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Despite its location 250 miles north of the Gulf Coast, Five Star Janitorial Supply was swamped following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina last September. In the first few weeks after the storm, the distributor was flooded with emergency calls for supplies.

The top priority was the American Red Cross, which set up emergency centers nearby for evacuees from New Orleans. The agency turned to Five Star for everything from paper products to floor-cleaning chemicals.

“We did whatever we had to,” says Gary McCain, sales manager for Five Star, Leesville, La. “I was running late at night getting things delivered.”

As McCain discovered, when a distributor’s phone rings in the dead of night, the person on the other end is likely a panicked customer. It doesn’t take a large-scale natural disaster to send a customer into a tailspin. An emergency can be as straightforward as running out of critical supplies or as complicated as a busted pipe that flooded an entire floor.

Every distributor experiences customer crises differently. “It happens on a daily basis around here,” says Chris Portera, president of Ocean Janitorial Supply in Islip Terrace, N.Y. Others say frantic calls are exceptionally rare.

“Normally, the commercial accounts do not call jan/san houses for this problem. They call their insurance companies,” says Chuck Ill, co-owner of Des Moines Sanitary Supply in Des Moines, Iowa.

Even if emergency calls are few and far between, distributors are wise to be prepared for anything. One distributor SM spoke with has fielded such bizarre and urgent calls as how to clean up 300 gallons of propane from a basement, where to dispose of a severed finger, and how to eradicate the odor of a woman who was dead in her apartment for several days.

Speed Dial
What can a distributor do when disaster strikes a customer? First and foremost, be available. The distributors most likely to get emergency calls from customers are those who make themselves most accessible. Some distributors go so far as to provide personal contact information (including cell or home phone numbers) so customers can reach them 24 hours a day.

“Everyone has my cell number — it’s on my answering machine,” Portera says. “It’s just good business practice. Our business is based on customer service. That’s what it all comes down to. We’re not the biggest around here, but we are the best. If someone has a question, we are the people they come to.”

Being available 24-7 can certainly set you apart from the competition, but it can also eat away at your personal life. That’s why some distributors put restrictions on their accessibility. For example, Vincent Mattera, owner of Suffolk Maintenance Supply Inc., Bohemia, N.Y., offers his personal phone number only to established clients.

“Once I know the customer, I will give them my number to reach me in case of emergency,” he says.

Mattera occasionally gets calls at midnight to help clients after a flood or fire. He gets up and heads to the warehouse, which is just 15 minutes from his home, to get air dryers and chemicals necessary for cleanup.

“Customers love it — not that I do, especially when I’m sleeping and my cell phone is ringing at 1 a.m.,” Mattera says, “but why would I want to stop? Even if you are more expensive than your competitor, the customer would rather go to you because you are available.”

Book Smarts
Another way to help customers is to stay educated on common cleaning crises.

“We like to think our customers rely on us for keeping them up to date on the latest technologies in terms of cleaning,” says Dutch Owens, president of GEM Supply in Orlando, Fla. The company uses its manufacturers and trade associations to create training programs for its employees and its customers.

Whether you offer formal training or simply share your knowledge on a case-by-case basis, be ready to guide your customers through any emergency.

Less knowledgeable customers may need help with simple cleanup questions. Following a fire, for example, the crew may want step-by-step directions on procedures and products needed. Walk them through pulling up the carpets, washing off or knocking down the walls, and using air movers to dry out the space.

Even well educated clients may run into situations they aren’t prepared to handle, such as cleaning up after a death. Jeff Salamone, owner of Bear Distribution, Rockford, Ill., recently helped a customer through such a sticky situation. A woman died in her apartment and had left the heat at 86 degrees — creating a real odor problem.

“They had no idea what to do so they called me,” Salamone says. “I start at step one and assess their equipment and abilities. We laid out a program for them.”

Salamone made sure the client had the right equipment, including rubber gloves and eye shields, and that they knew what to do. He told them to cut the carpet and pad into small pieces, put it in red bags and find a legal place to dispose of it. Because he spends a lot of time staying educated on such issues, Salamone was aware of new laws regulating disposal of hazardous waste, including bodily fluids.

Get Ready
Finally, be prepared. When an emergency arises, customers will depend on you to have the necessary cleanup products in stock. It’s impossible to be fully prepared for any possible scenario, but you can be ready for predictable problems. If you live in an area prone to fires or to mold, keep sufficient quantities of those types of cleaning products on hand.

