Read more in the Strong Links mini-series!
While many process operations and suppliers have been designated as essential and remain open, they've often been limited to socially distanced skeleton crews, while everyone else has to set up, strengthen or secure home-based Wi-Fi networks and learn to use Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other conferencing and remote-work software. Meanwhile, their downstream clients and end users are all experiencing the same upheavals, and range from closed or close to financial ruin to crazy-busy but unable to procure crucial components and ingredients.
Scott Jayes, VP of business operations at Allied, says its operations in early COVID-19 epicenters like Wuhan, China, and Milan, Italy, enabled it to better mobilize about 95% of its 4,000-5,000 staffers worldwide to work at home, and be confident that they could carry out their roles. "We were already using Zoom and Microsoft Teams, but now we're using them a lot more for day-to-day work, crisis management and business continuity, along with other networking, Wi-Fi and cyber-secure tools. The pandemic also showed why supply chains need to be based on trusted relationships, and highlights how they can improve resilience."
Because it's an essential-provider organization, Allied has also kept all of its regular offices and 13-14 warehouses open. In these locations, it requires PPE, social distancing and body temperature checks, and reduced staff and segregated shifts to lessen physical interactions and widen gaps between people (Figure 1). "We were an early adopter of enhanced cleaning and social distancing practices, and even explained to staff how to travel to and from work more safely," says Jayes. "We also take a lot of pride in the fact that our products are helping the scientists and developers coming up with a COVID-19 vaccine."
Remote lessons learned
After switching from in-person visits to remote customer meetings, Uma Pingali, business president of Newark, explains Newark conducted 95-98% of its internal staff meetings at its offices six months ago, and except for warehousing and logistics, it's now holding 100% of its meetings from home. "Our sales staff can't visit customers, so we're doing more online meeting with Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and trying to improve that user experience," says Pingali. "This required us to check that all our sales and services agents could work at home, and make sure they had the technology to perform online product demos, answer questions, provide specifications, and again, deliver a good user experience."
Beyond establishing multi-channel product and service responses, Pingali adds that Newark is also offering flexible financing for mid-sized customers that need it most. "Low-volume buyers don't need extended terms for $100 purchases, though we are seeing more credit card use and more payments not going through," says Pingali. "We use deferred financing where opportunities exist, but it also depends on the relationships and partnerships we have with those customers."
Pingali concludes the main lessons that COVID-19 teaches are to maintain a good website with enough network bandwidth and other infrastructure to keep it fast, effective and easy-to-use, and meet the increasingly varied needs of customers by being clear what spectrum of needs they have and what part of their product and organizational lifecycles they're on.
"High-volume distributors that provided tens of thousands of dollars per month in products and services before the pandemic are seeing that business isn't there anymore. So, while seeking to deliver unique value to each user's lifecycle isn't new, that effort is even more pronounced and on a bigger scale now," says Pingali. "The challenge is being able to work beyond capital. We know the sectors, volumes and inventory strategies that Newark and its customers play in, and we rely on having a clear supply chain strategy based on numbers of customers buying products in certain volumes. Sales isn't just a rear view mirror, but COVID-19 is making forward-looking metrics even more crucial. For example, a manufacturer may not have an item in stock, but they'll order more based on demonstrated market interest and webpage views. They may be less certain how much they need because of the pandemic, which is what makes projections more important than ever."
Online interactions have limits
Vikram Kumar, president and CEO of AVG Group, which includes EZAutomation, adds that, "We have the same phone and online tech support as always, but even though COVID-19 added inquiries and some call volumes, there wasn't a big transition there. What's really increasing is web-based GoToMeeting and Zoom meetings, which I like. They're more efficient because no travel is needed, and we can meet with more accounts per day. We're also adding to our virtual meetings by ramping up our 3D imaging and rotational views of products, so participants can see and experience them better."
However, while online meetings are useful and similar to physical gatherings, Kumar cautions they limit viewers to only seeing what's onscreen. "You can't see facial expressions or hand gestures as well, so we may miss some useful cues," he says. "Likewise, working online from home may limit some work-related distractions, but there are many at home, too. Also, new hires can't get the same training and mentoring they'd get at the office, so we need to be aware of those gaps and fill them. This means more online-ready data access, specifications and data sheets, mobile-friendly pricing, and using collaboration tools like TeamViewer remote desktop software or VNC remote control software."