When surveyed, end-users had plenty to say regarding their relationship with their jan/san distributor. Some commented that distributors play a vital role in their business, adding that relationships are based on communication and trust. Others noted that the distributors they worked with had little to no impact on their overall business objective, citing poor service. However, this should not be the case of any vendor relationship and managers who experience inadequate service should re-evaluate their business partnership.

End-users across the country have come to expect a certain level of service from their distributor and more suppliers are ready to meet those expectations. Managers are looking beyond product selection and pricing when choosing a distributor. These days the driving factor is value-added services and managers have found that if used to their full potential, the distributor can be a huge asset to any cleaning department.

“The distributor is extremely important to the supply chain,” said Jeremy Lowdermilk, All-Right Cleaning, Fort Collins, Colo. “If you find the right distributor who can help you in times of need, whether it’s finding appropriate products, training or trouble shooting, it can really further the growth of your department.”

Comments like this are music to distributors’ ears. More than just product pushers, distributors tout a variety of services as value-adds to their customers. After all, their business philosophy is to serve their customers by offering products and services that help cleaning employees do their job — so they keep coming back. The distributor/end-user relationship doesn’t stop at products.

Choosing a Distributor
Depending on the type of facility, the method for choosing a cleaning distributor can vary. But, the products and services end-users have come to expect from their jan/san distributor should not change.

Valerie Cooper, support services manager at The Country Club of Virginia, Richmond, Va., based her decision on product services first and foremost. Then she looked at general industry knowledge, price, product guarantee, training and even the sales representative she worked with.

“I want a distributor who knows what we do and doesn’t try selling us products we don’t need,” says Cooper. “We also do comparison shopping, sometimes using three or four distributors to make sure we get the best price.”

Distributors comment that it is smart for end-users to comparison shop, but frequently changing distributors, or using too many, can hurt the overall objective.

“A lot of companies require that their cleaning departments use at least two distributors,” says Eric Cadell, vice president of operations at Dutch Hollow Janitorial Supply, Inc. in Belleville, Ill. “But, if they are using five or six, they are not getting value-added services or the best pricing.”

Of course, single sourcing is great for a distributor, but it can create a lot of pressure on the relationship, often resulting in the end-user being taken advantage of. Instead, distributors recommend sticking with two or three suppliers.

“You can demand service when you have tightened your distributor base,” says Jeannie Murphy, president and owner of Murphy Sanitary Supply, LLC, Tulsa, Okla. “If there are a couple suppliers, we could play off each other and provide every need for our customers.”

End-users have become accustomed to using their distributor as an all-around resource. Because distributors often work with a variety of manufacturers, they have a wealth of knowledge that their customers are happy to soak up.

Expanding their offerings, distributors have become emergency suppliers, trainers, communicators and educators for the end-user.

“Our distributor came from a housekeeping background, which is nice because they are familiar with being the end-user,” says Sally Jobes, environmental services shift supervisor at Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, Mich. “They are very good about emergency services and communication. There isn’t much in it for them, but their services have been tremendously helpful.”

One of the most touted value-adds offered by distributors is training and education on products. Traditionally free — or offered at a very low cost — distributors will visit a facility and train employees. If used properly, this service can be a huge savings for any cleaning department.

“We work with our distributor to include monthly in-service training programs for our custodians,” says Terry Major, manager of grounds, fleet, custodial and support services at Southeastern Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, Mo. “It keeps workers current on the use of products.”

Although this service is often both costly and time-consuming for the distributor, it has proven to be beneficial for the end-user.

Jim Clayton, president of Clayton Paper & Distribution, St. Joseph, Mo., provides in-house introduction sessions for their customers whenever a new product is purchased.

“We demonstrate how it works and how it operates, as well as the maintenance and storage necessary to keep equipment in working condition,” he says.

This type of attention is what end-users are looking for from their distributor. The fact that, for the most part, this training is free is just a feather in distributors’ caps.

“They are so excited that we are willing to help with training,” says Murphy, “and they just can’t believe that we can do formal, informal, extemporaneous and impromptu training for free.”

Additional Value-Adds
Savvy distributors will often provide end-users with even more value-added services to win business. Many have branched off into warehousing, emergency services and have beefed up their follow-up and customer service.

A common complaint among end-users is the lack of warehousing space and time to manage inventory. In response, many distributors will either warehouse products for cleaning departments — delivering restock when necessary — or will personally manage the inventory at end-user sites.

“Our sales reps visit their accounts specifically to check on inventory,” Cadell says. “They check stock levels and will fill out reorder forms for the client. Once they have approval from the client, the sales rep places the order. The client doesn’t have to do anything.”

In order to benefit from these types of services, end-users must have 100 percent trust in their distributor. And that is exactly what Cadell touts — honesty, integrity and trust.

End-users who trust their distributors can also benefit from additional value-adds, such as emergency services.

At the Country Club of Virginia, Cooper relies on these types of services from her distributors and is constantly evaluating the relationships she has, as well as the added attention she receives.

“I have a distributor who will do whatever they can to find a product I need in the 11th hour,” she says. And she will remember that when it comes time to make a big order. “I will go back to that person because I know they will give me the service I need.”

