On the heels of a public health crisis, economic upheaval and political unrest and amid ongoing market developments and competitive pressure, many IMARK member employees in the early stages of their career may wonder what the future holds for the industry and what role they’ll play.
In the following roundtable, leaders in the electrical distribution industry offer their top career advice and strategies that they believe will help young professionals (and their firms) stay ahead of the curve.
IMARK Electrical Now: What can people in the sales, marketing and customer service/satisfaction functions do to prepare for an impactful role with a market-leading electrical distributor in the years to come, and why?
Steve Blazer, Blazer Electric Supply (Colorado Springs, Colorado): When it comes to trying to market products to our customers, I see a lot of time and resources that aren’t well spent, often because there hasn’t been enough effort invested in finding out what the customer really wants. Flashy ads that might appeal to the retail consumer but that don’t provide a specific customer benefit usually aren’t effective. My advice is to engage in segment marketing to specific customer groups and understand their needs before launching any kind of new programs or media. Online ordering activity is picking up with most distributors, including our company, so we’re getting more aggressive about partnering with our vendors to use banner ads, price promotions, giveaways and other tools that we’re also advertising on our landing page as well as during the customer ordering process. I expect that this practice will continue to grow in the future, providing a benefit to us and the vendors we partner with. Time is money for all of our customers and products and services that improve efficiency and reduce labor are always ripe for marketing opportunities. In addition, communication with the sales team is critical—they usually have the best insights as to what marketing techniques will work for their customer base and should be consulted before launching a program. If they buy into the process, they’re more apt to push the programs or products.
George Vorwick, United Electric Supply (New Castle, Delaware): Anyone contemplating a career in sales would be well served to begin with the basics—learn how your products are used, learn about electricity and the relevant NEMA and IEC standards, and also learn distribution finance and how much revenue you personally need to produce to be considered profitable. Becoming proficient at resolving disputes and negotiating on behalf of both your customers and suppliers is also beneficial. After mastering the basics, work to appreciate your credit team and policies and understand your customers’ business philosophy (e.g., their annual purchase volume, whether they’re growing or declining, how they pay, how they work through problems, etc.)—in other words, determine whether the company is worth your investment in time and able to help you meet your long-term profitability goals. Once you’ve chosen the right customers, learn their business. Our customers’ businesses are becoming more complicated and they need professional salespeople, so it’s imperative that we become skillful at helping them succeed. The book The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson is an excellent overview of the science of selling and offers a step-by-step guide to developing and presenting unique insights into your customer’s business; you’ll learn how to challenge your customers to think in new ways and unlock potential they haven’t considered. Finally, when you commit to something, do it—over-communicate, know when to say no and appreciate your value. Those interested in a career in marketing should focus on the growing number of digital tools and learn how to leverage analytics and quantify the return on investments under your control. Many companies are willing to invest in marketing their unique value, but too many dollars are invested without an expectation or ability to know if they achieved the desired results. Learn how to craft a message that will inspire action, become comfortable creating video content and learn how to professionally communicate on and leverage social media platforms (including those like Alibaba), as more customers will expect to find companies on digital marketplaces in the very near future.
“Very few companies handle change well but given that there’s so much internal and external change in our businesses, I can see a new role developing around the function of ‘change management.”
Sheila Hernandez, Summit Electric Supply (Albuquerque, New Mexico): I have three recommendations for young professionals coming up in our industry. First, offer solutions, not products; new competitors are marketing and selling in a variety of nontraditional ways, so if you can’t help your firm add tangible value outside of pure products and straight typing, you/they won’t be able to remain relevant in the marketplace. Second, understand what the data/numbers are telling you and any trends they reveal. Don’t wait for your company or your manager to hand it to you; you need to learn to mine/spot trends on your own and then do something with what you see, as it only matters if it’s actionable. Finally, though it may sound pretty basic and old school, communication skills are critical to career success, and so few people truly communicate well. Technology has added more communication tools, which requires changes to our core social and communication skills with customers, vendors, co-workers and managers. It’s about strengthening those skills so that you really hear and understand those critical players.
