Cleaning Hurdles and How to Overcome Them
Jan/san distribution has faced several hurdles in recent years. Acquisitions and consolidations have been on the rise, substantially changing the distribution landscape. Meanwhile, the pandemic sparked supply chain challenges that few saw coming — and even fewer expected the struggles to persist this long.
Staffing issues are also plaguing distributors as businesses in all industries navigate a shrinking labor market. For the end user customers, labor shortages and frequent turnover present training challenges, and thus an opportunity for distributors to step in and offer their expert services.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has also given distributors a chance to take a closer look at their product offerings. A newfound focus on indoor air quality (IAQ) and alternative disinfection has distributors diversifying their services to better serve the industry.
In this roundtable, members of the Sanitary Maintenance editorial advisory board comment on issues distributors are facing and where they see the industry going.
The fact that distributors are struggling with all kinds of supply chain challenges is no secret. Here, Sanitary Maintenance tries to get to the bottom of what is going on and how distributors are tackling those hurdles.
What are some of your biggest challenges when it comes to the supply chain and how are you overcoming them?
SPALLONE — It has been well over two years of playing whack-a-mole and everyone’s arms are getting pretty tired. I think the key to not just surviving but thriving is twofold. For starters, you must have open and direct communication with your clients. They are seeing and dealing with the supply chain issues in every aspect of their lives. With good communication and a problem-solving attitude, they will be understanding if you communicate a plan.
The second part of the equation is maintaining strong vendor relations so they can help to be part of the problem-solving solution. If you are a true partner, they will move mountains to help you be successful. The key to making this work is getting all shareholders to be flexible in solving the problem. The bigger you get, the harder it is to be flexible in your problem-solving endeavors. I feel we are very fortunate because we are big enough to matter to most of our vendors, but small enough to be flexible in our go-to-market strategies.
GREGO — Many items are currently backordered with months-long lead times. Currently, the worst for us are equipment, parts and batteries. Not only are the prices increasing multiple times per year, but the lead times are between 2 to 6 months. That has forced us to seek alternative solutions for our customers.
Pricing inconsistencies are rampant. How are you tackling this ongoing challenge to stay competitive yet profitable?
GREGO — Prices are increasing every month. This is a real struggle for those distributors locked in a year-long contract. In those cases, we work very closely with our vendor partners so we know when the increases are coming and for how much. We also make sure they include the term “Force Majeure” in the language of their increase letter. That’s essentially saying that the increases are beyond their control. When we have that terminology in the increase letter, we can then take that to our customers and negotiate the same percentage increase for the balance of the contract.
SPALLONE — This is a daily process that requires open and direct communication with our clients. When dealing with vendors, we will often push back on many of the increases, which sometimes helps to reduce the percentage of the increase. We are also looking at ways to reduce the transactional costs so we can hopefully minimize the total increase. At the end of the day, we’re a company that feeds families and we need to make sure we can produce a profit so we can continue to provide the high-quality service our clients expect.
What, if any, trucking/shipping difficulties are you experiencing and how you are handling them?
SPALLONE — There simply aren’t enough truck drivers to match the amount of freight in this country. I believe that trucking is the primary cause of most of the supply chain issues and has had a direct impact on the inflationary pressures we are seeing. Because of this, we have added an additional 10 days to the lead times on all orders.
GREGO — Shipping is another problem area. There is a shortage of drivers and trailers, and the people that are starting out in the business haven’t been trained enough to be able to deliver packages without damage. Sometimes that’s the vendor’s fault, but some drivers travel with reckless abandon and after waiting months for an order, we/they receive a product that is damaged and must start all over.
Some distributors have experienced an increase in theft from their distribution centers. Is this a national problem and how are you combating it?
SPALLONE — We have not seen an increase but there are always a few bad apples. I will give the shirt off my back to my employees and will do almost anything to help them. I understand the fact that people are human and make mistakes, but the one thing I have zero tolerance for is theft. I will make an example of anyone who steals.
Theft can come in many ways that don’t always impact product. We have had issues with employees filling up fuel in their personal cars and stealing time by artificially inflating the time on their time clock. My dad was in the bar business, and he once told me that for every way you can think of being swindled, there are 100 more ways you haven’t thought of.
The pandemic emphasized the importance of proper training for custodial processes, bringing it to the forefront. It also opened the door to a lot of misinformation. Here, distributors comment on how training efforts have changed over the last two years.
TikTok and other social platforms have provided a platform for quasi-knowledgeable “trainers” to share (often inaccurate) cleaning tips. How are you helping your customers identify the good from the bad?
