With E-commerce becoming an increasingly popular means of procuring products, a distributor Web site that contains only contact information, history of the company and a catalog of products just will not cut it any longer. Building service contractors are clamoring for more in the form of content, functionality and applications that help them research and purchase from their distributor’s site.

Web-savvy distributors are responding with value-added gadgets, applications and widgets on their Web sites. These virtual bells and whistles include multimedia, live chat customer service, blogs, budgeting applications, and instructional and safety documentation and tutorials.

Educational resource

Video and audio podcasts are an interactive way for distributors to educate their end user customers and many are taking advantage of this technology. Nichols Paper & Supply, Muskegon, Mich., uses video as a marketing tool to show customers testimonials and to give them company information. Currently, Nichols is publishing educational topic-based podcasts to a library on its site.

“About once a month, we record a podcast on some topic,” says Renae Hesselink, vice president of sustainability for Nichols. “I actually just taped one on starting up a recycling program because our custodial staffs are involved in it and have asked for help on it.”

Videos and podcasts are useful for BSCs because they can be a resource that they share with janitorial staff, who may be visual learners or do not have the reading skills necessary to comprehend some content. Videos and podcasts can be beneficial since they can be viewed or listened to by a small group of workers at the same time.

Nichols is also creating customized video invitations to entice potential clients.

“The video is personalized by one of our sales staff, who is targeting a new potential customer,” says Hesselink. “It will invite them to some kind of call to action, whether it is to tour our facility or (set) an appointment.”

Other distributors are using video as an instructional tool to demonstrate how to use equipment and products correctly and safely.

Videos have become branded assets that can be sent through e-mail, appear on the company’s site or link to from other sites. Another Web add-on that Nichols and other distributors are delving into are customer-only resource centers. Nichols’ password-protected center acts as a valued-added benefit, containing tutorials, check lists and instructional videos for their clients.

Blogs have also begun to crop up on distributor Web sites. Creating valued-added content in the form of blog entries is another way that proactive distributors are keeping their sites fresh and relevant for current and prospective clients who want to stay abreast of current trends in the BSC industry.

“We don’t want to be outdated and tell somebody something they already know,” says Daniel Dillon, president of Cleanitsupply.com, a cleaning products Web site in Jeffersonville, Pa. “You want to be current and up-to-date and you might want to let (your clients) know that some things are outdated.”

Help is on the way

A BSC’s day is never over. He may run the company from his corner office during the day, but need to be on-call at night in case something goes wrong while crews clean the accounts. That’s why BSCs need to be able to tap into their distributors’ expertise 24/7.

Cleanitsupply.com provides live customer support via a chat widget on its site, a function that more and more distributors are implementing as a way to communicate with BSCs. On one end of the live chat is a prospective or current client with a question or inquiry about a product or the company. On the other end is a company representative who can assist the client. The company fields about 20 to 30 chats a day, from quick questions about shipping to involved conversations about how its products can solve a particular problem.

Customers “also ask ‘how to’ questions. We can actually help them by navigating the Web site (with them),” Dillon says. “We can ask them to call us if it becomes too detailed. At any given moment, even if I am in my lounge chair at night, I can have my live chat support on and someone can ask us a question.”

No matter the time of day, BSCs can also find databases that provide quick access to MSDS sheets on distributor Web sites. This value-added content helps get potential clients on the site and one step closer to being a regular customer, says Lee Harris, vice president of City Supply Corp. in Middleton, Wis.

The company’s site contains a library of material safety data sheets (MSDS) not only for products that it sells, but other products as well. The company’s MSDS database, launched in 2002, is searchable and provides easy to save or print PDFs.

“It’s a database not only for products that we carry, but a lot of the products that are manufactured for our industry,” Harris says. “We thought when we put the database together that it would draw customers in, too. Maybe they are using a product that we don’t sell, but we have a product comparable on our site.”

Online ordering

Many BSCs are utilizing the Internet to order their products and distributors have answered by sprucing up the e-commerce functions of their Web sites.

DadePaper in Miami uses a ordering portal that allows current customers to tap into their accounts. The system’s budgeting functionality, however, packs virtual muscle, allowing customers to administer and monitor their own accounts payable while taking a broad snapshot of money spent and materials ordered.

“Especially for multi-unit accounts, they can have 100 units and they can’t control the ordering patterns and that cost them money. We give them a budget option in which they have spending limits per order, per unit, which helps them track and control their inventory,” says Dale Graiff, corporate e-commerce supervisor for DadePaper. “For a purchasing director, it’s very hard to keep tabs on five or six buyers.”

For example, a BSC’s purchasing director can set a budget limit for each location and have alerts sent through e-mail when a purchase amount goes beyond the budgeted amount. The system allows directors to set up an approval process when a purchase exceeds a certain amount. Purchases can also remain in a hold status pending approval from a purchasing director.

“There is a visual bar graph on the system (that shows) yellow while you are in budget, green when you hit your budget and when you go over your budget it’s red,” Graiff says.

In today’s digital age, even distributors’ value-added services are moving to the Internet. When choosing their next product supplier, BSCs should investigate what each distributor brings to the online table.

Brendan O’Brien is a freelance writer based in Greenfield, Wis.