Wes Smith, Mayer (Birmingham, Alabama): Study technology and embrace it. To be effective, you have to know more than just where to get something for a customer—you must know what the customer is trying to accomplish. Selling technology requires knowing something about technology and if you don’t learn something new every day, you’ll be less relevant tomorrow. Also, we’re in the problem-solving business and that requires knowing how to think through a problem. While most people learn tasks and facts, those can change, so the more important process is learning how to think. Finally, accept that people have different personality types and ways of processing information; understanding that gives you an advantage because people will listen when you talk to them in the way that they hear.
Steve Helle, Granite City Electric Supply (Quincy, Massachusetts): Get involved in industry associations early in your career. In 1989, I was lucky to get involved with the Editor of TED Magazine as he was assembling an NAED committee to create an industry workshop called Adventure, which brought distributor marketing professionals together for several days of exposure to industry experts, best practices, etc. I’m grateful that my then-boss asked me to reach out to NAED and get involved. Similarly, I recommend actively participating in an IMARK committee to address some initiative or tackle an industry problem and then aspiring to get on the Board of Directors of IMARK or another industry association. After spending seven years on the IMARK Marketing Committee, for example, I became chairman of the group, eventually became a board member, and ultimately became chairman of the board—a very proud moment for me and more opportunity to learn from industry leaders. For me, this had all started 15 years earlier simply by asking to participate on a committee and then actively engaging. Finally, I’d recommend studying Amazon and what it’s accomplished. Instead of spending time critiquing what they can’t do, understand what they’ve built and use that knowledge to compete with them.
IMARK Electrical Now: What can people in the logistics function do to prepare for an impactful role with a market-leading electrical distributor in the years to come, and why?
Hernandez: Logistics is all about speed and accuracy, identifying where and why service failures are happening and then proposing potential solutions that produce big wins, both for the company and for the individual. This is a solid way to contribute to your company’s success and is predicated on strong data analytical skills.
Vorwick: Distribution logistics have already begun to transform in distinct ways. The importance of warehouse automation continues to grow in speed and complexity, so being comfortable with change and adopting new technologies focused on increasing space utilization, accuracy and efficiency is prudent. “Advanced Logistics” (e.g., utilizing our capabilities in new ways to help enhance our customers’ success) is another important trend. As an example, products that were once delivered direct from the manufacturer are now managed through the warehouse. If your company is doing this well and you can quantify the savings, you should be able to extract value and charge for these services. Any activity your company can provide that’s tied to earning a profit will attract investment.
Blazer: Any company involved in shipping products and improving logistics has a challenge in front of them trying to out-service Amazon. As we try to improve our efficiency, we can also promote our ability to save the contractor or end-user time and trouble as they receive our material. Again, it gets back to knowing your customer, their pain points and how we can make doing business with us their most efficient option. Product packing, kitting, pre-planned delivery times and the provision of courteous, helpful drivers are key ways to show customers that you’re serious about logistics.
Smith: Study technology! Advanced warehousing and logistics techniques and their boundaries are being expanded. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are transforming the way we plan routes and ensure efficiency and better outcomes. Don’t perceive your role as simply labor, because it isn’t. You’re closest to the job, so your firm’s leaders will need you to speak up and help them stay on top of customer and industry trends and issues. Your understanding of the things that are most important will make you worthy of moving up.
IMARK Electrical Now: While the list of jobs at most electrical distributors has been consistent for many years, please share an example of a new job (title or function) that’s beginning to emerge in our industry and that you feel will become increasingly commonplace or standard at industry-leading electrical distribution firms in the future.
Helle: I see a growing need for the overarching role of “director of supply chain management,” which is not purchasing (but of which purchasing is a part). Many years ago, a book called Facing the Forces of Change 2000 stressed how redundancy in the supply chain would be eliminated and predicted that only those people who worked on methods of continuous improvement to eliminate redundant functions, tasks and processes would survive. In retrospect, I wish I’d adopted bar coding, RFI and VMI many years before finally getting on board.
