Challenges in Office Technology: What We Have Overcome and What We Still Need To Do

If we had been able to look into a crystal ball in 2019 and see what the next few years would hold in store, no doubt we would have all been very surprised. Our industry has certainly had to deal with multiple and unique hurdles these past years.

Those of us who have been in the office technology industry for a while are no strangers to adversity or challenges. We’ve weathered downturns in the economy and adjusted to consolidation in the industry, all while striving to be at the forefront of the ever-evolving technology that drives our industry. We’ve all faced hurdles – in our case, rebounding from a 2017 microburst that destroyed our corporate headquarters. I am reminded of the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” which probably holds true in triplicate for what we’ve all seen and experienced in the last several years.

Who’d have ever expected a global pandemic, major supply chain disruptions, and an uncertain economy all to form the “perfect storm” of challenges in such a short window of time?

Those are what I consider the three greatest issues we have faced recently. I am an optimist and believe that there are always ways we can rebound and emerge stronger from the curveballs that get thrown our way. First, let’s look at these recent industry challenges and then at how to move forward.

COVID-19 – the unpredicted disruptor

COVID-19 was as unpredictable as it was harmful.  It brought devastation in terms of illness and loss of lives. It was a huge disruptor to our entire way of life and our economy.

Many industries suffered immensely because of COVID’s effects, the office technology industry certainly among them. We endured the “ripple effect” of problems that were faced by the industries that we serve (transportation, education and restaurants are three that come to mind). When lockdowns and other restrictions resulted in schools, restaurants and other businesses closing or adopting a work-from-home business model, their need for our services diminished. For us, it resulted in a further decline in our print sales – and while some say that print has been in decline for some time, COVID accelerated the process greatly. Fortunately, our IT practice continued to grow throughout this time.

I’ve always believed that one of the keys to long-term success in our industry is the ability to diversify – to be constantly on the lookout for additional sources of revenue that can broaden a company’s base of services and products. Companies that relied too heavily on print as their source of revenue faced real problems during 2020 and 2021.

Because our industry does not lend itself well to a “work from home” model (our salespeople and technicians must be on site at the customers’ locations to do their jobs effectively), we understood the importance of having the right protective gear for those in-person meetings that did take place during the shutdowns. The need for masks, gloves, cleaning supplies and other COVID-related supplies was front and center for us, and we incorporated these into our office products line. We additionally partnered with a Midwestern manufacturer to create a hand sanitizing product that served our own employees well as well as our regional business customers.

While we may never be rid of COVID-19 entirely, we are finding ways to live with it while trying to get back to a more normal footing both in our personal and our business lives. And it has certainly changed the way we look at life and business.

Supply shortages

Tied to the effects of COVID-19 was another big problem – supply shortages and supply chain issues, which had a potentially crippling effect on many dealers.

From the individual dealer’s vantage point, getting a big sale is important. But what’s just as important is having the confidence that the products can be delivered in a timely way to keep the customer happy. No customer likes the term “back ordered,” but it happened far too often these last few years, creating a nerve-wracking situation for many dealers.

Multiple factors contributed to these delivery delays. There were significant supply chain disruptions across multiple industries. Some of this was caused by cutbacks in manufacturing, where certain supplies (computer chips, for example) were scarce. And we all remember the stories of the freighter ships being bottlenecked off the coast. Several major vendor/manufacturers from our industry experienced huge problems with shipping delays and inventory tracking. Additionally, there were adverse weather conditions, which at least once resulted in office technology equipment “going overboard” into the ocean. Add a threatened longshoreman’s strike, and our industry was the victim of a chain of circumstances beyond our control. Supply chains are very precise and delicate. When one part is disrupted, the effects are like a shockwave.

There were a few silver linings in the supply chain challenge. One vendor, for example, found a workaround for shipping delays and resorted to air-freight shipping. Another major vendor we deal with seemed more on top of the situation than some of its competitors. They proved effective in tracking inventory, knowing what was on the boat and what date, where it was sitting in the water, and when it would be on the dock.

What we can learn from this experience is to “expect the unexpected.” No one can be prepared for everything but it helps to have a strong ongoing relationship with your vendors. Know if they are experiencing problems with certain inventory, and if needed, adjust your selling strategies so that you are selling what you know you can deliver in a timely way.

Are we in a recession? Or headed for one?

There are conflicting opinions on the state of our economy. We have gone through challenging economic times with COVID and its after effects, and we’ve seen sharp increases in the cost of everyday staples – such as groceries, gasoline and more. We’ve also learned of several bank failures. None of this sounds particularly encouraging.

Yet, the nation’s job reports show new job creation, and unemployment remains at an all-time low. At the same time, though, large companies are laying people off. So there doesn’t seem to be a clear sense of what the next year may hold for the nation as a whole.

However, I do have some encouraging news about our industry. I belong to a national peer trade association called Select Dealer Group (SDG). We are a group of dealers from across the nation who meet three times a year to share best practices and industry news. At our last meeting, we shared with each other how our individual dealerships were performing. 

The consensus was that the last year has been a challenging one. However, by year’s end most dealers were able to get their products in a timely way, make the sales, and grow their businesses. Overall, many member dealers showed strong profits for last year.

That’s encouraging news for our industry. 

The economy will always have upticks and downturns, but what’s most important is for us to always think strategically about what we can do to weather the slower times.

Where do we go from here, as an industry?

I attended a recent Sharp event in Las Vegas, and one major theme from the meeting was the importance of diversification.

As previously stated, the ability to diversify – to expand what you offer – is vital to an office technology dealer’s continued success.

We can’t control external forces such as recessions, pandemics or even supply chain disruptions, but we can control how we adapt our business to meet these challenges. The Sharp convention speakers recommended looking into other product lines, such as laptops, LED walls, and touch screens. While these are not the recurring-revenue models we all strive for, they are nevertheless door-openers.

In our own dealership, our first expansion beyond MPS was into managed services (IT). We have also expanded into offering software solutions, and document management. An acquisition of ours led us into the office furniture space, along with office products. We seek to be a “one stop shop” for our customers and every dealer should strive to do the same.

As a dealer, be open to expanding your product and service offerings. Talk to your customers. Find out what their needs are, and if they mention something you’re not currently offering but could, you have just found another source of revenue. One of our ecommerce customers who purchases cleaning supplies from us mentioned the need for janitorial supplies, such as vacuum cleaners and floor scrubbers. Yes, it’s a long way from MPS and IT, but it addresses a customer’s need.

The world is changing. We need to continually think of what we can do additionally to help us through both strong and challenging economic times. Look for those new opportunities. Good luck! 

Chip Miceli is President of Pulse Technology, with locations in Carol Stream, Chicago and Rockford, IL; and in Chesterton, IN.