The New Face-to-FaceBy Nick Bragg
Oh, how the times have changed for jan/san distributors.
Remember when business relationships relied solely on face-to-face conversations and deal-sealing handshakes?
Nowadays, business transactions between distributors and their customers are increasingly being carried out through keyboard strokes and mouse clicks. That’s because distributors say the traditional face-to-face sales call is in steady decline.
“In the past I’m out on the street knocking on doors,” says Kevin Ervin, sales manager for Dee Janitorial Supply Inc., Chicago. “Now, there’s a day or so where I’m just in the office communicating through e-mails and doing research on products for customers. I’m conducting entire transactions from my desk without speaking to them.”
In fact, distributors say more customers in the current day prefer conversing with sales reps via e-mail rather than doing so face-to-face out of convenience. Though it’s a disconnect from past ways of doing business, distributors are forced to adhere to the changing times to meet customers’ needs.
And as a result, those distributors who are embracing the Internet-based technology such as e-mail and Web conferencing to connect with customers say it is allowing them to meet the pressing demands by customers, while also granting greater access to new clientele.
“Face Time” Via The Web
Traditionally, jan/san distributors have been behind the curve on adopting technology. In fact, a large percent of distributors today have been hesitant to use technology as a primary means to communicate with customers. Most distributors cite reasons such as not knowing much about the new technology or conclude that it wouldn’t be useful for them because they still rely heavily on face-to-face time with customers.
One factor, however — the cost of travel, triggered by the high cost of fuel — may start pushing some distributors towards alternatives to face-to-face sales visits with customers.
“In today’s world where you’re looking at gas hitting $4 a gallon, we will be forced to go to more and more of this type of interaction as a cost savings measure as well as a convenience measure for our customers,” says Shelley Riha, special projects manager for AmSan, Omaha, Neb.
Royal Corp., a tech-savvy jan/san distributor based out of Santa Fe Springs, Calif., has been using Web conferencing as a means for selling and training customers on product lines and services for the last year, says Marianne Abiaad, the company’s executive vice president. The company originally started using the Internet-based technology for internal training, recognized its benefits, and decided to roll it out on its customer base.
With a large customer portfolio that includes several movie theater chains with multiple locations across the country, Abiaad says Web conferencing allows the company’s sales reps to conduct sales pitches, review contracts and documentation, interact with customers, as well as train and inform them about any new product offerings and cleaning procedures when they can’t be there physically.
Essentially, Web conferencing allows a business to conduct live meetings and presentations over the Internet. In a Web conference, each participant sits at his or her computer and is connected to other participants via the Internet. It can either be a downloaded application on each of the attendees’ computers or a Web-based application where the attendees can simply enter a Web site address to enter the live meeting.
Through Web conferencing, a business has the ability to deliver live, time-critical interactive training, share documents, make presentations and collaborate with customers around the country — or world — via their office computer. All the sales rep has to do is click on his Web browser to launch a sales meeting to communicate and collaborate with a customer any time, anywhere. The technology also allows for a business and its customers to connect and see each other via their computer screens as if they were face-to-face, via Webcams.
“The biggest thing that Web conferencing does is it allows you to extend your reach — it allows you to do more with less,” says Eric Vidal, senior marketing manager with WebEx Communications, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based company that provides on-demand collaboration software for online meetings. “That’s kind of the obvious thing, but some companies who have been doing it for two, three, four-plus years, they have taken it to another level. It has accelerated how they do business.”
Like Royal Corp., San Diego-based Waxie Sanitary Supply, a large-sized jan/san distributor, has also incorporated Web conferencing as a means to connect with its customer base. In fact, over the last four years, Waxie has found it most rewarding to use the online technology as a training method for when they need to train numerous people in different locations on the same topic, says Randy Hammond, the company’s senior training and Web specialist.
“For instance, one of our large city customers recently needed to train all of their people on how to use our e-commerce tool,” says Hammond. “And so we set it up so we had three different conference times that they could choose to log in at and then we went through the training for them and how to use the tool.”
Hammond says that customers have been well receptive of the communication technology.
“They like it because they don’t have to send their people anywhere,” says Hammond. “They can be at their desk and go through the Web conference and don’t ever have to leave, which saves them time and money.”
Another benefit to Web conferencing is that it’s very inexpensive which helps cut down on travel expenses for distributors, says Royal Corp.’s Abiaad. By meeting with customers online, it reduces costly travel expenses for both a distributor and its customers — especially if they are not within driving distance from each other.
Web conferencing also is a productivity booster for sales reps, says Hammond. For instance, sales reps who once had to spend an entire day traveling to go to make a sales visit, now can do so from their office, leaving them with more time to service other customers.
Also, when sales reps are out of the office and if they have a laptop or mobile device with wireless Internet access, they can set up an appointment with a customer and log into a conference to converse while on the road.
“So if the conference is scheduled for 1 p.m. and they happen to be wherever, they can even stop on the side of the road and log in,” says Hammond. “They can still be productive throughout the day.”
In fact, distributors who aren’t currently using Web conferencing to communicate with customers could be shortchanging themselves, says Hammond. Distributors of all sizes can find online conferencing to be a boon for business — especially those distributors who are looking to expand their customer and territorial reach.
“For a small distributor, once they start getting out of their local area, it’s a huge way to connect with your customer and disseminate information very inexpensively and very quickly,” says Hammond.
Web conferencing can also help accelerate a distributor’s sales cycle.
