Utilizing Internet technology to its fullest potential is a challenge for every business today, but it is also essential to retention and maintenance of client relations.

This relatively new medium — which enables real time communication 24 hours a day, seven days a week — continues to evolve. Businesses of every size must constantly evaluate their Web sites to ensure time-strapped users are choosing their site. In ten seconds or less, users decide whether a Web site adds value to their day or not.

Even relationship-driven jan/san distribution businesses benefit from having a forward-thinking Web strategy.

In a best case scenario, your site regularly attracts qualified prospects, and helps you achieve “partner” status in your clients’ day-to-day business operations.

Popular Options
Milhench Supply Co. is a $5.8 million annual revenue jan/san distributor based in New Bedford, Mass. President Heike Milhench plans to capture more of her firm’s Web potential this year, with a new, full-time web employee who will revamp milhench.com.

The updated Web site will incorporate password-protected online ordering, reflect new branding aesthetics and ensure constant updates of product information. Adding direct links to their database means all information — such as inventory levels, pricing, backorders, statements and invoices — will be accessible to customers in real time.

The site will also include:

• Weekly and seasonal specials.

• Optional pre-approved ordering.

• Optional ordering reminders.

• Links to all products available from manufacturers through Milhench, not just its standard inventory.

• Links to MSDS materials.

• Communications via phone, email or fax.

• Eventually, an e-newsletter and company news section.

The company plans to get feedback from several of its most loyal clients, and work out any kinks before taking it public.

Milhench anticipates that, among other benefits, the site will be a better research tool for clients, ease call volume internally, and even help attract qualified salespeople.

“You have to be at the cutting edge,” she says, “if you want cutting edge people.”

Making Business Easier
Eastern Bag & Paper, Milford, Conn., is a $100 million jan/san distributorship that is building an electronic catalog — buy.easternbag.com — complete with vendor links to complement its online ordering interface.

It also plans to upgrade the Web site visually and make product information available to all visitors — even those without a password.

“They’re always free to call the representative,” explains Eastern Bag & Paper Vice President of Marketing Ken Rosenberg. “But we have customers that operate at 2 a.m. and want to look on their own.”

The firm also plans to add more online product information and training. “We’re always looking for ways to give them more useful information,” says Rosenberg.

A delivery tracker lets customers know where their order is at any time. “They love it,” says Rosenberg. “Now, if they arrive early to work, they can get information and plan their day. They can access things like invoice history and account receivable information.”

Rosenberg says online ordering has not increased sales, but customer service representatives spend less time keying-in orders and more time helping customers with other matters, which adds value. “It also reduces the amount of order entry errors,” he states.

Eastern also continues to offer ways to electronically place orders without logging onto the Web site. A custom spreadsheet lets managers keep track of what they want to order and then e-mail or fax it at the end of the day. This method won’t “time out,” Rosenberg adds.

“We want customers to do business with us the way they want,” he says. “Our next solution will be really cool. They can fax a pre-printed form that has barcodes for items. The customer fills in the bubbles for quantities. It also reduces the amount of errors.”

Eastern’s main Web site — easternbag.com — features sales literature and information on trucks and invoices.

As an added service, representatives show new customers how to use the site. “We’re still in a relationship business,” says Rosenberg.

Monitoring Your Site
Dade Paper, a Miami-based distributor with annual revenues of about $250 million, launched dadepaper.com in 2000, and is constantly upgrading it to keep it fresh and relevant. Director of Marketing Laura Craven works hand-in-hand with the firm’s IT department. Together, they track how people find the site and navigate through it using software designed to analyze site traffic.

The information helps guide improvements to make users’ experience as fast, easy and satisfying as possible.

“We can sort the data by day of the week, month, and so on,” says Craven. “It is very helpful in letting us know which pages people use and which ones they do not use. Then we put our efforts into the most popular pages.”

Since print media can become obsolete quickly, the company updates the site when manufacturers change specs and packaging, and as they add new products.

