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The fundamental basis for using customer relationship management (CRM) software to drive business decisions begins with a realization that it is much more than a piece of software on a server in a back room; it is a philosophy rooted in building customer relationships beyond knowing the client’s main contact and phone number, according to Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group LLC, an enterprise applications consulting services firm based in Manassas, Va.

“That kind of intelligence is critical in helping determine the type of relationship you want to have and, in fact, how to sell to that customer and, once you have sold to them, how to keep selling to them,” says Greenberg, who is also the author of “CRM at the Speed of Light: Essential Customer Strategies for the 21st Century.”

CRM captures and analyzes the data, giving distributors insight into their customers. Distributors can then use that insight to improve customer relationships and program offerings, adds Greenberg.

John Treat, president of Treat’s Solutions in Oklahoma City, has customized his software platform beyond the basic CRM function of gathering client contact information, but he also analyzes customer data to understand more than purchasing habits.

“We have invested in software to help our customers in workloading and assisting them in creating real budgets in real time, and finding out that their needs are deeper than they ever thought they were because of their budget cuts,” says Treat, whose firm serves public sector clients.

In the current political and economic climate, officials at the school districts that Treat’s company sells to must justify every staffing decision and budget line item. 

With the use of CRM software, Treat learns valuable information from his clients and their facilities. The information that he shares with them helps build a stronger customer relationship that is not just about selling toilet tissue and disinfectant solution, but about helping clients operate their facilities more efficiently.

“I can tell them that they have 500 stools, 300 urinals, 6,000 chairs and they don’t know that,” Treat says. “Once you can show...how many custodial staff they are short, then you can show them how to automate with equipment. You will find that they will come up with money because they can’t afford people.”

Using information gleaned from CRM software in this manner will also allow the jan/san distributor to get in front of high-level directors, who are more likely to hold purse strings, rather than mid-managers and custodial staff, according to Treat.

“The people with the purse strings never before have had people from our industry come in and talk,” Treat says. “When you go up the food chain, they want to talk about numbers…and labor.”

Using CRM technology in this way changes the conversation between jan/san distributors and clients. Rather than discussing products and prices, according to Treat, discussions center around cost-savings and efficiencies gained as a result of the products being offered.

Jan/san distributors who are interested in using their CRM system at a deeper level to understand the needs and habits of their clients must anticipate a cultural change in their enterprise. In addition to changing processes that require the capturing and analyzing of purchasing data, distributors need to allow for a two-way conversation with their customer base, according to Greenberg.

“It’s a pretty encompassing thing, because it also involves changes at your company. Most companies are not used to doing things that are customer-centric. They are used to selling, they are used to pushing messages out instead of letting customers pull the messages,” Greenberg says.

Brendan O’Brien is a freelancer based in Greenfield, Wis. He is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.