Advances in technology have always influenced the way distributors service their customers. When the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, distributors began using trucks to make deliveries. The advent of the fax machine gave distributors a new way to take customer orders. And the affordability of computers made it easy for distributors to streamline processes that affect customer service.

Today, Web-based storefronts make it possible to serve customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Still, many electrical distributors question the need to offer services via the Internet despite an increasing call among customers to manage accounts, enter orders, check order status and inventory availability, and pay bills online. The demand for Web-based storefronts is further evidenced by the explosive growth of Web-capable personal digital assistants (PDAs) and wireless phones.

It boils down to this: Distributors who don't offer the convenience of a Web-based storefront will lose customers; distributors who do will gain ground in an increasingly competitive industry.

What a Web-Based Storefront Can do for You

A well-designed Web site tied directly to your enterprise software solution provides customers easy and secure access to key account information and order capabilities 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This can dramatically shorten the sales cycle, speeding order processing and thereby reducing the amount of safety stock you keep on your shelves.

Giving customers online access to information provides faster service than calling or faxing, helps your customers streamline their operations, and frees your employees from lengthy phone conversations answering basic questions. Since your customer service representatives aren't spending their days re-keying orders and answering customer inquiries, they can spend their time doing what most benefits your bottom line — growing your business by selling to new customers.

A Web site can help sell to new customers too. Since the Internet knows no geographic bounds, a Web site can open new markets to your business without the expense of additional staff and warehouse space.

Give Them What They didn't Know They Needed

If you asked your customers if they would use a Web site to do business with you, you'd probably get mixed results. Customers know they want lower prices and better service, but they can't tell you how to do it. A big part of being a distributor is meeting your customers' needs when they aren't sure exactly what those needs are.

To find out if a Web-based storefront will meet your customers' needs, survey them. Rather than ask if they want you to offer a Web-based storefront, ask them if they have access to the Internet and how they currently use it in their businesses. Ask if they would access account information if it were available online or if they see value of having the ability to place orders 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What you'll probably find is that the idea of the added service appeals to them and they will use the Internet if that is the way to make it happen.

Use what you learn in the survey to build a Web site that best meets your customers' needs.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Of course, just because you build a Web site, doesn't mean your customers will flock to it. You're giving them a new tool to do business with you and they need to learn how to use it to their advantage.

The most effective introductions of Web-based storefronts employ an inside-out strategy. Start by teaching your employees the value the Web site can bring to customers. Encourage them to spread the word and invite customers to visit the site.

When it comes to educating your customers, take the time to explain and demonstrate the value the site provides. Show your customers that your Web-based storefront is another value-added service you provide.

If you have a front counter, hold an open house for your customers to come in and see live demonstrations of your site. Have your remote salespeople demo the site at customers' locations and ask your service representatives to mention the site in their phone conversations with customers.

To encourage use, give special discounts to customers who place orders via your Web site or offer higher commissions to salespeople whose regular customers use the site to check invoices.

Keep the URL in front of customers. Make sure to include the Web address on all printed documents — including letters, invoices and purchase orders. Post fliers in your pickup area and use mail, fax and e-mail campaigns to promote the site.

Once your customers know about your site and how to use it, a Web-based storefront can create more loyal customers and, ultimately, more sales.

Steve McLaughlin, senior vice president and general manager of Activant's wholesale distribution group, has been involved in developing technology for distributors for more than 25 years. Activant provides technology solutions and services to more than 3,800 wholesale distributors throughout North America. For more information about Activant's solutions for electrical distributors, please visit distribution.activant.com.