Strictly for Sales
How Distribution Can Save Manufacturing
“Anyone who thinks a leopard skin looks as good on another creature’s back as it does on the leopard hasn’t seen a leopard. It is so much at one with itself that you
cannot own part of the leopard.” — Norman Myers, The Long
If the business world is a jungle, there are few real leopards in
the wild — though many wear leopard skins.
My recent visit to the websites of top industrial brands found
these values: honesty, integrity, sustainability, respect, innovation, ethical behavior, continuous improvement, commitment to
excellence, growth, responsibility to community and environment,
quality products, and faster and better service. These values were
followed by guiding principles: we care about people; we want to
return value to our shareholders; and we are committed to protecting our environment. Whom am I describing? These values and
themes are present in one form or another on every site I visited.
Seventy years ago, an advertising agency in New York City
introduced the concept of the unique selling proposition, sometimes referred to as “the big idea.” Today’s label for this concept
is the USP, since people today prefer acronyms and abbreviated
speech. The unique selling proposition describes the definable and
defendable differences of a single competitor. It must be compelling, specific, and unique. What began as a Unique Selling Proposition has morphed into the Ubiquitous Selling Proposition. They all
sound the same.
This Ubiquitous Selling Proposition is as American as mom’s
apple pie and baseball. After all, who doesn’t like quality, service,
innovation, and the rest? Everyone is on that bandwagon, but the
problem is that none of it is unique. It is the same message from
every supplier. Everyone sells good stuff. The quality revolution
saw to that. Everyone claims they support customers. Everyone is
into sustainability because green business is good business. It is a
safe bet that customers can purchase goods from any one of the
top three suppliers in any industry and get good stuff, acceptable
service, and an enlightened partner on the environment.
Why is it so difficult for these top brands to stand out? I believe
it is the confluence of factors that are unique to manufacturers.
These factors include geography, logistics, coverage, communica-
tions, global competition, capacity demands, shareholders, and
technology. Manufacturers are typically distant from their cus-
tomer base and lack direct communications with them. For many
customers, these companies are referred to generically as “the
On the other hand, distributors operate in closer proximity to
their customer base. They adjust inventory levels to meet special
needs of their customers and have more direct communications
with end users of the products. Because many distributors are
privately owned companies, they tend to be more entrepreneurial,
flexible in their policies and procedures, and lack accountability to
outside investors. This enables distributors to make decisions to do
things that large, publicly held companies cannot do. The size of
distributors lends itself to speed, as they are more nimble and can
act more quickly to shifting market forces. Because distributors
live and operate in the communities they sell to, there is a more
personal investment and stake in the community, as evidenced by
the sponsorship of little league teams and charity events.
Distributors can save manufacturing if it indeed needs saving.
Distributors establish grassroots relationships with the users of
their products. As manufacturers bemoan the reality that others
in their industries can challenge their quality, service, and capac-
ity, distributors find relief in that no one can imitate their single
unique dimension of value — their people. There may be six dis-
tributors in a market area that sell the same brands, but how their
people serve customers makes the distributor’s brand unique.
It is people that make your company special. At the manufacturing level, that is not quite as visible to the user as it is at the
distribution level. The distributor salesperson is the face of the
factory for the customer. The factory rep may make joint calls and
field visits, but the distributor salesperson is the go-to rep for the
The unique selling proposition at the distribution level is truly
unique, as it includes the people who work there. There is no commodity in creativity or traffic jam on the extra mile. Every product
or service, wrapped in creativity and delivered conscientiously,
becomes a differentiated product or service, and a unique customer experience. So, while manufacturers struggle with their unique
identities at the strategic levels, they would do well to remember
that it is their channel partners at the tactical level that help them
stand out from the crowd.
Tom Reilly is literally the guy who wrote the book on Value-Added
Selling (McGraw-Hill). You may visit him online at www.TomReilly-Training.com.