When it comes to janitorial supply sales, distributors are up against a host of competition. From big box stores looking to carve out new business opportunities, to the emergence of online retailers, such as Amazon Supply, distributors of all sizes have to fight to maintain their share of the jan/san market. 

A distributor’s best weapon to remaining relevant is promoting the value they bring to the table, says Tim Underhill, president of Strategic Business Solutions in Tulsa, Okla. 

Of course, that’s easier said then done, especially when a sales representative has to face the biggest barrier of all: price. 

“You buy commodities based on price, and cleaning products are commodities,” Underhill says. “Price is the easiest thing to focus on because it is the easiest thing to measure. It’s the distributor salesperson’s responsibility to show the value that they add.”


Cost Vs. Price

No matter how effective, how personable, or how knowledgeable a salesperson may be, price will always be a factor in a customer’s decision. How price is weighed in comparison to a distributor’s overall value depends on the client, and how well a company’s value is proven is a job that’s more often left to the sales rep. 

The first step is figuring out whether a client is “price-conscious or cost-conscious,” says Tom Reilly, a sales trainer and author of “Value-Added Selling.”  

“Someone who is price-conscious only cares about buying cheaper products,” Reilly says. “Value-added selling enlarges the conversation, which takes the [discussion] from price to cost, and from acquisition to usage. Price customers are so upfront about acquisition it’s almost as if they have a firewall between cost and usage.” 

Sometimes there just isn’t a way around a price tag. If a price cannot be matched, it may be better for a distributor to let go of the customer. Reilly says the distinction can be discovered as early as the first sales call. 

“When you’re a distributor you could be selling the same manufacturer’s products as your competitor,” Reilly says. “If I drop the price, then I drop my margin. I want to increase sales. What we’re teaching salespeople is that they need to have better conversations with customers.” 

Kevin Oldvader, president of Withers-KC Sanitary Supply, Rayton, Mo., says more often than not the company isn’t a customer’s cheapest route, but that it makes up for the price gap with its product knowledge and expertise.  

Recently, a customer attempted to buy a dozen brooms to clean their facility’s floors. Oldvader says he asked the customer what exactly he expected to be sweeping.

“He said, ‘I’m sweeping the floors,’” Oldvader laughs. “It sounds funny. But it turns out he’s sweeping tile and concrete. So I said, ‘Then this is what (product) you need.’ You provide one broom that’s right for the application. He didn’t need 12. The broom wasn’t cheap, but it was the best one. So there was a cost-savings there.” 

Providing that kind of extra value means distributors must drill down to discover a customer’s needs and a willingness to conduct research into products and cleaning processes, Oldvader says. Besides doing “a lot of research” into products his staff also aims to use products before they are presented to customers.  

“They’re investing in the product — you always have to point that out,” he says. “We’re not going to be the cheapest on the street. But, the nice thing is our customers trust us to provide those solutions.” 

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Positive Customer Experiences Can Trump Price Tags