SPRING 2021 EDITION

TELLING
THE STORY

IMARK member company marketing professionals discuss supplier best practices when it comes to sharing product information with distributors

 
OUR EXPERT PANEL
Jim Dunn executive vice president, Warshauer Electric Supply (Tinton Falls, New Jersey)
Rebecca Starkey marketing manager, United Electric Supply (New Castle, Delaware)
Thomas Tate vice president of marketing, Granite City Electric Supply (Quincy, Massachusetts)

As conduits to contractors and end users alike, electrical distributors need to have the most current and comprehensive information in order to sell their suppliers’ products and services. And suppliers share their info in a variety of ways—some with greater success than others.

Following, several IMARK member marketing executives discuss the information formats they find to be most effective with their customers and subsequent best practices by manufacturers when it comes to supplying product information to distributors.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

According to our experts, the need for good-quality product information from their suppliers is non-negotiable.

“Information from our manufacturer partners is vital to our marketing and sales teams in order to accurately identify and understand the core customer benefits and working specifications for each product or service,” shared Tom Tate, vice president of marketing at Granite City Electric Supply in Quincy, Massachusetts. “Specifically, the more a supplier is able to differentiate their product (lines) from similar items or introduce something unique to the marketplace via supporting materials (e.g., sales/spec sheets, videos, digital assets, etc.), the easier it is for salespeople to understand that story and the faster that supplier will gain shelf space and enroll our salesforce as their product/brand advocates to our customers.”

Rebecca Starkey, marketing manager at United Electric Supply in New Castle, Delaware, couldn’t agree more. “The ability to understand a product’s benefits, features and value and have easy access to marketing assets helps decrease go-to-market time by making it easier to execute,” she said.

Given that today’s audience is so segmented, however, a mass approach to the market isn’t recommended.

“You need as much information in different formats as possible in order to disseminate it through various channels to various groups,” said Jim Dunn, executive vice president at Tinton Falls, New Jersey-based Warshauer Electric Supply, who confi rmed that various audience members consume information differently. “Salespeople need detailed spec sheets, PDFs, training videos and more so that they can intelligently talk to and upsell their customers, while contractors want the ‘cliff notes’ version —e.g., highlights of a product’s features, functions and benefits relative to the one it might be replacing or competing with and why it represents a better mousetrap.” At the same time, he said, “marketing professionals need high-res images for print and social media. It’s all vital and one missing link can weaken or break the entire chain.”

Starkey agreed that manufacturers are wise to provide relevant information by customer segment. “If there was a product launch package by audience, it would make executing promotions and messaging easier,” she said. “Packages could include email copy, images, how-to videos, application videos, sell sheets and relevant collateral. Most manufacturers have accessible portals and if the ‘package’ is shared up front, we’ll know what’s available and most relevant to our customers.”

“The more marketing assets suppliers can provide that tell a simple yet impactful story, the easier it will be for our team to deliver targeted messaging to support sales efforts,” Tate concurred.

The Future of Face-to-Face Formats?

Though the past 12 months of forced virtual connections could spell trouble for the future of in-person sales calls post-pandemic, our experts believe that face-to-face meetings are one communication format that still have a vital role to play.

“Face-to-face interactions will continue to be a driving force for sales and a key way of building business and relationships and touching and feeling products will still be important, along with in-person customized demos,” predicted Starkey, though she suspects that they may take on a hybrid form after the dust settles on the pandemic. Following a year of Zoom meetings with customers, “the way in which customers and prospects consume content will continue to shift toward digital channels as they become more accustomed to emails, links and videos from their reps that help explain new services and product features,” she said. “We’re now seeing trends in the B2B world in which our customers are searching for information themselves, then bringing it to the experts with questions. In the future, having digital product features and video applications will be an extremely important way to capture an audience that you may not be able to meet in person.”

Tate agreed that in-person interactions will continue to be popular—if for no other reason than based on current demographics. “Video product trainings and introductions will grow in importance, and the more you can personalize/regionalize these videos, using familiar faces, the more effective they’ll be,” he said. “However, while distributors and suppliers have seen some good benefits from the virtual meeting world we were forced into, I don’t believe that it reconciles fully with how customers accept and respond to communications; specifi cally, I’m not convinced that our customer base or our own employees for that matter—groups which both sport an average age in their early fifties—are ready or willing to dive headfirst into an all-digital supplier world.” For that reason, he said, “face-to-face transfer of information will still be the most effective form of sales productivity for at least the next 3-5 years.”

A Work in Progress

Ultimately, “customers want personalized content, when and where they want to consume it, which means that some customers, based on their industry, will prefer digital content on new products and services while others will want the traditional ’flyers’ they received in the past,” Starkey said. “Customers who are searching the web for specifi c products will expect highlighted ‘shopping results’ so that they can determine where they’re going to purchase—whether it be online or at a branch—and they’ll also want to compare pricing and purchase options.” Starkey confi rmed that all customers shouldn’t be treated the same, as they have different roles and digest information differently. “Manufacturers and marketers who create different experiences with the ability to digest content when and how customers prefer it will successfully differentiate themselves in the market,” she said.

