Over the last decade, the cellular phone has evolved from a luxury item to a necessity. So much so, that a jan/san distributor wouldn’t even consider sending a salesperson or delivery driver out into today’s fast-paced and electronic-dependant business world without one.

As cell phone technology continues to become more sophisticated year after year, these feature-laden handheld devices are opening up more lines of communication for distributors than ever before — both internally and externally.

Road Warriors

Over the last couple of years many jan/san distributor salespeople have ditched their traditional cell phones and upgraded to smartphones like Blackberries and iPhones — handheld wireless mobile devices that combine the functions of a cellular phone and a personal digital assistant (PDA). However, smartphones go above and beyond the basic capabilities of cell phones and PDAs, and even perform certain computer-related functions.

Depending on the make and model, smartphones give distributors the ability to make and receive phone calls, take and send pictures, record a voice message or video, input customer contact information and keep a calendar of tasks. Distributors can also send and receive text messages, instant message, browse the Internet, send and receive e-mail, download documents, view video files and even listen to audio files in MP3 format — all while away from the office.

“Our sales team can be anywhere and not miss a beat,” says Marianne Abiaad, executive vice president of Royal Corp., Santa Fe Springs, Calif., whose sales staff is outfitted with iPhones and Blackberries. “The devices are great tools for speedy communication and the exchange of information.”

Mostly, the multi-function devices are allowing today’s distributor salespeople to communicate more effectively with customers — whether it’s via phone conversation, text message or e-mail, says Jill Kegler, president and COO of Kellermeyer Co., Bowling Green, Ohio.

“Now that the majority of communication is via e-mail, we find it crucial for a salesperson to be able to respond to customer requests throughout the day instead of checking e-mail when he or she returns home,” Kegler explains.

Smartphones are also allowing for the consolidation of mobile devices within distribution companies. Some distributors say they discourage the use of laptops by their salespeople in the field and are encouraging them to integrate smartphones into their daily activities because the functions of high-tech handheld devices closely resemble a personal computer.

At Royal Corp., the company has designated a “burial site” for all of its laptops that were once used by the company’s sales staff, says Abiaad.

“All of our laptops  are being replaced by the sleeker and more user-friendly iPhone,” she says.

Royal Corp.’s salespeople are currently using their smartphones to do everything from locating a customer’s location with the device’s built-in Global Position System (GPS) technology, to notifying customers of discounts, checking product inventory, placing orders and tracking shipments. Abiaad says this is just the tip of the iceberg of what they expect smartphones to offer them in the coming years as software designers continue to make work easier for salespeople with a growing list of downloadable Web-based applications.

Although smartphones may give salespeople instant access to customers while on the road, there are still those road warriors who don’t think it’s necessary to part with their laptops, says Dave Collins, vice president of marketing and training for Gem Supply, Orlando, Fla.

Some distributor salespeople can’t imagine leaving their laptop back at the office and working solely from their smartphone. Their biggest argument — the laptop is for working, while the smartphone is for placing and receiving phone calls and checking e-mails. Salespeople also rely heavily on laptops in the field for writing quotes and proposals, as well as giving sales presentations — something that most smartphones don’t have the capability to do.

“It still makes more sense to use a laptop. There is a larger viewing area, better sound and better picture quality,” says Collins.

Although salespeople may benefit most from mobile devices while on the road, they aren’t the only personnel in today’s distribution companies that are using the handheld devices to their advantage. So, too, are warehouse managers and delivery drivers.

Inside The Warehouse

Some distributors that have equipped their warehouse personnel with mobile devices say it has led to improved productivity on the warehouse floor. In fact, these distributors have found the use of two-way radio cell phones for their warehouse personnel quite beneficial.

“Users are able to communicate or alert each other without having to make a phone call,” says Jonathan Soon, vice president of operations for Royal Corp. “Using a two-way radio is much easier and faster than to leave a message and wait for a call back from the recipient.”

The two-way radio cell phone — comparable to the function of a walkie-talkie — uses push-to-talk technology, which allows instant communication with a push of a button rather than dialing another cell phone user and waiting for an answer.

The use of this mobile device has become very popular for distribution warehouse managers and their employees as they help streamline the picking process and improve communication when checking inventory levels and replenishing new stock in the warehouse.

These two-way radio cell phones also make and receive standard phone calls as well. So, if someone in the front-office has a question for a warehouse manager on the status of an item, there is an open line of communication between the two parties. Salespeople and delivery drivers, who are also outfitted with two-way phones, can also be in constant contact with warehouse managers as well while out on the road.

Behind The Wheel

In today’s fast-paced jan/san industry, customers expect distributors to give them a definite answer of when they can expect to receive their purchased products. Those distributors, like Davidson, N.C.-based JanPak, who are equipping their delivery drivers with mobile devices that connect to their GPS routing software, are taking today’s customer service a step further.

Through the use of GPS-enable smartphones that interface with its routing software, JanPak’s delivery drivers are routed to its customer locations.

The process is quite simple. JanPak’s system downloads a number of orders to a delivery driver’s smartphone. So, when drivers report to work each day, their scheduled routes are sitting on their devices and they go ahead and start their route. The system then captures their start time and throughout the day the drivers are pressing “arrive” and “depart” on their phones when they make a delivery stop or depart for the scheduled delivery. All the while, they’re being tracked by the company’s GPS system, explains Mike Janis, senior director of operations. Thus, in-house personnel are able to track a driver’s whereabouts in the event a customer inquires about a scheduled delivery time.

“We’re using the system to communicate the information to our customers because our customer care department, through a Web-based platform, are able to see where our trucks are on the road and as the drivers are updating their stops and making deliveries, it updates their projection time for arrival for the other stops they need to make,” says Janis. “So as the customer is calling in and checking on their order, we can give them a concise time on when that truck should arrive because it’s updating it through real-time.”

It’s a vast improvement over past ways distributors relayed delivery information to customers.

“Basically, if you wanted to get a hold of a driver, you had to call him on his cell phone, which takes time because you’re slowing down your driver because he has to stop and pull over to talk on the phone,” says Janis. “When customers called us and wanted to know about the driver, we had to call the driver and then call the customer back.”

Although it may streamline communication with a distributor and its customers, some possible issues may arise with the technology, Janis warns. If delivery drivers fail to let the system know when they arrive or depart a customer’s facility, it skews estimated delivery times — leading to incorrect expected delivery times for customers.

Besides pinpointing deliveries, delivery drivers are also using mobile devices to visually record placement of product in customers’ facilities where no one is present to receive the delivery.

“In today’s culture dealing with contractors, we find ourselves delivering merchandise to closets with no one available to sign the ticket,” says Collins. “By taking a picture with a cell phone camera at the time the delivery was placed in the closet, it becomes a proof of delivery.”

Free Range

Because the jan/san distribution industry has been historically slow to embrace new technology, distributors say it’s best to give employees free range on what mobile devices they wish to use.

“We find that forcing someone to use a device out of their comfort is not effective,” says Kegler.

It’s a good idea to let employees test new technology tools before actually taking the plunge. Then, the implementation of a new device makes the investment all the much wiser.