MCGARVEY — We stress the importance of consulting with experienced distributors of commercial cleaning products and training personnel with proper certifications.
SPALLONE — This is true, but I also think the pandemic pushed everyone into new ways of training and communicating with customers. The ability to create a quick YouTube video to show or explain how to do something has become second nature for many of our sales representatives. We are known as industry experts, so our clients will usually reach out to us when they need training. We have also trained our reps to look at areas of concern when they are visiting a customer. If they see something that can be improved, we will offer to help with either training or a demonstration. To record that event and to post it onto YouTube is so easy.
GREGO — This problem seems to be more prevalent with the younger generations as they think everything you need to know exists on the internet. The problem is they don’t know what they don’t know. It’s our job to talk to them about where they are receiving their information and prove that doing business with an “expert” has value.
SCOLES — Yes, it’s true, while people were racing to try and figure out what this new virus was, they were also trying to figure out how it spread. At first even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended using the heaviest of disinfectants, assuming it would be difficult to deactivate. However, we realized that it is a lot easier to deactivate and thus we saw the ability to use less disinfectants with shorter dwell times. Also, we continuously educate ourselves in best practices with up-to-date information that we can provide to our customers who have relied on us as their trusted source for expert advice over many generations.
What successes have you seen as a result of utilizing your own website or social media channels to provide training?
SCOLES — We have done web-based training seminars throughout the pandemic. However, now that we have a greater understanding of the virus and which products and procedures to mitigate it with, we prefer to do on-site and in-person training, which gives a much broader and in-depth educational experience to the end user.
MCGARVEY — We have found success by offering instructional and educational webinars, as well as recorded sessions via our website.
The pandemic has forced every type of business to adjust and evolve. In jan/san, that means diversification. Here, distributors comment on how the cleaning demands of end users have resulted in new product offerings.
Have you expanded your product offerings and if so, what new areas are you exploring?
SCOLES — Knowing that SARS-CoV-2 spreads mostly from person to person in the air, we continuously explore new technologies that may help to contribute with the minimizing of all viruses that may spread through poor indoor air quality.
MCGARVEY — We've added equipment that addresses the growing need for indoor air quality control, as well as ultraviolet technology to our product offerings.
GREGO — We typically look for unique items nobody else carries that align with our mission about sustainability. Europe seems to be farther ahead of the United States in that respect.
SPALLONE — I might have a unique belief, but when you diversify your business, you also dilute your expertise. With the full force of consolidation, I think the one strategy that will keep us relevant into the future is being a niche product expert. I’m willing to bet the farm on it, or in this case my business. I think we will be selling fewer items in the future. With a higher focus on the products, we can show true differentiation in the market.
Are you seeing any specific needs/trends based on client/facility categories?
SPALLONE — The labor shortage coupled with the need for improved cleanliness will be the thing that drives product innovation.
GREGO — Hot topics right now are air purification, time-reducing disinfection equipment, training and services. One thing people can’t buy online is expertise, so there is value in knowledge when it comes to selling results.
SCOLES — With some customers having difficulty finding staff members, we are noticing that the need for equipment and tools that improve productivity is increasing. We also look to educate the customer on proper equipment maintenance, which helps to keep the equipment they have on-hand in optimal working order.
Labor issues are disrupting businesses all over the country. In this section, distributors comment on their own challenges, as well as those they are hearing from end user customers.
Are you experiencing labor shortages and how are you overcoming them?
SPALLONE — This is without a doubt the most challenging issue we face. Momentous growth coupled with a severe labor shortage is turning my hair gray way too fast. Fortunately, we have forged a culture of recruiting. When your whole team is trying to help fill open positions, it does two things: First, it expands your reach to find that next great team member; and second, when your team is spending its time talking about the benefits of your company/business, it drives home the value of where they work, which reduces turnover significantly.
GREGO — There are people out there but finding those with the right experience may be difficult, especially in the jan/san industry.
Do you allow staff to work from home, and if so, are there any specific challenges associated with this?
GREGO — We are not equipped to have everyone work from home, however our customer service department works a hybrid schedule. We learned from experience that when employees never report to the office, there is a loss of company culture and communication.
SPALLONE — We run our business lean, and our team members wear a lot of hats. Most of them have been cross-trained in many other job functions. That makes it very challenging to set up a program that allows for remote working. The pandemic did push us to provide contingency plans for when people are either sick or concerned about potential exposure. In those cases, we have helped our team members to have productive workdays at home.
Corinne Zudonyi is the Editor-in-Chief of Sanitary Maintenance and has been in the cleaning industry for 17 years. She also oversees CleanLink.com, Facility Cleaning Decisions magazine and Contracting Profits magazine.