A decade ago, few in the cleaning industry might have predicted the huge role the Internet and technology now play in the lives of business owners. And building service contractors, while not typically computer geniuses, certainly are taking advantage of the benefits modern technology provides.

At the end of the day, however, BSCs know that unless they are building their existing relationships and creating new ones, gadgetry and Web sense don’t mean anything.

A tool that is contributing to business success for most BSCs is the Internet — specifically, the ability to communicate, order and purchase online. Because of the Internet, BSCs are able to communicate with employees, customers and distributors, access lots of information, obtain educational tools and comparison shop on distributor Web sites. More and more contractors are using e-commerce, or the purchase of goods and services online, to handle ordering and purchasing.

E-commerce sites are now branching out to provide additional services commonly considered “value added,” including tracking, budgeting, training and informational tools.

Not all BSCs are using e-commerce regularly, but many of those who are believe their vendors are going the extra mile, using their Web sites to enhance the business relationship. Rather than representing a cold and impersonal way to do business, e-commerce sites are an additional and important way for BSCs to take advantage of extended customer service.

Relationships in real time
Many BSCs find the real-time aspect of e-commerce to be extremely helpful. Web sites allow BSCs to — at any time of the day or night — check what’s in stock, order with immediacy, see when their orders are shipped and track where they are, and pay for it all with a click of a mouse.

“E-commerce means saving time and money, to me,” says Gus Craig, branch manager for BG Service Solutions in Columbia, Mo. “And time is the most valuable asset I’ve got.”

BG Service Solutions’ distributor’s focus on customer service carries through to the Web site, Craig says.

“It just makes it a lot easier to pay and track what we do, but it’s still maintained the personal relationship with our sales people if we need them on different issues,” Craig says.

In fact, not only have in-person visits from a sales rep been maintained, phone calls to customer service specialists have actually increased. Whereas phone discussions used to center around the ordering process and complaints about missed shipments or out-of stock products, they now focus on talking about ways the distributor can enhance what they’re doing, green cleaning technology and new products.

For jan/san distributor Armchem International in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., an e-commerce site has made it easy to reach out to existing customers and easy for BSCs to continue to do business with it, says President Andy Brahms. He also finds that phone calls between BSCs and reps have increased.

“Having a Web presence increases phone calls, because there’s still a lot of people going to the Web, looking at products, but they still want to call and find out a little more about it or place the order that way,” Brahms says.

Brahms didn’t know what to think of e-commerce when it burst onto the scene years ago. He has always valued face-to-face interaction as integral to business success, and didn’t want the Web site to detract from that.

“When we first did it there was such a frenzy that the whole prevailing theme was that if you weren’t on the Web that you were missing out on everything and everybody thought that that was the future of it, that everyone was going to do e-commerce business and the door-to-door salesperson was going to die, so to speak,” Brahms says. “And I found it to be the opposite, that it really hasn’t taken off the way everyone thought. It’s made it easier for existing customers, but that sales, one-on-one, people-business kind of thing is more important today than ever.”

The face-to-face interaction actually encourages customers to use the Web site, Brahms says.

And Web site use, in turn, can encourage BSCs to pick up the phone or type an e-mail to communicate further with their distributors.

Sites can be used to extend customer service and extend the connection with customers — not as a replacement of those things, says Wayne Aiello, vice president of e-business at Corporate Express, Broomfield, Colo.

“It really tightens the bond between us and the BSC so, essentially, we’ve given them access to information so that their job becomes a lot easier,” Aiello says.

“[Customers] have more time to call us about other issues, so our customer service agents are spending more time engaged with the customer, helping them solve problems, helping them search for products, helping them maybe understand how to use a product — doing things like that, what I would consider more value-add than ‘What’s the status of my order?’ or ‘How many do you have in stock?’” he says.

Online ordering systems and information don’t replace the need to provide skilled and experienced customer service people who know the industry, and that’s where the company has seen a big shift in its relationships with BSC customers. Those relationships have deepened into mutually beneficial business partnerships, Aiello says.

