As a distributor, you know the importance of providing your customers with outstanding service, being responsive to their needs and making it easy for them to do business with you. It's all key to profitability.

A Web-based storefront can help distributors meet customers' needs while streamlining processes and sending more money to the bottom line.

Do you think your customers won't use a Web site to place orders and view account data? Have you asked them recently?

Survey your customers on whether they'll use a Web site to do business with you, and you'll probably get mixed answers. Still, it's important to survey customers to find out if a Web-based storefront will meet needs. Ask them about the services they want provided and if they will see value in them.

Ask, too, if they have access to the Internet and how they currently use it in their businesses. Would they access account information if it were available online 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Do they perceive value in being able to access account information 24/7?

What you'll probably find is the idea of the added service appeals to them, and they will use the Internet if that is the way to make it happen.

For larger end-users, such as manufacturers and other suppliers, giving them online access to account information helps them streamline their operations and frees their employees from lengthy phone conversations seeking basic information.

Smaller end-users, such as independent contractors, will appreciate using your site to plan the next day's projects in the evening — after regular business hours — according to what you have in inventory. When a contractors goes to the warehouse to pick up orders the next morning, they'll start the day with exactly what they need rather than scrambling for parts because you're out of stock of something. The time savings — which relates directly to bottom line — will be greatly valued.

A properly built Web site that gives end-users access to key information and order capabilities 24/7 is a huge customer service advantage. If set up properly, the Web site can enable customers to select how they see information and in how much detail. All of this should equal faster service versus calling or faxing, and that will drive down your customers' costs as well as give them better service.

A Web site that brings value to your customers will in turn create more loyal customers and ultimately more sales. In addition, since your customer service representatives aren't spending their days rekeying orders or answering customer inquiries, they can spend their time doing what most benefits your bottom line — growing your business by selling to new customers.

Building 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.

To this end, use an inside-out strategy. Start by teaching your employees the value the Web site can bring to end-users. 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 will provide them. It's important that they see the site as a valuable service you provide.

Ultimately, a Web site will benefit your bottom line with increased sales, improved customer service and reduced operating costs. It's a service end-users will value, and in this highly competitive marketplace, a Web site just might be what keeps your customers from going to another distributor. After all, if you can meet all their needs quickly and easily over the Web, why would they ever want to go anywhere else?


Doug Levin, executive vice president for Prophet 21 Inc., Yardley, Pa., is widely recognized as an expert in technology for distributors.