In today's Crackberry-real time-instant messaging world, it' is essential to stay up-to-date with educational advances, technology breakthroughs and cultural shifts. Gone are the days when a distributor could reach a comfortable market share and simply get by on past laurels. Perhaps you've reached a level of success with which you're content. But unless you are willing to change in a nanosecond, to learn new skills and to explore unknown frontiers, it's doubtful you will be successful for long. With that in mind, here are three ideas for staying relevant in the roller-coaster business landscape of the near future.

Update your website. “We don't carry that manufacturer anymore,” said the sales rep. When I told her that I'd gotten the manufacturer's name directly off of her company's line sheet posted on the website, she told me, “Oh, that's old.”

It happens so fast, doesn't it? You add a location, close a location, drop a product line or two, change the 24-hour phone number, or any number of little things and you don't change the website. Your website is becoming increasingly vital to maintain the image of your company's brand and to provide another channel for customers to reach you. The best websites provide relevant industry information, educational tools and around-the-clock convenience for customers. If you want to come across as up-to-date and on top of the electrical equipment industry, don't let your website gather dust. It's the 21st century's Yellow Pages and a vital part of deepening your relationship with those you serve. When was the last time you dusted off yours? Of course, keeping up to date doesn't stop at your website. Business cards, style of dress, even the language you use needs to be fresh and relevant. And um, seriously, about that hairstyle…

Join the conversation. It's a statistically proven fact. More people are likely to tell others about their bad experiences they have had with your company than they are to share the good. And the “others” they tell are going to tell their friends and they're going to tell their friends, and so on.

Before the Internet, the truism was that one unhappy customer would tell ten others, but one happy customer might tell two others. Now, with the advent of e-mail, blogs, and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, one angry customer can tell thousands of others. Clearly, an unhappy customer can cause damage exponentially. Even the best customer service is simply damage control. You're preventing customers from talking bad about you by minimizing negative word of mouth. But if you want to produce positive word of mouth, it's necessary to go beyond traditional standards of service.

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. If social media is such a powerful force, maybe it's time to “join the conversation.” What's that you say? Your customers aren't on Facebook? Okay, keep telling yourself that, but in the meantime your competitors are getting online and increasing the reach of their influence by “talking” to your customers. People don't buy from companies. They buy from people. Social media is an outlet where customers can see you as a real person.

It's important to remember that the conversation in social media is mutual. You are making available all of your knowledge and resources for the good of the network and others are sharing their knowledge and resources with you.

Get back to school. Perhaps at one time you could get by with a formal education, but now salespeople must keep learning to stay up with the warp-speed changes in the industry. To increase your knowledge you will need to enroll in some activities that involve a regular commitment. Saying you will read more isn't enough to broaden your base of knowledge. It's a proven fact that we learn the most by being an active participant in the learning process. Sign up for an online NAED module. Pick up a course catalog from a community college or university in your area. Take a continuing education course that you find interesting. Photography, marketing, advanced computer skills, electronic technology, Internet and web development classes are a sampling of the variety of courses offered by community colleges. You can learn swing dancing, team building and fencing. Learn a second language. By placing yourself in a learning environment, you also benefit by associating with other learners.

When we make the mistake of thinking that our education is complete we cut off opportunities for growth and professional development and in turn opportunities for advancement and greater wealth. The longer we resist continuing education the faster we become obsolete.

Avoid obsolescence. Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.” According to Price-Waterhouse-Coopers, 70 percent of Fortune 1000 companies cite “lack of trained employees” as the biggest barrier to continued growth. Your commitment to life-long learning will assure you a place among leaders who inherit the future and learning will reward you by increasing your value with higher productivity and greater profits.

Mike Dandridge has 25 years of experience in the electrical wholesaling industry, including positions as corporate trainer and consultant for all branch merchandising for Rexel USA, Dallas. He is a nationally recognized speaker on sales, marketing and merchandising, and author of Thinking Outside the Bulb, (later republished under the title The One Year Business Turnaround). Reach him by e-mail at md@theperformancepro.com or via his website, www.highvoltageperformance.com.