That an e-commerce site can facilitate stronger distributor/BSC relationships comes as a surprise to professionals on both sides of the fence.

“On the face of it, it seemed like a less personal way of doing business,” says Marc Lisenby, president of Master Building Services Inc., in Tucker, Ga.

Lisenby started ordering online from his distributor about five years ago, and at first, it seemed like the site was a way for the distributor to maximize profit without having to provide as much service, he says.

“What we learned was, it actually improved our relationship with our vendor because if we found out in the afternoon that we needed to order something, as long as we ordered before 4:00 p.m., we could actually have it delivered the next day,” Lisenby says.

Distributors and BSCs are able to enjoy a closer working relationship with a good e-commerce site, says David O’Neill, director of marketing for facilities supplies at Loveland, Ohio-based xpedx. Xpedx provides an e-commerce site specifically for BSCs.

“The reality is, once you set up your system — your pre-specified products, your budgeting, your training — and get your people on a system that performs, you’re less likely to want to do business the way you did it before,” he says.

For BSCs to jump on board with e-commerce, the first step is to visit distributor Web sites — and be comfortable enough there to shop around, compare products, services and prices, and then begin purchasing.

What makes a good site
A good distributor site should be a one-stop shop, a destination site, says Kevin Carlson, president of Mission Janitorial Supplies in San Diego.

“One, is it easy to find things, and two, does it help you to do your job easier? Those are the keys” to a successful site, Carlson says.

The site’s tracking and budgeting capabilities have helped cut down on errors in ordering, Carlson says. It gives BSCs more control over the process, allowing them to check stock and other information, see past purchases and invoices, and create their own quotes.

But, a good site is defined by much more than what is seen when pulling up the home page, says Todd Douglas, president of CP Products Inc.

“You can have the best-looking home page in the world, with all the bells and whistles, but I think the thing that makes the Web site is the people behind what is being sold,” Douglas says.

Even the best prices won’t save a distributor that doesn’t have knowledgeable sales and service people, he says. People don’t necessarily go online for customer service; they go online for information and pricing comparisons, Douglas contends. Doing business online can seem impersonal, which is why it’s more important to extend that personal touch to customers. The ability to conduct business with someone personally is something BSCs should look for in a distributor, Douglas says.

“If you can give them good information, you may not have the lowest price but make sure they get the answers they’re looking for, and you might make that sale,” he says. “And you might not, but more than likely, if you treat it just as if it was your local customers, if you treat them with the same customer service you have locally, then nine times out of 10, you’re going to be successful in that.”

The Internet helps distributors become virtual partners to BSCs, says Felicia Laconi, director of facilities supplies marketing for Corporate Express. That distributor, in an effort to become a virtual member of a BSC’s team, provides information about products as well as information about how contractors can better do their jobs.

“A lot of it comes down to increasing their efficiency so this might not be just the technical information that they need but also information to help them train their staff,” Laconi says.

BSCs are looking for convenience, they’re looking to save money, they’re looking for a standardized program of product, Aiello says. Because they have repeat buys on a regular basis, the company can custom-tailor the site for each individual customer.

“For example, if a particular BSC was interested in green products, then those products could be set up on the site to be the preferred products that show up when they search for the various cleaners and other chemicals,” Aiello says. “They can see things like inventory availability so it shows them the actual stock levels in the warehouse, which is critical in real time.”

Demand will grow
Not all BSCs do business online; in fact, many smaller and mid-sized firms may not feel the need. But as the future of business becomes more entwined with technology and the Internet, more distributors will offer comprehensive e-commerce sites, and more BSCs will seek products and equipment online.

“I think it’s ideal for contractors that are growing, whether they’re small or medium-sized and trying to fine-tune their business,” says O’Neill.

BSCs benefit from standardized product offerings, budgeting tools and an overview of their accounts that allow them to run reports for comparisons and estimates, he says. So while commerce is central to a distributor Web site, helpful informational and educational tools are the perks that help retain BSC customers, O’Neill says.

“It’s not really driven for commerce. It’s there to help the contractor,” he says. “I guess the site’s not just for the contractor to order from; it’s a destination site for contractors.”