[Strategy interview] The consulting distributor

Dealer Support spoke to Alexander Phillips, director of strategy at Northamber, in June 2018 about the responsibilities of the distributor in keeping partners, dealers and end-users happy

For 38 years Northamber has stood as a proudly UK-only distributor, remaining so even as other businesses were bought up by internationals. Historically focused on print, the company now houses four business units – document management (which remains an important part of its heritage), infrastructure solutions, audio-visual and IT and peripherals. This variety has allowed Northamber to become very much a solutions-driven business, enabling it to add more value and move away from simple computing; its strong and loyal core customer base is testament to how successful this move has been.

Alexander Phillips, director of strategy at Northamber, has been with the company for around five years, having moved on from his previous role in strategy consulting. To him, the long-standing business with a strong brand was appealing and he became a part of it in order to help ensure it remained in a strong position for another 38 years.

“As director of strategy I look at the vendors we’re working with, the technology areas we should be focusing on and how we can add more value to customers and suppliers to make sure we remain an important part of the supply chain,” says Alex.

Customer relationships

That relationship with the customer is, perhaps, the most vital aspect of business for Northamber and the company still likes to speak to customers in person because it gives salespeople the opportunity to offer advice. “If they call up and ask for a certain part number we can say, ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’ and we’ll give them advice and suggestions on what they should actually be looking for,” Alex says. “We’re very consultative, which a lot of our customers really appreciate.”

Northamber aims to allow resellers opportunities to widen their own business horizons by offering its expertise directly to the end-user. This can lead to more business for the reseller which, in turn, creates return business with, and loyalty to, Northamber. “It’s very important to support the customer in ways such as this – that’s how you build up the long-term relationships which have served us really well,” Alex explains.

The sharing of knowledge

The sharing of information and expertise is important to Northamber; Alex describes his team as ‘extremely knowledgeable’, something which further cements relationships and allows the business to help customers as much as possible. This knowledge also trickles down from suppliers, whom Alex praises for being innovative and focusing on R&D, meaning Northamber reaps the benefits of top-quality IT equipment and software to pass down the chain.

“We spend a lot of time with our product managers and myself looking at the technology areas and the verticals we focus on, thinking about what the challenges are in that space and where technology can help. We’re constantly looking for products that can help solve those challenges for the end-user and, therefore, the reseller.”

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According to Alex business only flourishes if every part of the chain works well together, so it’s important to Northamber that suppliers, partners and reseller customers are all content with the choices it makes, and that they can all work together to serve the end-user as best they can. Northamber prides itself on being proactive; its salespeople contact customers directly to tell them about new offerings rather than simply using non-directive marketing or waiting for customers to make the first move. This allows the business to ensure customers are up-to-date with their technology needs – something that, if the trends Northamber has observed are anything to go by, is vitally important.

“What we’re seeing, with GDPR coming into play now, is the increased need for better data security – it’s never been higher,” says Alex. “There are GDPR implications for printer scanning, IT hardware and software and even audio-visual; this means that the reseller is able to offer a broader range of solutions with a high level of personalisation for the end-user. I think if you can cut across those categories, while offering excellent service, you’re well-placed for the future.”

Here to help

Staying close to the end-user is, after all, what fuels business for dealers, distributors and manufacturers. Alex believes each part of that supply chain must understand what the end-user needs and his message to dealers is that distributors are here to help. Resellers cannot be expected to know everything about each element of the industry but, where those knowledge gaps lie, a distributor may be able to assist and offer up-skilling. “If you have aspirations to move beyond what you do, and create another type of business, speak to your distributor about how you can do that,” he says.

While he admits that Brexit has – and continues to – created a sense of uncertainty in the industry, Alex feels positive about the future of office and IT supplies. “Solutions-driven sales cycles are definitely how we see the future,” he says, hence the business firmly moving into that segment. “We’re feeling good about having excellent customer service and doing more for the end-user.”

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