Hernandez: Very few companies handle change well but given that there’s so much internal and external change in our businesses, I can see a new role developing around the function of “change management.” There are also all sorts of opportunities around data, including such roles as data scientist, data analyst and business intelligence and similar jobs around the IoT, data warehouse and more. Between COVID and ongoing questions about the distributor sales model, virtually every sales organization is re-evaluating their go-to market strategies and accelerating conversations around what tomorrow’s sales force will look like, how customers want to interact with us, how to add value that our customers are willing to pay for and how to counter nontraditional competitors. I think that we’ll see companies testing out new models and structures, which will result in a host of new titles and roles. It’s very exciting to see what all of this will produce and the impact it will have on our industry.
Smith: I see an increasing need for the role of “solution architect,” a person tasked with understanding a customer’s challenges, problems and opportunities and connecting them to the right products or services to solve a unique problem and create value. I also see the need for a “technology support specialist”—a role that provides level-one support to customers around the technology we sell from different manufacturers.
Blazer: As a relatively small distributor with two locations and 100 employees, we probably don’t have as many specialized positions as our larger competitors. We’ve found that when we do add a person to focus on a service or activity (such as our recent additions of a web sales manager, data comm manager and prefab manager), our business grows or becomes more efficient. Moving forward, we want to take some product lines like lighting control, solar, switchgear, and tools and add people to focus on growing those businesses. Many distributors have added data analytics specialists and SPA rebate managers to ensure that they’re optimizing selling and rebate opportunities, but you need the volume to justify those positions.
Vorwick: Many distributors are learning how to use the information in their ERP systems to unlock growth and profit opportunities, which requires data analysts. Additionally, significant value is created by employees who are capable of configuring complex dimming systems, industrial and building automation controls and power monitoring equipment. These higher-paying career opportunities will increase dramatically as our customers become more comfortable paying for services.
IMARK Electrical Now: Finally, in what way(s) do you think leading electrical distribution firms will change (or need to change) the most in order to most effectively respond to current/future market dynamics, and why?
Smith: The traditional career path of sales, finance and marketing will transform and increasingly require a technology background. If you don’t understand technology, you can’t effectively lead a technology company providing highly technical solutions to customers. Yes, you can sell commodities, and they’re as important as anything, but do you really want to be a niche knowledge leader? Leaders will need to be systems thinkers and
I don’t mean ERP or e-commerce systems—I mean the holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way a system’s constituent parts interrelate and work over time and within the context of larger systems.
Blazer: I believe that successful distributors are the ones that anticipate the needs of their customers, whether they’re industrial, contractors, or other. It takes strong relationships to know what’s changing in your customers’ world and be able to adapt to their evolving needs, so flexibility, vision, and an openness to change are critical. This has always been a customer-driven industry and those with the best service almost always win. Around here, we say that we’ve never lost a customer because we serviced them too well!
Helle: As an industry, we’re horrific about the way we allow customers to place orders with us. This is the single biggest threat to traditional electrical distributors across the United States today. Our company isn’t a leader here and there are very few who are—yet.
Hernandez: Many distributors will need to change their business model in order to remain relevant to their customers and vendor partners, so I think that stepping out of our comfort zone and truly analyzing our businesses (relative to customer expectations) will be key. The status quo is no longer an option and customers are expecting and demanding something different. Change is on us and our ability to respond will determine our future. While that sounds dramatic, I think that this reality also makes it a very exciting time for new people entering our industry.
Vorwick: Artificial intelligence and machine learning will change everything—these emerging technologies are already impacting our businesses. It’s critical that we keep an eye on leading indicator industries and how they’re utilizing AI to transform their business; we’ll need to learn how to leverage these advancements to help us remain the primary channel of choice for our customers and suppliers. My best advice? Work hard and pay attention to what drives our customers’ success today while challenging the status quo and investing for tomorrow. These are exciting times, and the future is electric.