I just returned from ISSA/INTERCLEAN North America in Chicago. As expected, the trade show floor was filled with smart products able to monitor usage and alert end users in advance of maintenance problems or supply outages.

This technology, known at the moment as Internet of Things (IoT), brings numerous benefits to the cleaning industry. Imagine the advantages of rerouting cleaning schedules to be more efficient, fixing problems before building occupants notice or discovering that janitors need more training. Products equipped with IoT sensors have the potential to revolutionize the cleaning industry, and as a nice side benefit, attract tech-savvy Millennials.

However, distributors are in a tough position with this technology. Manufacturers I talked with at ISSA/INTERCLEAN plan to sell IoT products direct to end users. In some cases, they will work with certain distributors only if they are sophisticated enough to understand the technology.

To me, it sounds like it’s in the distributors’ best interests to educate themselves on this trend so they can remain a part of the supply chain. Start by keeping up to date on which product categories have IoT options and look for ways that data analysis can benefit your clients.

But here’s the rub: An extremely small percentage of end users are ready for IoT. This means that distributors’ focus on IoT can’t jeopardize their relationships with clients who don’t care about smart devices. Standard dispensers and equipment will still be very important in the market, especially in the short term. However, if distributors lean too far this way and ignore IoT, then manufacturers won’t need suppliers when customers are demanding the technology.

IoT is the future of this industry. I have no doubt about that. Manufacturers want to innovate and be market leaders (and rightly so) and end users and facility executives will reap the benefits of better operations and service. But no one is clear on when that day will come. In the meantime, distributors will need to find some sort of middle ground between being profitable today and being relevant tomorrow.