End-users comment that good communication is one of the most important aspects of their relationship with their distributor. Unfortunately, in many cases, this demand is a result of poor discourse or miscommunication in the past.

For instance, pricing increases can be difficult for any manager to handle, but lack of communication can make a bad situation even worse.

Most of the time, distributors will communicate any price increases in a letter — supplied by the product’s manufacturer — noting the reason for the increase. Doing this has traditionally been well received by end-users.

“We provide our customers with documentation from the manufacturer,” says Murphy. “That way, our customers know exactly what we know. There are no secrets.”

If pricing increases are just too much to handle, end-users will have to go back to distributors to negotiate, or risk changing suppliers entirely. To meet this need, distributors will often consider changing to more competitively priced products, or products that will save managers money in the long run.

Regardless, these types of situations require communication and — in general — can make or break the end-user/distributor relationship.

As technology advances, unfortunately many cleaning managers have seen a shift in the type of communication distributors employ.

Face-to-face visits became phone calls, which have turned into e-mails. Mailers and product catalogs have evolved into PDF documents and Web sites. And, sadly, customer service representatives have transitioned into answering machines.

Although customers prefer some information by e-mail or Web site — product catalogs and material safety data sheets, for example — this industry demands personal attention, and jan/san suppliers are responding.

Murphy stands behind her commitment to meeting face-to-face with her customers on a regular basis. “If my sales team goes more than 30 days between meetings, I take them off that account,” she says.

Cadell agrees, but leaves it up to the customer to decide how they want to be contacted.

“We do what is convenient for them, not what is easiest for us,” he says. “I think that, too often, distributors push customers to fit into their schedule. We are in business to help businesses grow and that means doing what works best for the customer.”

Ranking high on end-users’ lists of expectations is follow-up. This means following up on an order that was placed, and again once it is delivered. End-users should come to expect this level of service from their distributor.

“The good distributors will follow up after a sale to make sure we received what we ordered and that we are satisfied,” says Major.

Instead of follow-up calls, some distributors will make appointments to visit with cleaning employees to discuss satisfaction with products. This is especially important when a new line of products is ordered. In these situations, distributors will often schedule follow-up and training at the same time.

End-users should also hear from distributors if the products they ordered are delayed or on back order. Situations like this can often create problems within a cleaning department, but working with the distributor to get replacement products, or just determine when the product will be available, is helpful.

If there is a back order, “we will call and communicate that to the customer and suggest a replacement product, if possible,” says Clayton. “We will also call on the account to maintain communication and keep the customer informed of the status of orders.”

Distributor Service
More and more end-users are noticing commercial cleaning products on retail store shelves, but what is missing is the service they would be giving up by bypassing the distributor.

“When purchasing from a distributor, customers get more than a product, they get expertise,” says Murphy. “We will be there when end-users need help, offering training and providing the product guarantees they need. We are just a call away. You can’t say that about a retailer.”

End-users who aren’t getting this level of service should re-evaluate their business relationship. Often times it is just a matter of talking to the distributor, but sometimes it means shopping around for someone new.

Shopping for Distributors
Every department is different and each manager should identify what is important to them. But, in general, end-users should consider the following when choosing a distributor:

• Flexible hours — Make sure the distributor complies with the department’s business hours. This is especially important for 24/7 facilities.
• Training — If the distributor doesn’t offer training, start shopping around. This value-add is, for the most part, standard across the industry.
• Quality products and fair pricing — Working with multiple distributors will keep prices down, but distributors should also understand what products best serve the facility.
• Troubleshooting — Distributors are a knowledgeable resource when problem solving.
• Commitment — Distributors who are committed to servicing their accounts will be an asset to the end-user. This includes follow-up, professionalism and even emergency services.
• Honesty and integrity — Working with a distributor that is honest in communicating solutions to problems or cost-saving alternatives will benefit any cleaning department.

In Their Own Words:
End-users and manufacturers comment on the role of distributors

• “They introduce new products and ideas, as well as provide delivery and service on products.” — R.L. Callahan, Northwest Catholic High School, West Hartford, Conn.
• “They fill many important functions: local warehousing, filling smaller orders, technical support and training on products and communication.” — Canadian-based flooring manufacturer
• “Sometimes they show up without notice and get upset because I don’t have time to visit with them. They are wasting both our time by not making an appointment.” — Tom VanSyoc, Pella Community Schools, Pella, Iowa
• “They provide solutions to industry problems and advice. They are a window to the future, a training source and costing partner.” — Judith L. DeBevoise, Licking/Knox Goodwill Industries, Newark, Ohio
• “Their most important function is service, before and after the sale. Outstanding customer service has a profound effect on the manufacturer they represent.” — Vacuum manufacturer
• “I use distributors that provide service and have pride in their product to go along with their sales.” — Jerry Johnson, USD-441 Sabetha/Wetmore, Sabetha, Kan.
• “Distributors should offer value-added services to the end-user.” — Chicago-based chemical manufacturer

Recommendations for distributors: announce special discounts or sales; be prepared when you show up at a facility; carry a variety of product lines; work on communication; follow-up on purchases and price increases; know the products before trying to sell them; improve/develop Web sites; keep products in stock; and know the needs of the customer.