Many facility maintenance distributors first began to notice that their industry was changing some time during the early 1990s.
Big box retailers began to spread across the country, selling many of the same janitorial and cleaning-related products that had been the domain of distributors alone for decades.
While these retail stores typically offered no customer service or sales advice, their big draw was that they often sold these products at a much lower cost.
An even bigger whammy — the rise of the Internet — hit not long after, although it took a while for its true impact to be felt.
As more and more building service contractors (BSCs) realized they already knew exactly which cleaning-related products and equipment they wanted to purchase, their only focus became where they could select them most cost effectively or with the greatest of convenience.
Very often, purchasing products over the Internet accomplished both goals.
With these two sea changes sweeping the industry, many distributors felt left out in the cold.
Their entire business model — selling cleaning paper products, equipment, chemicals and scores of other products related to building operations — had been taken over by a combination of a new type of retail industry and totally new technologies.
How were they to survive?
The truth of the matter is that many did not.
The entire industry has changed radically since the 1990s.
Many smaller firms were consolidated into larger organizations, and many of these were absorbed into still larger conglomerates.
Many distributors found strength in numbers by joining janitorial buying groups, some of which expanded their operations to become powerful sales and marketing groups for their members as well.
And, of course, many distributors simply did not make it at all, lacking financial resources, ability, or willingness to change with the times.
These enormous changes in the market might have led some observers to believe that the role of the facility maintenance distributor has been marginalized.
But this is far from accurate.
While their numbers are certainly fewer than in past decades, their actual role in keeping facilities clean and healthy in a manner that is both cost effective and environmentally responsible has never been more crucial.
Creating Value In New Ways
At about the same time many distributors were becoming concerned about their industry’s future, green cleaning and the use of green cleaning products and equipment were beginning to take hold in the building maintenance world.
BSCs and other end-customers knew little about these products, how to select them, how they compared with conventional products and other environmentally preferable products and even why they were considered green at all.
Turning to a big box retailer for answers was of no help, and while Internet resources offered lots of information, end-customers soon found that some of it was contradictory, not always credible or reliable and did not always answer their specific questions.
Suddenly, facility maintenance distributors were more necessary to their customers than they had been in years.
Value-added services such as educating end-customers about environmentally-preferable cleaning products and how to use them — including actually working with custodial workers during their evening shifts and on weekends — became quite common.
The idea of “cleaning for appearance” was replaced with calls for more responsible cleaning that protects the health and safety of building users.
And the only experts end-customers could look to for help with this new focus were facility maintenance distributors.
Since then, new technologies have taken this expertise to a significantly higher level.
For instance, some distributors are now using web-based diagnostic or analytical tools that allow them to access huge databases of product information to help end-customers compare products and make more informed selections.
Such technologies offer additional benefits for end customers, such as:
- Needs analysis and solution selection: Distributors often help clients create an inventory of the products being used in a facility — often for the first time — along with the available alternative products that might be environmentally preferable or more cost effective.
- Streamlining the procurement process: These web-based tools allow for more efficient ordering, identifying potential inefficiencies and areas of waste in the supply chain. Especially for larger customers, this can create significant cost savings.
- Labor savings: Labor costs represent 70 percent or more of most organizations’ facility maintenance budgets. Some systems offer workloading capabilities that help identify opportunities for efficiency, reducing costs and improving cleaning.
Finding Your “Expert”
While it does appear that facility maintenance distributors have re-established their value and are possibly playing a more important role in the JanSan industry than ever before, the big issue now for BSCs and other end-customers is to select the distributor that is best suited for them and their facility.
Using the following criteria should help:
Product knowledge.Look for a distributor or a distribution company or organization that is well established in your community and has an extensive knowledge of cleaning and maintenance products, processes and technologies.
Competitive pricing. Some distributors may have higher margins on some products in order to build in an added cost to pay for highly educated salespeople. While pricing is an issue, many astute distributors can actually be cost savers, suggesting ways end-customers can save by making bulk purchases or taking advantage of manufacturer rebate programs.
Product availability and deliverability. A worthy distributor should have ready access to almost all the products they market and be able to deliver them quickly.
Training. Selecting products is just the beginning. Knowing how to use them properly and in specific settings and facilities is just as important. One key thing to look for is a distributor that will provide advanced product and cleaning-related training.
Problem solving. At the end of the day, the most important thing to look for in selecting a facility maintenance distributor is whether they can solve problems for their end-customers. Operating a facility and managing cleaning demands is much more complicated and involved than it was just a decade ago. Looking for a distributor or a distributorship that is well aware of this can help end-customers address these new challenges.
Recognizing Their Role
Facility maintenance distributors have come a long way since the days when it seemed as if big box and Internet retailers might spell the end for the industry.
Many managers and cleaning contractors now value their relationships with their distributors more than ever before.
Says Roger Parrott (a former distributor and past president of ISSA), “We should not minimize the role of the well-educated janitorial distributor ... We are helping [end customers] keep their facilities clean, which reduces sickness, enhances safety and ultimately saves them money. We have to be viewed as a source of information ... which is broadening our horizon as well as [that of] our customers.”
Michael Wilson is the marketing director for AFFLINK, one of the largest and leading sales and marketing groups in the FM industry, also serving the food service, healthcare, hospitality, education and government sectors. He may be reached via his company website at www.AFFLINK.com.