I remember the days before Amazon. When the thought of getting something physical from a place that only existed online was unreal. Then I remember when Amazon only sold books. And day by day, month by month, they started offering more.

I remember when Amazon launched their Prime subscription with included 2-day delivery back in 2005. Immediacy became paramount for a sale. If you needed something, you went online, you found it, you bought it, and it was on your doorstep in 2 days. Now, it's there tomorrow or even later that afternoon.

Because of Amazon, the entire purchasing process has changed. Retailers and manufacturers were forced to adapt, and for nearly two decades, we've been feeling the "Amazon Effect." Many businesses started offering free expedited shipping themselves. Some even shipped off their wares to Amazon to be fulfilled for them. Others tried to counteract the effect themselves by speeding up their processes and more importantly, using new technology.

But here's the rub. Your digitization efforts alone - as important and necessary as they are - won't get you to besting Amazon. The truth is you simply can't outcompete Amazon using their same tactics. You have to bring something different.

Rise above the noise

Setting yourself apart from your competition (and Amazon) means you have to build a proprietary advantage. Something only you can give your customers. While new, unique products that only you can create are great, it's not an option for most businesses.

Here's what I mean. When you digitize your company, you're doing a lot of great things for it. New tech can make floor production a lot faster. You can reform your maintenance practices to not only stay on top of fixing your machines but instead get ahead of them and prevent breakdowns from happening in the first place. The list goes on.

All this is fantastic for manufacturing products more quickly and then shipping them off to where they need to go. But this is the new baseline that Amazon's made for us. Countless other manufacturers and distributors are doing the same thing. For someone to choose your business over someone else who offers the same or similar products delivered in the same time frame, you need a different selling point.

So it begs the question: What can you offer your customers that only you have?

The answer is you. Your people. Your sales team. Building a proprietary advantage and rising above the noise starts with building real relationships with your customers. Amazon is great at many things, but it does not even claim to provide the same level of personal support that you can.

Taking care of your customers

The human element is something that we seem to forget about when new, shiny tech becomes available. Smart manufacturing is a great example. Machinery and floor upgrades as far as the eye could see. But what happened to the technology we use to get the orders? After all, your customers are technically who's footing the bill for those upgrades. Your business wouldn't exist without them.

Building a proprietary advantage and rising above the noise starts with building real relationships with your customers. Amazon is great at many things, but it does not even claim to provide the same level of personal support that you can.

Grandstand, a leading provider of branding and product solutions for the craft beverage business, built their website and processes on making real connections with their customers. Their President and CEO, Chris Piper, explained in one of our podcast episodes, "One of the interesting pieces of feedback we've gotten is how important it is for our customers to know their account manager. They don't want just a faceless, nameless person, they want to know who they're talking to."

Those connections are what keep customers coming back again and again. It's why they choose you over the alternatives, including Amazon. The sticking point in this strategy, however, is engaging with all your customers. Most of us don't have unlimited resources to hire a sales rep per account.

So the question then becomes: How do you create personal connections with your customers at scale?

Technology. Digitization. AI. But not on the floor... in the front office. Leaving behind the giant paper Rolodexes and giving your sales teams and account managers something they can use to more easily and efficiently keep up with their assigned accounts. Something that can keep all the information about your customers in one, handy spot. Plus, automatically track customer engagement and activity. And summarize calls and update records with the highlights. The list goes on.

When you can have tech do the admin work that bogs down your salespeople, you free them up to have more communication with customers. They can have more meaningful discussions and focus on building real relationships. In turn, you get happier customers and a proprietary advantage.

Enter a new era of business

The combination of digitization and your workforce is a powerful one, especially when you bring in AI. While digitization alone can't help you outcompete Amazon, your salespeople bolstered by tech and supported by AI can.

Imagine if you could automatically recognize when a customer is behind on orders and give a nudge to an AM to follow up. Or notify a rep that one of your most valuable customers hasn't been engaged with in a while. It's possible with AI software that's out there today.

As you seek to grow and scale your business, bring in technology, digitize your work, and use AI to make everything smarter. But don't forget people — both your sales team and your customers — are who will bring you into that new era of business.