Customer Service

Emergency preparedness is nothing new for jan/san distributors and their customers. For years, companies have been training staff, amassing supplies and rehearsing for the eventuality of a disaster.

Still, nothing could have prepared distributors for the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus. Seemingly overnight, COVID-19 circled the globe, leading to panic-buying, massive shutdowns and the crippling of the global supply chain.

Amidst the crisis, distributors are scrambling to supply customers with products that fight the virus and protect employees. Many express uncertainty about the future, but one thing they agree on is that their business — and the world — is forever changed.

“It’s incredible to see an entire society completely change in such a short amount of time,” says Matt Scoles, outside sales leader for Scoles Floorshine Industries, Wall Township, New Jersey. “I think, for the foreseeable future, we’re going to be looking at how we clean and disinfect and how we interact in schools and society very much the way we are right now — until there’s a vaccine or the herd immunity is at peak level.”

Indeed, customer interactions and day-to day-operations have changed drastically. Distributors believe that some of these changes will be routine post-pandemic.

“I do believe, to some extent, this will become our new normal,” says Ailene Grego, president and CEO of SouthEast Link, Atlanta. “People will venture out when it’s safe; however, salespeople will not visit and travel as much as they used to. Everyone has been forced to adopt new technologies that limit personal interaction unless absolutely necessary.”

Refocusing On Relationships

No doubt, COVID-19 is accelerating trends that distributors have been grappling with for years, namely online purchasing and virtual customer interactions. As such, technology will continue to play an essential role in all facets of the business as distributors work from home and communities continue to practice social distancing.

Mark Dancer, CEO of Network for Business Innovation and fellow for the NAW Institute for Distribution Excellence in Washington, urges distributors to nurture customer relationships during these challenging times.

“Many distributors realize the crisis is an opportunity to make or break their reputation,” says Dancer, who is also the author of Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change Series, published by NAW. “If you’re only asking customers about orders to see how much inventory you should carry, you’re being short-sighted. Distributors should be talking to customers about how they’re surviving the crisis and asking what they can do to help.”

In addition to sourcing essential supplies, distributors can best serve customers as consultants and problem solvers. “Training and education has always been something our customers have asked for,” says Chris Martini, director of marketing for Central Sanitary Supply, Modesto, California. “But now more than ever, they’re hoping to get clarity on best practices for creating work, school and home environments that are safe for everyone to be in.”

Distributors are rising to the occasion: In April, Scoles Floorshine Industries hosted an in-depth webinar on COVID-19 with more than 230 participants. The session covered everything from how long the virus lives on surfaces to how to prepare for the return to school or work.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t have dozens of questions about regular cleaning, but that’s all gone by the wayside,” says Scoles. “The only thing we’re talking about now is COVID-19 and what we can do to stop it.”

Likewise, industry associations are stepping up to help: The Global Biorisk Advisory Council, a division of ISSA, offers a fundamentals training course that covers proper cleaning and disinfection procedures for COVID-19.

Dancer also sees the pandemic as a catalyst for industry associations to tout the value of its members.

“As we come out of the crisis, there’s an opportunity for industry associations to shape the narrative on behalf of distributors,” he says. “They need to stress the fact that their members are local suppliers, not global suppliers. They’re here to help during the crisis.”

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Managing Pandemic Supply Shortages