Whenever a hurricane looms on the horizon, GEM Supply stocks up on products to deal with flooding and odor, including dryers and wet/dry vacuums.

“It’s a gamble,” Owens says. “You get a report a hurricane is coming but if it doesn’t, then you are overstocked. But that’s a chance you have to take.”

That’s a lesson McCain learned the hard way. Like everyone at the time, Five Star Janitorial Supply did not expect Hurricane Katrina to be as strong and destructive as it was. And given its substantial distance from the coast, the company didn’t overstock in advance of the storm.

“We weren’t really supplied like we needed to be,” McCain says. “We normally don’t have a big call for mildew kill and stain removers so we had a minimal stock. Next time we’ll know to order and get more supplies in.”

The Whole Package
Products are an important part of surviving a cleaning crisis, but top-notch distributors know their role during such a time is to do more than just sell supplies.

Be there to help a client through a crisis from start to finish. Create relationships with restoration companies. Not only can you sell to these businesses, but you can also recommend their services to customers in need.

When you get an emergency call, offer to visit the site so you can see first-hand what the problem is and what products will be most helpful. Be flexible during crucial times by offering to sell reduced quantities of products. “Let them try it and see if they like it,” McCain says. “If they like it, they will continue to purchase it.”

Likewise, consider renting key pieces of cleanup equipment. A few weeks ago, a frozen pipe broke and flooded the floors of a Bear Distribution customer. Several inches of water sat on the warehouse floors all weekend, creating a big mess.

The client needed many more buckets and mops than it owned. Bear keeps used equipment on hand for just these situations and Salamone offered to let the customer borrow the items. While some distributors might push for a big sale in such a scenario, Salamone was confident his decision would pay off.

“They may use a piece of equipment and like it and then buy it,” Salamone says. “This customer came back and bought a dozen of the buckets he rented.”

Ocean Janitorial’s Portera agrees with this top-to-bottom, no-pressure approach to emergency situations.

“We don’t try to sell anybody,” Portera says. “We figure out what the problem is and see how we can help our customers handle it. We go by reputation and that’s why we have customers forever.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to SM.


Carpet-Care Crises
Large-scale catastrophes, such as hurricanes or four-alarm fires, typically cause far more damage to carpets than can be easily cleaned up. Distributors can help customers in these situations by recommending a certified restoration company, which has the skills and equipment necessary to tackle these types of disasters.

There are many lesser emergencies, however, that can be handled by the facility, with the help of a good distributor. When a customer calls with a crisis because of a difficult stain, help them by sharing the Carpet and Rug Institute’s advice for cleaning up.

Acid: Act quickly to clean up battery acids, tile-cleaning compounds and other strong acids. Flush the affected area with water; sponge up the excess and repeat the process several times until the acid has been diluted and washed away. Finally, sponge the area with a solution of 1 tablespoon of baking soda per 1 quart of warm water. Rinse again. Dry the carpet as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

Burns: Improve the appearance of an area of charred carpet by carefully clipping off blackened ends of tufts using small, sharp scissors. Trim surrounding tufts to minimize indentation. The only way to completely remedy burns is reweaving, retufting, or resectioning the damaged area.

Dye Stains: Many beverages, medicines, cosmetics, foods and other liquids contain dyes, which may be absorbed into the fibers making removal very slow or impossible. Act quickly. Blot the spill with a dry, white absorbent cloth or white paper towels. Apply a small amount of a non-flammable spot removal solution to a white cloth and work in gently (do not rub), working from the edges of the spill to the center to prevent spreading. Repeat as needed. When the spill is completely removed, rinse the area with cold water and blot with a dry cloth until all moisture is removed.

Fingernail polish: Apply a small amount of non-acetate fingernail polish remover to a white cloth and work in gently (do not rub), working from the edges of the spill to the center to prevent spreading. Leave the remover on the spill a few minutes, blotting the area several times.

Ink: Blot the spill with a dry, white absorbent cloth or white paper towels. Apply a small amount of 90 percent isopropyl rubbing alcohol to a white cloth (do not pour rubbing alcohol directly onto carpet) and work in gently, working from the edges of the spill to the center to prevent spreading. Repeat as needed. When the spill is completely removed, rinse the area with cold water; blot with a dry cloth until all moisture is removed.

Pre-test spot removal solutions in an inconspicuous area whenever using a cleaning solution on carpet. Also, use lukewarm tap water to rinse the cleaning solutions from the carpet fiber. Failure to completely rinse the solutions from the fiber may cause accelerated soiling.