are taking place in the wholesaling world. I’d like to share some of my takeaways from the NAW Executive Summit with you today. Here’s what the biggest names in wholesale distribution are talking about.
It won’t surprise you to hear that a hot-button issue at the Summit was sales transformation. A lot of the wholesaling world still operates using traditional sales practices that are reliant on face-to-face contact: in-person meetings, branch drop-ins, and so on. The traditional sales model assumes that these person-to-person interactions are where the majority of business decisions get done.
Of course, the pandemic has changed that significantly – but the sales transformation was already beginning to take place long before 2020. Sales are becoming increasingly automated and digitized, and buyers are acting more autonomously than before.
It’s becoming more and more important to…
- Anticipate buyers’ needs
- Have information readily available through multiple resources
- Offer a variety of modes of doing business
Some businesses, especially smaller/local distributors, still stick to the traditional, single-channel sales model. Wholesaling inherently includes a physical element, so that’s hardly surprising. At the same time, though, a lot of wholesaler customers are no longer operating out of office buildings, making video conferencing an increasingly important tool in the salesperson’s kit. Customers expect streamlined, omnichannel processes that make doing business fast and easy and give customers plenty of opportunities for doing independent research.
The old-school sales behaviors that lie in the DNA of the salesperson are still important. As my experience at the NAW Summit shows, face-to-face contact is actually valued now more than ever. But they have new responsibilities today as well:
- Finding new ways to add value
- Getting familiar with new technologies
- Incorporating data analytics into their strategy
- Creating opportunities for growing partnerships with customers rather than simply taking the customer’s order.
Another, related transformation: digital. How best to adapt to and make use of the digital world is another topic that was at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the NAW Summit. Even if, in their current state, many wholesaling businesses remain largely brick-and-mortar, it’s not hard to see that the future state of the industry is digital.
Developing eCommerce capabilities is an essential part of that adaptation process: as I’ve said, wholesaling customers expect it. They want to find pricing and product information online, they want to be able to message or video-conference you rather than wait for in-person interactions, and they want to make purchases at whatever time is convenient for them.
But that’s only half of it – just as important in the digital sphere is finding ways to collect and make use of AI and data insights. This can be a huge challenge, especially for smaller businesses: how should a wholesaler collect the best data? How do they make sure it’s clean and useful? And how can they structure it in such a way that they can use it to make better business decisions and recommendations to customers? At NAW, I had the pleasure of hearing from representatives of data analytics companies like SPARXiQ and Proton.ai, which help businesses better understand their customers through digital insights.
Even acknowledging those stubbornly non-digital businesses, data is a vitally important resource across every industry within wholesaling, especially (though certainly not limited to) the sales force. Salespeople can use data insights to figure out which customers to reach out to and when, what new products or services might be of interest to them, and how to maximize their business’s profit.
Conclusion: Understanding Change Management
Many of the attendees at the NAW Executive Summit have only begun to take steps towards these transformations. The resources for omnichannel sales transformation and digital insights are out there in the marketplace, and plenty of companies have fully taken on that transformation – but others are just hearing about these strategies for the first time. That’s why conferences like NAW are so important, helping business leaders to share ideas and discuss strategy.
Overall, the most important theme of the Executive Summit was what I like to call “change management:” finding ways to adapt to and benefit from transformational forces. You know your current state and you have a sense of your future state – how do you get from one to the other?
Change management begins at the executive level first, another reason events like the NAW Summit are so important. In order to go smoothly and yield positive results, these transformations need to happen from the top down, with executives initiating changes and ensuring that every level of their company understands how to implement them.
Big changes are coming—for some leaders, they came yesterday, for others they’re coming tomorrow. But they’re happening. The best thing wholesalers and their business partners can do is share strategies with each other and find ways to manage the change effectively.
Photo by Geron Dison