It is not unusual for people to ask me what the future brings. As flattering as this is, it’s not half as flattering as the fact that, sometimes, my answer actually turns out to be right.
The two most common questions I have been asked of late are “Have we seen the end of mergers?”–please, don’t make me laugh, we’ve barely seen the beginning–and “What is the future of the jobber?” The answer to that question is that the future is very bright for the jobber, just not for all jobbers.
People are looking for answers, but I think that sometimes they’re asking the wrong questions. Why is it, for example, that we ask how we can “shut out the competition” when, to my mind–and those of many others–we should be asking how we can bury the competition with excellence.
The difference is subtle, but important. The first view would lead to defensive postures–meeting price cuts, attempts to “lock up customers,” and to employ technology to tie in customers la the now decades-old travel agency reservation terminal strategy. Yes that strategy, which gave travel agents computer terminals tied to a single reservation system, worked. That model won’t work in the world of the Internet.
You may still put a PC on the desk of your customer, but you can no more tie a customer to you with technology than the World Wide Web can catch a fly.
A few years ago, “securing the bays” was the catchphrase. Perhaps it’s time now to talk about attracting and retaining customers. Ultimately, a customer stays a customer because they like it and because the cost in service and value is too great to risk by going elsewhere.
I see no contradiction in seeking to outpace the competition and yet continue to be civil and principled. Honorable competition has its roots in being excellent, honest and consistent. It also means dealing with the tough issues.
Recently, a reader wrote to Jobber News to complain that an article on Inventory Shrinkage, which offered advice on reducing internal theft, cast employees in an unflattering light. The writer of the letter said it was “offensive,” adding that Jobber News shouldn’t be talking about such things because it makes the industry look bad.
Well, I informed the writer in my reply, theft is a real issue for many jobbers–and many industries I might add–with real costs. If we don’t address the tough issues that face jobbers, who will? Instead of asking, “How dare we talk about such things?” maybe we should be asking why frank discussion makes some of us so upset?
Finally, one of the most critical issues wholesalers deal with every day is price, or more accurately, declining gross profit per item sold. “How can we stop the bleeding?” you may have asked. Let me suggest an alternative question: How can you get by on less? There is little evidence to suggest that per item profits will rise, and much evidence to the contrary. Profits are going to get thinner and, while the first question is a complaint, the second implies taking action for solutions. We all have customers who pick on price alone, but rather than asking why they are never happy, maybe we should be asking why that’s all they look to us for?
I believe that the future does not belong to those jobbers with all the answers. Too often, the answers are yesterday’s answers, especially in these changing times. It is those jobbers who are continually inquiring how they can improve, who ask the right questions of themselves and their customers, who will be successful in the years to come.
Success isn’t about being smart enough to have all the answers, it’s about being brave enough to ask the right questions.
In June we go Undercar and Underhood for market updates, but we don’t stop there, because we’ll be getting right inside the engine, too, with a look at a Very Special Engine Builder.