It’s 5am in December 2019, at a carpool lot just off the 407 in Burlington. It’s brisk, and dark, but the sun is about to rise. I park my car and meet my Dad on our way to Peterborough for a customer appreciation breakfast at one of our distributors. We check the overhauled truck to make sure we have everything – samples, displays, and literature. Check. Time to go – breakfast starts in 2 hours. We drove alone down the empty 407 toll road, which was recently extended to meet the 115 highway. This trip alone will cost an arm and a leg, but it’s the most direct route despite being the most egregious expense for life on the road as a sales representative.
Our conversations this morning are about the future. What is next for Sales Agencies’? What is the future of the plumbing industry? What is our part in that future? How do we keep our foundation strong while pursuing new opportunities? All valid questions that most small businesses need to ask and these conversations happen all the time. It’s something that life on the road gives you: time to think. But no amount of forecasting could have predicted a global pandemic just months after that December morning.
All our discussions on the future were instantly changed in the month of March 2020. A state of emergency and social distancing began to tell a different story of our future. Our questions shifted from forecasting opportunities to surviving the fallout. How do we reach our customers? Will our customers even be working? What will happen to the economy? And how long will this last?
The future now seemed bleak. No more early mornings at gas stations and coffee shops. Life on the road was now at home – doing our best to prevent the spread of this infectious virus. We needed to radically change our identity in March. We shifted from in-face meetings to video calls, more emails, and social media. We stayed home, and did our part.
And now, roughly 8 weeks into isolation and a different work environment, I have reflected on the entire industry and saw what has changed. The conversation cannot be about survival anymore – it has to be about reinvention.
“A balloon once stretched never returns to its original size”
Hearing these words from Paul Saffo, a renowned futurist in Silicon Valley, speaks true to many walks of life. Things have changed. A job once done in an office is now being done at home. An order once placed at a store counter is now all online. Eating out is now done on an app on our phones. And visiting our grandparents is now more reliant on a webcam than a car. The world is adapting, and there are a lot of negatives to our new normal. But, if focused on the positives, one can begin to see a tremendous amount of efficiencies being created, and the plumbing industry is no exception.
For years the industry has been laggards in most types of technology. The workforce is heavily dominated by baby boomers, more eager to retire than to figure out how social media works. But now, the new normal has enforced this online world and accelerated the push to do business differently. The industry has to adapt and embrace the new normal. Education webinars, virtual meetings, and phone-in sales calls now flood our calendars. Connection without proximity is a barrier to overcome, but it introduces an alternative way to life on the road. Travelling less we have incurred less, and in turn have helped reduce CO2 emissions world-wide, promoted smarter and more efficient ways of communication, and have coped to a new-wave of services that have never thrived before. But as we sit glued watching spring try to blossom, we must remain optimistic about the future, and pay attention to the small wins that isolation has brought to business and the industry.
The future remains uncertain, as it always is. We should not continue to react, but reinvent ourselves. We should not reject technology but embrace it. As of now, our cars have been rendered static, but it has given way to easier and more efficient technology to reach our customers. Life on the road might be a long time away, and may never come back to its full extent, so for now, its life on the road, at home.