Home office computer desk

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While hybrid working will grow in popularity, suppliers should not expect a hybrid version of seeing customers face to face

The lasting impacts of social and economic shocks become apparent in the years following the event. Think votes for women after World War I, or the establishment of the welfare state following World War II. So before breathing a sigh of relief for the return of ‘normality’, consider that post-Covid ways of working will still see major change.

An increase in home working is a certainty, whether that means a total shutdown of the office or a hybrid system that involves going in for a couple of days a week. Love it or hate it, the accountants will dictate its necessity. Shifting expensive office space to employees’ homes is free except for the new comfortable chair. Sainsbury’s has already permanently rented out two floors at its Holborn HQ and is consolidating sites in Coventry. This is not to reduce headcount, but because its office-based employees will only be in two days a week from now on. Others are looking to make similar moves, with Lidl delaying the opening of its shiny new build on the A3 at Tolworth, for example.

Suppliers should not expect a hybrid version of seeing customers face to face, though. Buyers may well get into the office a couple of days a week, but not to see suppliers. Once-in-a-while team building meet-ups will not happen with customers. So supplier accountants win, too – it’s hard to justify a day travelling and a train fare when you’ve already shown you can do it online.

Zoom-style account management in the medium term will cement positives like time-keeping and shorter, more factual, analytical meetings. Decisions will be quicker. As buyers don’t to have to play to the open office gallery when at home, overt tension will reduce. However, there will be less opportunity to build a relationship. So efficiency and follow-up will need to underpin the new selling ‘e-rapport’.

The fundamentals of customer management in this medium term remain unchanged: focus on the things customers care about, i.e. commercials and their shoppers. However, expect the long-term changes to be more radical. The demise of bricks & mortar is now in sight, and this will not only mark a shift in retail structure but prove a watershed in account management practices, too. This giant leap towards automated buyer interface will bring Amazon-style customer management to the fore. Automation will result in lower headcount, accelerating the trend toward the impersonal.

The point of difference for your supply organisation, then, will not come even through ‘e-rapport’. Suppliers in that world can lose reputation fast if they bring weak, unresearched products to market, as track record is very easy to find and forgiveness for misfires does not exist in the algorithms. Pre-launch due diligence will become essential and blanket impact launches a thing of the past.

A new breed is needed, so over-resource now in Amazon-style account management and begin to rewrite the future capability recruitment criteria. Like votes for women, we will look back and wonder why it took so long.