“If they’re working with prospects, they don’t need to go to that person’s office six times to educate them, find out what their needs are, give a proposal, edit the proposal, get them to sign the contract,” WebEx’s Vidal says. “They can maybe do just one meeting in person and the rest can be done online.”
And, the technology allows businesses to open up their business to go into new markets that they otherwise may have not been able to go into.
“Maybe you don’t just want to be a Midwest company, maybe you want to go national, maybe you want to go global,” says Vidal. “It’s not hard to fathom selling to someone in Europe now.”
Riha says although most distributors — including her own company — haven’t jumped on board the technology, it can be compared to one other technology that distributors were once hesitant to adopt — online ordering.
“This could be very much like online ordering,” says Riha. “When we started it, two or three percent of our customers were interested in it. Now it’s a huge piece.”
Another potential Web-based technology distributors can use to tap
into their customer base is via Webinars. Short for Web-based seminar, a Webinar is a specific type of presentation, lecture, workshop or seminar that is transmitted over the Internet. Webinars are done either by slide presentation, with real-time reporting or with customized interfaces and interactivity.
Broadcasting a Webinar to numerous customers at a time can be very beneficial and intriguing for both a distributor and its customers, says Dave Kahle, expert sales coach and president of DaCo Corp., Comstock Park, Mich.
Unlike Web conferencing, where everyone can participate, talk, and share presentations, Webinars have a single presenter, or at least one at a time. A Webinar typically has moderated interaction, with a moderator helping the presenter by organizing questions from the attendees. A distributor can present PowerPoint slides and videos, as well as product and software demonstrations.
“A Webinar, because it combines both visual aspects with auditory aspects, is a more effective way to get a personality across than just e-mail,” he says. “So there’s a hierarchy and I think one can use the more sophisticated communication methods to create a more personal touch.”
A Webinar could also be used to save a distributor time. For example, when a distributor wants to roll out a new product line to its customers, instead of sending sales reps out in the field to show individual customers the product, they can introduce the product via a Webinar to a large group of customers all at once. The distributor can then at the end of the Webinar get a feel for how the product was received by the customer base via a question and answer session.
Webinars could also be used as potential lead generators. By getting potential new clients to attend a Webinar and fill out a short form as part of the sign-up process, distributors can feed that into their lead generation tool. They can also conduct polls during the Webinar to learn more about their customer base and keep the presentation interactive.
And, after it’s complete, distributors can host the Webinar on their company Web site for their customers to review on their own time.
Although it’s a basic technology that has been around for years, e-mail communication is still very popular among jan/san distributors and its customers in the current day.
Because end users are pressed for time, they are using e-mail to order products, ask questions about certain product availability, as well as proper cleaning techniques — even more so than telephone calls, says Ed Hildreth, co-owner of Sound Janitorial Supply, Tumwater, Wash.
But e-mail has also been beneficial in reaching out to existing customers and for what has become the new form of cold calling.
“It allows us to contact customers when we may not have been able to see them,” Hildreth says. “It is then up to us to make sure that we follow up after the technical contact.”
E-mail also allows distributors to send product brochures and product information instantly. That helps meet the pressing demands by customers and allows distributors to quickly solve their customers’ needs.
And with mobile devices allowing for e-mailing on the go, it’s become more of a convenience factor. With the introduction of smartphones, AmSan’s Riha says e-mail communication has gone up in the last couple of years with her company’s sales staff.
“I wouldn’t even have to guess what amount of conversation or correspondence that our sales reps have, how much is e-mail versus phone calls or having to see them face-to-face,” she says. “I know it’s certainly more than what it was with the advent of the BlackBerry. It makes it extremely convenient for our customer base to interact directly with our sales reps.”
Face Time Still Important
Even though Web conferencing and Webinars sound appealing and could result in more business, distributors say the old-fashioned face-to-face time with customers still has a place in today’s Web-driven world. After all, it is the model in which distributors built and made their businesses successful.
The argument can be made that the use of communication through technology vs. face-to-face interaction takes away the personal touch with customers and doesn’t take care of the problem solving and the relationship maintaining, which still must be done in front of the customer, says David Sikes, president of Sikes Paper Co., Atlanta.
“The sales rep must, especially in the jan/san world, continue to call on customers, solve problems and be consultative,” says Sikes. “What continues to drive the customers to place orders on our Web site is the fact that we have a relationship with
them and relationships don’t go out of style regardless of technological advances.”
Thus, it is important that distributors recognize that electronic communication is good as a compliment, not a substitute for face to face, says Kahle. Distributors should first establish a face-to-face relationship with their customers before venturing into technology.
“You always try to create a face-to-face relationship as the basis for electronic communication,” says Kahle. “So that’s the ideal to strive for.”
But that doesn’t mean that all customers want a face-to-face relationship. It’s a matter of identifying and creating a system for each individual customer.
Distributors say that a vast majority of their customers, for the most part, do not ask for a sales rep to make office visits nowadays. E-mail communication has become more of a convenience and a time-saving feature. More end users are purchasing products online and prefer to communicate that way as well. This can be largely connected to the smaller the dollar volume of a purchase, the less the need to see somebody, says Kahle.
“For example, everybody buys books over the Internet these days because it’s a $10 to $15 buy,” he says. “You know what you’re going to get — it’s not a big deal. You don’t need to see the book seller to buy a $15 book over the Internet.”
However, when end users are prepared to spend thousands of dollars on high-priced items such as floor equipment, distributors should be willing to go back to traditional face-to-face meetings. End users will want to see the item and know who they’re buying from before they commit to the purchase, says Kahle.