So far, the focus has been primarily on the manufacturer-distributor relationship in the IoT market. But there still remain plenty of questions surrounding the distributor-end user side of the IoT equation.

For one thing, it seems manufacturers’ early concerns about the ability of their distributors to learn to use the software and IoT-enabled devices, then turn around and teach it to their customers was perhaps a bit misplaced. Yes, to dig down deep into the data and find trends that might tangibly change cleaning processes will require some level of technological sophistication. But many of the technology’s most appreciated features at this early stage — floor machine geolocation, battery life monitoring, machine runtime tracking — are well within the grasp of most distributor sales reps, as well as their customers.

If there was any concern that distributors would need to bring on someone to analyze all of this data, that concern has faded, at least in the short term.

“I think if you’re somewhat computer literate, you should be fine,” says Mike Steers, equipment sales manager for Nichols, Norton Shores, Michigan. “It’s not like it’s overly complicated. And that’s how [manufacturers] designed it.”

That does not, however, mean most cleaning industry end users are clamoring for all things IoT.

“[Customers] may see this technology with their security system at home or having their thermostat turn on and off or their lights, but I don’t think they’re translating that IoT technology into the cleaning industry,” says Davis. “I don’t think they’ve connected it in their mind.”

Indeed, much of the buzz surrounding IoT products for Central Paper has been generated by Davis and his team’s marketing push. For example, he organized an innovation expo in January that featured, among other offerings, the new IoT-enabled floor machines the company began selling in the fourth quarter of last year.

Davis says the expo was unanimously billed as a success by his customers, but he’ll also be the first to admit that such an approach requires substantial effort by a distributor.

“It takes a lot of your resources, your focus,” he says. “The problem is we’re all so busy trying to get toilet paper and chemical out the door every day and service our customers, it’s hard to place resources on technology if you don’t feel like you have to.”

There’s certainly a risk that a distributor pushes this IoT technology only to find out its customers just aren’t that interested. And while that distributor was futilely diverting resources toward selling IoT, other sales categories could suffer.

The key for Steers has been to focus on those accounts most likely to find value in IoT.

“We’ve had customers that have said, ‘We only have four machines. We don’t care that much about it.’ But for higher education, the contractors, the school districts, anybody that has multiple pieces of equipment and wants to track them, this is very useful information,” says Steers. “And I think it’s only going to get better, because I think we’re going to be able to tie more information — life cycle costs, all those things — to this piece of equipment.”

As end users have begun adopting the IoT technology, the sales pitch has started becoming clearer for distributors such as Central Paper. Davis has been able to use cleaning efficiency and productivity data from the IoT devices to demonstrate their value — yet another reason it’s in a distributor’s best interest to gain access to the data.

Nichols has even used the collected data to better plan out equipment servicing schedules, says Steers.

“If every 500 hours we’re supposed to go in and do certain things on a piece of equipment, we can actually go in and track that and be able to put one of our service guys on site, rather than kind of doing the guessing game as far as the math,” he says.

Selling IoT devices has also necessitated that distributor sales reps spend more time on site training their customers on the equipment and software. Davis sees this as a benefit, not a detriment.

“That’s all a good thing,” he says. “It helps you deepen your relationship with your customer. It improves our brand, because we’re seen as somebody who brings value, not just a product. We bring education, whatever they need to do their job.”

Looking Ahead

For distributors that have firmly established a foothold in the IoT cleaning market, their next task will be maintaining and strengthening it.

The entire industry — and really the entire world — is just beginning to scratch the surface of this technology’s usefulness to all levels of the supply chain. Distributors interviewed by Sanitary Maintenance have yet to come across any major roadblocks in harnessing the data, but that time may come as everyone discovers its true potential.

“We as the distribution channel are going to have to be more technically savvy in terms of how we sell these products,” says Reuben. “It’s very different than the traditional two-ply bath tissue or [standard] piece of equipment. There’s a lot more that goes into it. And our ability to succeed will depend on our ability to become technically savvy sellers.”

Likewise, Davis intends to further ingrain his sales reps with IoT understanding. Manufacturer reps have been helpful in training distributor sales reps on how to use and sell the IoT devices, but Davis believes his team can go further.

“You have to begin with a general knowledge,” he says, “and then as you start working with the equipment, actually start placing units in the field, working with customers, then everyone gains a deeper understanding.”

For the time being, however, most of the burden of understanding falls on the manufacturers. Not many distributors are investing in learning about IoT, says Davis, simply because their end user customers aren’t yet demanding it.

“I have vendors tell us we’re way ahead of our competition in what we’re doing,” says Davis.

In other words, for distributors not yet exploring IoT sales, there’s still plenty of opportunity to get ahead of the curve.

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