“You want to do something, but you aren’t sure what.”
Those were the words of Zack Kass, AI futurist and former go-to-market lead for OpenAI (maker of ChatGPT), in his keynote opening Day 2 of the Applied AI for Distributors this week in Chicago.
And it’s the perfect summary for what many participants here feel about their next steps with AI.
The tools – and there are dozens on display at the event – are available. But which makes the most sense for their businesses? And how do they fit them into their larger strategy?
Here are some key takeaways from the first 24 hours of our inaugural event focused on AI for distributors.
“We’re on the verge of the most profound industrial revolution in human history.”
Kass kicked his keynote off with a bold statement: that distributors must be prepared now for the change AI will bring. Don’t wait.
“The human condition is about to change more than it has ever changed.”
Distributors must not delay the inevitable:
“It’s no longer when, but what you should adopt,” he said. Prepare your organization for “tremendous change.”
Distributors see the value of AI.
The good news? Distributors seem to understand the opportunity.
In the Distribution Strategy Group survey on AI – presented by DSG Managing Partner Jonathan Bein in his welcome address Tuesday night – distributors recognized the value of AI for their businesses. More than half of distributors in the survey view AI as a tool that can bring a competitive edge for their businesses.
About 15% said they believe AI is vital to the success of their business. And another 13% say they think it could be useful in some areas.
Distributors say they’ve already made progress in the following areas using AI:
- Customer service
The applications for AI are expansive.
According to leading AI expert Dr. T. Lin Chase, who presented “10 Easy Tips for How to Use AI to Destroy Everything You’ve Built,” distributors should use AI to:
- Improve customer/partner/employee satisfaction
- Increase revenue
- Reduce costs
Think process first, said Janet Zelenka, CIO of Stericycle, who was featured on a panel on Wednesday. Experiment in a safe sandbox environment; look at your existing application layer and how you can leverage AI within that; and identify use cases that solve a business problem or improve a process.
To get the most out of AI, Kass encouraged distributors to go back and ask why they do what they do; improving business processes and adopting AI at the same time will yield a greater ROI than just implementing an AI-enabled tool in a vacuum.
Bein outlined four types and shared examples of each:
- Generative AI: Pricing, vendor analysis, risk management, product recommendations and product content creation
- Image recognition: Autonomous vehicles for delivery, automating pick and place in the warehouse, order automation and product item recognition
- Optimization: Demand forecasting, route planning, supplier lead time optimization and pricing
- Language understanding: Voice search, customer service sentiment analysis and voice commands for the warehouse
“Reimagine how your company could work,” said Mark Newhall of Execution Specialists Group, who works with companies on implementing AI and technology projects.
Get your data in order.
Before they can take full advantage of AI tools, however, distributors need to “know where their data is and make it accessible to those who need it,” Chase said.
Build and maintain your data pipeline for internal and partner use; enable real-time analytics; and build security in from the start at all levels of your data architecture.
This is all key to be able to fully leverage the power of AI, she said. “Don’t kick data engineering down the road. Don’t wait.”
Zelenka agreed. She said that risk grows when you apply AI to unorganized data. Get the infrastructure right, she said.
Go slow to move fast.
In the panel discussion on the opportunities and risks of AI — featuring Zelenka, Newhall and Ray Grady of B2B Advisors — panelists hammered home the need to build a solid foundation for AI.
Take stock of where you’re at and gain executive sponsorship. Newhall shared one company’s story who built an internal council for evaluating AI opportunities for the business.
Coordinate across departments, from management to infrastructure and change management. The bigger the distributor, the more complicated the effort. Be deliberate, Newhall said.
The goal is to have the right pieces in place so that when you’re ready to take flight with AI, you’re more likely to see sustainable success.