Digital transformation has become a familiar phrase – so familiar that it’s cliché.

But for something so often talked about within companies, it’s still widely misunderstood. People get hung up on the digital part. They assume that the concept is all about improving technology and they ignore the bigger, much more important aspect: transformation.

Growth. Development. Improvement. Progress. That’s the whole point.

Transformation is hard. It comes in all shapes and sizes, but ultimately transformation means your business looks different than it did originally. Buying or upgrading software may make you more efficient, which is important, but not transformational. That’s the kind of small project that can transform a process or department. Larger projects and a change in mindset are more likely to transform a business.

The promotional products industry is in critical need of digital transformation. The most pressing need is to eliminate distributor-buyer friction, which results in a negative experience for the ultimate customer, as well as higher costs. The most significant friction in our industry is the ordering process, from creating the order to proofing to order status, all the way to invoicing. There are so many areas to address in the industry ordering process, but like any major transformation project, it begins with a vison and then a first step.

For our industry, the first step is that no one should make or take a phone call to confirm inventory or order status. Ever.

This first step involves suppliers providing electronic access to their inventory status and distributors taking advantage of the freely available information. PPAI is encouraging members to use Promo Data Exchange (PDX) to transmit and receive inventory and order status.

PromoStandards, a PPAI member business service, is an additional option for those who have larger IT staffs and want to focus on integrating with each individual firm. For suppliers already using PromoStandards, implementing PDX additionally allows for maximum users reached with a single PDX integration.

The high ROI of eliminating this simple-to-solve, unnecessary friction will change perspectives and set the foundation for more challenging steps in the larger journey to come. Lao Tzu said it best: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. It’s the most important of them all because it is the beginning of progress.

While the industry advances, each organization must also make decisions on necessary digital transformation. For some, that means embracing e-commerce in a more significant way. For others, it could be overhauling internal operations. Regardless of where you start, your transformation should result in a better customer experience with your organization. Don’t lose sight of the importance of the customer in any effort.

At PPAI, what began with such simple mindset shifts as publishing our media team’s articles online when they are ready (instead of weeks or months later when you receive your magazine) has created the initial forward momentum that is now demonstrating itself in transitions from outdated but comfortable business and finance systems to newer, more robust platforms. We’ve seen significant gains already, and the culture is moving ahead, even if we have a long way to go before many member customers even notice the transformation.

The improved technology is just a secondary factor in fulfilling our vision.

In any company, leadership must have a commitment to transformation. Leaders must change the expectations and culture before moving on to new technology (if new technology is even needed). If the leaders do not actively lead the transformation, the investment is likely going to be wasted anyway.

The best leaders will lean into a transformation project and allocate time and energy to ensure success, not simply approve a budget and leave the rest to IT – a sure recipe for challenges, if not failure. Having a strong and capable IT team to identify and implement the right technical solutions is important, but the commitment of leaders is just as necessary.

Bad technology choices don’t help, of course. They can delay progress and be extremely costly. But these missteps can be overcome, whereas an unwillingness to evolve cannot.

The cultural advancement your business makes will far outweigh the bells and whistles that come with any new software. Every company in promotional products needs to be on a digital transformation journey. It will never be complete. But like life, the journey is the reward.

Cliché, sure. But absolutely worth understanding.

What Is PDX?

Denham is the president and CEO at PPAI.