Modern industrial distributors, especially those working with valves and related equipment, generally have a great reputation for being good at providing services and technical information. Most end users also know they can find a knowledgeable partner in their distributors, which makes it easier to sort through specifications and deal with potential problems before a valve, actuator or control system is even ordered.
While service is generally top-notch, speed and agility on the business side are not necessarily part of distributors’ strengths. Thus, Industrial Distribution conducts surveys each year to determine what is happening in terms of technology use and how they can help distributors take advantage of the options available to them.
In the 2018 survey recently completed, Industrial Distribution found that most distributors have good customer relationship management and an online presence, but they often do not use sales force automation or demand forecasting software, two technologies geared towards productivity increases. When they dug deeper to find out why, the surveyors found that, in many cases, distributors have failed to take advantage of the technology, in part because they do not understand what it can do.
As a result, Industrial Distribution recently held a webinar to share some of these technologies and strategies.
According to Wikipedia, enterprise resource planning (ERP) is the integrated management of core business processes, often in real-time and mediated by software and technology. ERP management information systems integrate areas such as planning, purchasing, inventory, sales, marketing, finance and human resources.
In the webinar, Tony Corley, senior product marketing manager at Epicor, noted that industrial distributors vary greatly in how much they use ERP. Advanced companies are using it to take online orders, do e-commerce, use mobility tools for their staff, automate processes on the floor and in the office, and even market to customers. However, many companies, large and small, are still not taking advantage of these tools, nor are they efficiently using the data that is available in their current automated systems.
The Role of Data
Steven Coolidge, product manager for business intelligence at Epicor, noted that most distributors are already gathering a lot of data already such as sales and finance figures, purchasing, inventory and shipping data. However, they are often not using it to its full effect. One of the problems is in trying to figure out how to get the data out of the software that is creating it, and into something that is usable. And once you have that usable data, how do you create actionable items based on that data and then monitor its effectiveness?
Currently, most distributors are just using reporting. Some are using querying, and/or dumping data into spreadsheets, which then goes on to everyone using the system. But how do you get value out of those figures? If it’s in an Excel document or other kind of spreadsheet, there can be many versions of the same report because data doesn’t automatically update.
This is where analytic tools come into effect. According to Coolidge, these are needed to improve efficiencies and reduce waste. It’s important to be able to ask questions and have the data respond back. Then, based on that response, another question can be formulated, and it’s possible to continue to drill down to get the data that can be used to solve a problem.
One example could be from a sales situation. Why is a customer’s numbers down? You can see the figures are down, but you may not see it is all in one product area. By figuring out what product is losing sales, then you can figure out why. Does it have to do with competition, or is it a seasonal or cyclical thing? “With the right ERP system, it’s possible to drill down and slice and dice to the level they need to understand WHY something is happening in the enterprise,” said Coolidge.
Making the Transformation
According to Coolidge, making a digital transformation is a gradual process, not to be undertaken thinking you can go from virtually no automation to fully automated.
“Assess where you are now. What do you do well? What do you do that’s just okay? What needs lots of improvement? Distributors know what they do and don’t do well,” said Coolidge. “Figure out where there are bottlenecks or problems, why, and then you can decide what processes need change.”
One example would be in the way items are filed. Would a different electronic filing system make ordering simpler? And would that then make picking and filling that order more streamlined? That one process could impact many others, he continued, so “make sure you don’t eliminate or change something that can mess up other processes.”
If you make small changes, and the people in the company can see the benefits to those changes, you will have more success. They will see the little wins as you take small steps moving forward to the big picture.
Back Office Tasks
One of the easiest things to automate is the order taking process. Corley pointed out that, while distributors often take orders via e-mail, by making those orders into a consistent format, automation software can then pull that e-mail order directly into the order system so it doesn’t have to be re-keyed.
That means there can be immediate order acknowledgement and shipping info can be sent as soon as the product goes out.
“Let customers do as much work for themselves as they want to,” advised Corley. “If you have an eCommerce site, let your customers use that. How much can you automate from those orders? Cut down the numbers of times a customer has to call you.”
But when you do have contact with the customer, make sure you can find their records, even when you don’t have their account number. “There’s nothing more annoying for a customer as calling in and being asked for their account number,” said Corley. “You should be able to find your customer with just a name or phone number.”
Coolidge pointed out that another area that is relatively easy to automate is accounts payable. “So many are actually using paper and comparing orders with receipts that are pulled out of a file. This can be completely automated.”
Sales tax returns can also be automated, including ensuring that you have the right rates for each jurisdiction into which you sell.
As for reporting, if your system is automated, you are able to get the proper data in front of the right person to make efficient and quicker business decisions. “Being able to be interactive with the system is the good way of automating and customizing,” said Coolidge.
According to Corley, another important way automation can help distributors is with education and training tools. “If you have a good training program and map your processes, you can then implement change downstream of that very easily.
Also, employees want to be able to work when and wherever they want, so automation makes that easier. Additionally, salesforce automation makes it possible for salespeople to analyze sales, immediately get copies of invoices for customers, access data on what quotes they have out, what is on order, the status of orders and if there are problems or backlogs. This means better service and likely better sales.
Another way to increase sales is with companion products. Coolidge pointed out that being able to get to that data and see what customers are buying as companion products can increase sales on related products.
Distributors are doing a lot more service these days. They track warranties, provide maintenance plans, and they are aware if there are problems with equipment. An integrated CRM allows access to customer serial numbers and service orders.
Industrial distributors, including those selling valves and process control systems, are becoming more service-oriented. To manage the service side of the business, good software and ERPs can make the difference between struggling to make all the pieces of the puzzle fit, and operating with agility, speed and profitability.