For distributors like Granite City Electric, communicating remains a trial-and-error process that’s ever-evolving. “Nothing can replace in-person communications/product demonstrations and translating that in some way to a digital experience would be the next best thing, but we’re still trying to fi gure out how to do that most effectively,” Tate said.

For manufacturers, however, “the more forms of digital storytelling for product value selling and funding to support push-pull endeavors a supplier makes available, the more distributor sales teams can deliver solutions for our customers,” Tate confirmed. “Perhaps the development of a unique IMARK member-only tool that allows customizable digital assets (e.g., microsites/email blasts, social posts/content, etc.) for distribution would prove invaluable.”

Navigating the Information Highway: Top Takeaways for Manufacturers

Following, our experts share some of the most effective strategies their suppliers can employ when providing them with product information:

  • Take a Multi-Faceted Approach: According to Warshauer Electric’s Jim Dunn, an all-encompassing effort is best. “It’s 2021—start with a training video and PDFs that are simple, easy to read, and which provide the important info in a concise format for the ultimate win-win,” Dunn said. “We need something that would be easy for us to send to our customers, or else incorporate the info into an e-newsletter, include a link to a training video, make the video a combination of sales training and contractor installation tips/techniques and also provide us with a merchandising strategy if the product lends itself to being displayed.” Granite City Electric’s Tom Tate agreed that omni-channel product materials hit the mark. “Videos and digital assets (e.g., social media concepts, website/landing page support, banner ads, etc.) are now more important than ever, along with product/application images, counter displays, product samples and printed materials,” Tate said.
  • Proactive Sales/Rep Teams Win: Tate said that their most successful supplier partners have strong sales teams who engage in a number of best practices, including targeted branch visits to educate distributor salespeople on product benefits, applications and unique values versus the competition. “It’s also very effective for our sales team to see a short video with the local supplier rep introducing a new item or training on benefits and for supplier reps to host customer events at branches to showcase these products or conduct joint customer sales calls with our sales team,” he said.
  • Focus on Relevancy and Collaboration: “When suppliers show that they know our business and care about our efforts and needs, not just their product, it increases productivity and will most likely help create more opportunities to market products,” United Electric’s Rebecca Starkey said. “Strategizing with suppliers who are open about sharing information on the ideal audience, promotional ideas, and available assets (e.g., videos, co-branded collateral, etc.) and who offer helpful resources and data to help us better understand the market and customer preferences enhances our relationship and outcomes.” Overall, she said, “it’s not advantageous for suppliers to only consider their own agenda, annual goals, new products, promotions and deadlines. Collaboration that takes into account the distributor’s customers and annual initiatives strengthens the manufacturer and distributor relationship.”
  • Communicate Often and Early: “Working with our marketing team at the beginning stages has been key to consistent messaging, coordinated campaigns and promotional training events for both our sales team and customers,” Tate said.
  • Know What Works and What Doesn’t: “E-newsletters are extremely effective as long as you don’t bombard the recipient,” said Dunn, whose distribution firm issues a maximum of one per month. “High-res images for use in all social media outlets are also important, as well as short video clips for platforms like Instagram and Twitter and longer how-to videos for YouTube. Easy-to-read PDFs that share why customers would want a product, why it’s better and how will it save them money in the end are ideal, as are short, five-minute videos sharing both fea-tures/benefits and installation tips/techniques.” And while e-newsletters have drawn an excellent response among their B2B customers, Dunn said, “we’ve found that social media outlets are more effective for our Lighting Design Center business, which is more B2C.”
  • Provide Incentives: “In reality, there’s no more effective way to focus our sales team’s attention on your product than by offering us an incentive to move it,” said Tate, who finds that the designation of marketing funds to support sales and promotional efforts helps get the job done.
  • Differentiate Retail Strategies: “Suppliers that sell products into retail/big-box outlets and/or Amazon realize that they’re directly competing with the distribution channel, so their ability to enforce a minimum advertised price (MAP) policy will be more and more important as time goes on,” said Tate, who recommends that these suppliers consider differentiating their products in the different outlets to protect both their retail and distribution channels. “Suppliers that practice these policies will develop stronger relationships and growth opportunities within the distribution channel,” he said.
  • Avoid Worst Practices: When it comes to offering product information, Tate said that ineffective supplier practices include providing an incomplete suite of product selling tools and resources, failing to coordinate with the distributor’s marketing team and employing a non-engaged salesforce or rep agency. “In addition, suppliers who haven’t created a true value proposition or story for their product(s) don’t help our sales efforts,” he said. “Products have to provide value to our (and our suppliers’) end-user customers or we won’t be interested.”
Susan Bloom
Susan Bloom is a 25-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.