Covid-19 Accelerates Change for B2B Distributors

Last year, in “How to Prosper as a B2B Distributor,” I addressed the urgent need for wholesale distributors to evolve. I explained the necessity of migrating to a self-serve digital shopping experience, where buyers can find, evaluate, and order products anytime. The experience could include live chat for instant customer service, detailed spec sheets, comparison charts, and even advice and training.

Covid-19 has accelerated that need.

Legacy Processes

Organizations that have operated in the same manner for years often depend on key, long-serving personnel. Procedures and systems are not documented. For example, only a single salesperson may know which product or price fits a specific customer. Identifying the right product or price isn’t necessarily complicated, but the process is undefined.

Moreover, manual processes lead to inefficiencies and mistakes.

Shifting the culture of a company from manual to digital can be challenging at any time. Doing it in a pandemic can seem doubly difficult.

To start:

  • List the high-level functions of your business — e.g., sales, operations, customer service, shipping.
  • Identify which functions are the bottlenecks.
  • Discuss each bottleneck with an employee in that area. Ask her to describe on a web meeting (Zoom or equivalent) what she does. Record the meeting.
  • Work with the employee to identify steps that could be automated. This can serve as the basis to move the process to digital.

Upgrading Internal Systems

An old back-office system can be painful. Seemingly no one understands all of it. It’s expensive to maintain. It limits your ability to integrate with other systems. Yet, your business runs off it. Employees realize the need for change, but they are apprehensive nonetheless.

How do you decide when to scrap the outdated system and invest in a new one? Upgrading company-wide software cannot be done quickly.

Start with research:

  • Reach out to contacts in similar industries and similar-size businesses. Ask about their experiences with software platforms and implementers.
  • Read reviews on sites such as Capterra, Gartner Peer Insights, and TrustRadius.
  • Contact potential providers. Request demos. Ask for customer references.


When evaluating potential providers, consider factors that complicate shipping. For example, real-time shipping quotes are difficult for orders that collectively weigh more than 150 pounds. A carrier often requires more info even if a distributor knows the weight, which is not always the case.

Moreover, the pandemic has created out-of-stocks, forcing distributors to ship partial orders. But legacy ecommerce platforms often allow a distributor to charge a customer’s credit card only for the entire order, not for partial shipments.

Here are some workarounds:

  • Display shipping rates only for orders of less than 150 lbs. For larger weights, allow customers to check out but display a message that the shipping cost will be calculated and charged afterward.
  • Consider a service, such as ShipperHQ, that provides shipping flexibility, such as products in multiple warehouses, prohibited destinations, and exclusions from free shipping offers.
  • Customize your cart to tokenize credit card data (store the data securely with the payment gateway) and then charge the card only when items ship.


The ground is shifting for distributors. Surviving in the digital age requires innovation and strong leadership. Such changes were necessary before Covid-19. They are now urgent. The pandemic will end, but transformations in the B2B market are here to stay.

Lori McDonald
Lori McDonald
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