The primary function of distributors is to sell and deliver products, but that is a simplification of what they do as the link between manufacturers and end users.
Even to include marketing, extending credit and holding inventory as components of their role is too limiting.
Other sources of janitorial products do essentially the same things — such as catalog houses, big-box retailers, and the manufacturers themselves.
Service: So what?
Distributors have long maintained the key factor that distinguishes them from competitive sources is dedicated personal service.
But what, exactly, does that mean?
Knowing the answer is important for anyone making purchasing decisions.
The fact is that the value-added services provided by distributors are sometimes taken for granted because they have become an integral part of customer relations.
Personal service helps a distributor’s customers find the most effective products, adhere to budget constraints and achieve operating goals.
A good distributor also provides solutions to problems and offers operational guidance that leads to increased efficiency.
Consider evaluating your supply providers to ensure that they are effectively helping you maintain your facilities.
You might gain new appreciation for them or discover a few helpful services that you have not been using to your advantage.
Start with the basic issues.
Your distributor should have what you need, substituting comparable products only on rare occasions.
Products and supplies should be delivered when promised at least 98 percent of the time.
On a regular basis, your sales representative should be keeping you informed of new developments and pricing trends as well as be alert to your changing needs.
Prices, of course, should be competitive.
Beyond standard expectations, you should judge the level of service you receive at all levels of your business relationship.
Product offerings and knowledge
If you are relying on one distributor to meet several of your needs, make certain the company has a broad and deep mix of each product category it represents.
For example, cleaning chemicals should be a specialty, not a secondary category.
Your distributor should be familiar with hundreds of tried-and-true products and their applications, but also aware of the many innovative and improved products that enter the market every year.
Having product knowledge — or knowing where to get it — is essential to help janitorial and maintenance specialists meet today’s requirements for sanitary buildings.
If you ask your distributor what works best for a specific task, he or she should respond with questions before making recommendations.
What kind of surface needs cleaning? How frequently does it need to be cleaned and how quickly must it be done? Are there environmental, health and safety concerns? What are you currently using and what are the results?
If you cannot answer these and other pertinent questions with certainty, the distributor might suggest an on-site audit in order to match the right products with your particular needs.
Training and education programs
Products and equipment come with instructions and manuals, but employees often require clarification and demonstrations.
Training sessions also provide an opportunity to stress the importance of adhering to chemical dilution formulas, safety precautions and other critical procedures.
All distributors offer some type of training or partner with manufacturers to present classes and seminars, often at no cost.
The subject matter ranges from basic maintenance and safety instruction to high-efficiency Team Cleaning and specialized green cleaning.
Most distributors conduct workshops at their facilities or at customer locations, while some offer podcasts, videotapes and DVDs or computerized programs that allow employees to learn on their own time.
If you are not certain what kind of training your distributor provides, state what you need and it can probably be arranged.
Flexible delivery capabilities
Your distributor should also be willing to work with you on delivery options that will accommodate the needs of your facility/facilities.
If a location restricts large truck traffic during peak hours, your distributor might employ smaller trucks for your deliveries.
If you have limited storage space, a distributor can warehouse your products and frequently deliver smaller orders.
Some distributors offer early morning or evening deliveries.
Distributors will do whatever it takes to get products to their customers when they need them; however, you should know where the supplier’s warehouse is located.
Proximity can make a difference if you have an immediate need or if inclement weather threatens to interfere with timely deliveries.
Information technology capabilities
Placing routine orders online or electronically is fast and efficient.
Automation minimizes human error, simplifies the tracking of shipments and facilitates reviews of order history and expenditures.
Customers with multiple facilities can audit spending and program compliance.
Fewer orders placed by phone or in person allow more time for you and your distributor to discuss other issues pertinent to your business.
If you are hesitant to change your established procedures, options might be available that are relatively simple or do not require investments in new computer systems.
Ask your distributor about its Internet ordering systems, but also inquire about other methods that improve ordering, invoicing and recordkeeping.
Distributors know that controlling expenses is always a priority and they address costs in all their dealings with customers.
They point out the cost-saving features of the cleaning equipment and other products they are selling and often arrange for equipment to be loaned or leased for a trial period.
They schedule deliveries to keep potential shipping costs to a minimum.
Employee training programs include cleaning techniques that increase efficiency and reduce labor.
Distributors will help you determine proper inventory levels, explain how bundling products can be cost-advantageous and guide you on payment options that result in discounts.
Some will work with clients to set annual cost reduction targets and help assess periodic performance reviews.
Distributors are interested in long-term partnerships and nothing solidifies the relationship better than helping you save money without sacrificing quality or effectiveness.
Dedicated and reliable personal service from a distributor typically engenders friendship and trust.
Good salespeople are good listeners who are attuned to opportunities to assist in any way they can.
They are familiar with the challenges and problems that many of their customers face and eventually solve, equipping them with enough operational knowledge to serve as informal business consultants.
And, if a distributor does not know the solution to a particular problem, they will do their best to refer you to a qualified resource.
R. James Alexy is president and chief executive of Network Services Company (www.nsconline.com
), a $13 billion international organization of independent distributors selling janitorial supplies, food service disposables, industrial packaging products and printing materials.