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Reimagining the role of distributors in a post-pandemic world

COVID-19 has reinforced the need for an agile and robust supply chain that will create value in an unpredictable future

truck distribution

Last year was an extremely challenging time for the channel community. At the beginning of the pandemic, distributors, resellers and MSPs were confronted with how best to deliver products and services to their customers in unusual and demanding circumstances. 

Those who responded proactively and swiftly to the challenge were able to ensure continuity of service, all with minimal disruption to the supply chain.

Looking at distributors, for example, the most successful were the ones who maintained a full workforce, supported and empowered their people during the shift to remote working, and embraced the opportunities created by the new virtual environment, such as online events and training programmes.

Although the pandemic has forced a radical shift in the way channel players do business, it’s also pushed the community to review and optimise existing processes. This has led to new standards in terms of the vendor and employee experience. The roles of channel account managers and sales directors, for instance, have adapted to serve the increasingly digital customer journey, introducing higher levels of automation and agility into the buying process.

Adapting customer experience for the ‘new normal’

As we acclimatise to what follows the pandemic, it’s important for us, as distributors, to reflect on a critically important element of our business. We must reinforce our role as a trusted advisor to vendors, help them acquire new business, all while partnering with them to achieve a strong up-take of the technology among their buyer community. Overall, we’ll support them to identify new green-field opportunities, and provide them with the means to increase market share through ambitious displacement programmes.

To be successful, distributors must help their vendors achieve their business outcomes and generate value. Following the disruption of the last 18 months, the priority should be to put processes and tools in place to simplify the relationship and interaction with the supply chain from order processing to tracking, notification, and so on. An effective and efficient supply chain is built on a healthy partner-vendor relationship, with investment in digitally integrated processes a key way to ensure that is maintained, measured and improved. 

Portal applications allow partners to place orders and track deliveries on a self-serve basis. Behind the portal is a system of record that ensures end-to-end traceability: in the face of disruption, it provides the means to swiftly make informed decisions, allowing for the identification of the best course of action to resolve the issue. Sales representatives will continue to play an important and decisive role during the buying process, but vendor and partner interaction with the system of record can streamline and simplify some of the steps of the customer journey. The inherent traceability of the system can support and expose monitoring and notification tools allowing partners to confidently and autonomously track and manage their orders. It enables the creation of an ‘early warning system’ capable of flagging impending disruptions. 

Building supply chain resiliency

As COVID-19 has shown, resiliency in the supply chain is more important than ever. Distributors have always had to be reliable and dependable partners, but to meet the challenges of today, they need to pivot to a more resilient supply chain by enhancing predictability and agility, while also driving efficiency. Resiliency in the face of disruptions in the distribution channel can benefit from smart warehouse management and planning for potential disruption. In both cases there is a strong need for observability: smart warehouse management relies on accurate representations of inventory stocks, which in turn can support powerful data analytics, both predictive as well as historical; monitoring across the distribution channel is crucial to detect anomalies and issues along the way, pinpoint where in the process the anomaly is detected so that the appropriate responses are triggered and communicated to support the business continuity of the channel. Digital enablement has a large part to play in building resiliency. 

For distributors and their partners in the post-pandemic world, transparency in the supply chain must become a priority. It represents much more than simply gaining more visibility into the overall supply chain. Instead, it’s the process by which distributors make use of the insights gained through that greater visibility, allowing them to identify and mitigate risks more effectively by accessing, learning from, and acting on end-to-end supply chain information. 

Being future-ready

Distributors can start by identifying, prioritising, and visualising likely supply chain risks; then, they can use information from other sources such as third-party data, real-time monitoring tools and supplier collaboration to bridge any information gaps; finally, they can move on to managing the insights gained from the process and monitoring the supply chain for additional events and impacts. With this type of process in place, distributors will drive operational improvements and minimise the impact of future disruptions right across the IT supply ecosystem. 

The events of last year have reinforced the need for an agile and robust supply chain that will create value for vendors and partners in an unpredictable future. Enhanced resiliency will enable distributors to be more efficient, stable, and remain ahead of the competition, and allow them to spot potential risks, and areas of improvement. Greater transparency will allow distributors to achieve better visibility across all parts of the supply chain, driving improvements, building trust, and empowering them to react faster and more effectively when problems occur.

Antony Byford is managing director at Westcon UK & Ireland

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