In today’s fast-paced economy, many companies are questioning the role of distributors. If efficiency is a manufacturer’s ultimate goal, doesn’t it make sense to cut out the middleman? In reality, just the opposite is true. Distributors play a vital role in smoothly connecting manufacturers and customers. They can expedite response times, enhance a company’s reach, and even create value-added packages that complement a company’s product offering or scope. Without distributors, either the buyer or seller would have to perform these functions, adversely affecting the bottom line.

With increasingly global markets and burgeoning product complexity, exclusively serving customers from corporate headquarters is neither realistic nor practical. But plant consolidations and downsizing over the last decade have left users with fewer resources for engineering and support services.

Specialized distributors help fill the gap. It’s a common misconception that distributors just take orders and stock shelves. In reality, many are staffed with technical experts who have the know-how to deal with issues like specifying and sizing components, improving efficiencies, and troubleshooting failures. They can engineer solutions for tough, complex problems using the best available software and modeling tools. Given the fact that many short-sighted manufacturers have cut their technical staff and an experienced, knowledgeable distributor goes from an asset to a necessity.

Because distributors handle multiple products from various companies, they can bundle components into turnkey systems. If they’re selling pumps, couplings, and mechanical seals, they can design a complete package from these building blocks that works better, streamlines delivery, and often lowers costs.

One of the most resounding arguments for a solid distributor network is that they can respond quickly to customer demands — crucial in today’s highly competitive environment. Being local and nimble, distributors in key geographic areas can service customers on a level that would be difficult or even impossible from headquarters. Being close to customers also lets them spot market trends and pass this “intelligence” back to the OEM.

To make the most of your relationship, first recognize distributors as an integral part of your team and treat them as such. Distributors play a unique role in that they are both business partners and customers. Handle your distributors as you would your best clients and build relationships with them.

Distributors also need to know about your product in order to engineer, sell, and service it. Because they also represent other products, this knowledge is not innate, so take time to educate them.

It’s human nature that distributors tend to focus on companies which support them well. So supply them with engineering and marketing tools, training, and strategies to ensure they are competitive. In the past, most OEMs had sales and technical staff to support distributors, but that has changed. Now it’s key to ensure the materials and resources your distributors need are easily accessible online. Gone are the days of “restricted data” — for this to work the distributor and supplier need a great deal of transparency.

Distributors, now more than ever, are service providers. They don’t just sell products; they provide engineering support and aftermarket services, reduce costs, and optimize processes, as well as manage inventories, all of which creates value for manufacturers and customers alike.

EagleBurgmann Industries (www.eagleburgmann.com) is an international supplier of mechanical seals with a robust distribution network.

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.