“Keeping it fresh is key,” Craven says. “You must keep changing, upgrading, updating and keeping it interesting for the user. Our company is growing and changing so much, there’s always something new. Graphics and copy are updated at least monthly. When users come back it looks different.”

Technology Mainly An Aide
Dade promotes its Web site as a value-added feature of doing business with the company. Its voice mail “hold” function has a message that promotes the site, the URL is used in all marketing materials, and salespeople access the site during client visits to help answer questions, show photos of products and pull up specifications.

An opt-in e-mail list allows the firm to send customers news and things such as discount codes. But, says Craven, they’ll use e-mail very selectively, to protect their perceived value.

Microsites are another good traffic-building tool. These special Web pages are geared to specific users within Dade’s larger target audience, and are promoted via other media such as direct mail, which is a strategy Craven calls “dual marketing.”

For instance, Dade will soon launch a formal green products campaign and a microsite with sections on LEED, Green Seal and product recommendations.

“If we can inform the customer of definitions, certifications, and provide a mini-catalog to help them, the customer will appreciate that,” Craven says.

Craven points out that online ordering will never replace person-to-person communication. “Online is a supplement, not a replacement,” she states.

The company gets 1,000 requests for quotations per month from first-time customers. Salespeople will personally get back to those customers, as well as visit established customers that regularly order online to show them new products and ensure they are satisfied with the company’s service.

“We try to have constant communication with the customer, whether via e-mail, the Web or face-to-face … Ours is a business based on relationships,” Craven says.

Lauren Summerstone is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer.

The Experts Weigh In

So what do Web experts say about how distributors can get the most from their Web sites? Janeson Keeley of JTKWeb, Roanoke, Va., and Joanne Glasspoole of Glasspoole Web Development, Centuria, Wis., offer the following:

• Add value and draw traffic with an e-newsletter that links to news, product use tips, equipment training refreshers, etc. Provide licensed articles geared for your audience. If you don’t have time to write them internally, hire a consultant or subscribe to an article group.

• Publish a Web log (blog) — a business journal of industry and internal news, customer surveys, anything you like. Be sure to update it at least weekly. Keeley and Glasspoole agree that blogs are now a respected and valued business tool — but they should be well-written and employ correct spelling and grammar.

• Add interactivity (and more value down the road) through customer polls, surveys and general feedback about the company and site.

• Hosting group discussions can be very valuable for clients and distributors. Since they should be monitored, they can be labor intensive. “Users like to have a place to come and share things,” states Keeley. “But you have to be a little bit careful. The distributor would need to watch the content.”

• Invest in a web analytics tool. Thoroughly research vendors and options, suggests Keeley, since subscription plans vary, as well as labor required to maintain them.

• Optimize search engine rankings with a site map, many of which are free or available at minimal cost. Also, make the most of your Web page title bars, which are also known as title tags.

“Ensure title bars read differently so the search engine ranks depending on what people search for,” says Glasspoole.

• Set up your site to be newsreader-friendly. Real simple syndication (Rss) is an emerging technology that is basically an automated search engine for new Web content.

Your information technology person can set up your site to be included in these newsfeed searches so that subscribers are notified whenever your site changes. Newsfeeder services such as Feedster and Google News are similar and typically free.

However, Keeley says newsfeed technology isn’t for every company. Without at least two or three updates per week, your firm may appear stagnant. Of course in today’s fast-paced information age, no business can afford that.

— L.C.


Report Outlines Maintenance Costs
The International Facility Management Association (IFMA) recently released a report on industry operations and maintenance practices. It is available at www.ifma.org.

The report surveyed 630 facilities about their costs — including utility, housekeeping and maintenance costs.

It also explores how often janitorial tasks such as cleaning, dusting, polishing, vacuuming and waxing are performed.

Database Helps With Green Formulation
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment Program (DfE) and the GreenBlue Institute (GreenBlue), have developed an online “one-stop shop” for green formulation.

Available at www.cleangredients.org, the database provides information on ingredients used in cleaning products that are environmentally preferable and safer and healthier for humans.

Interactive Site Calculates Effects of Chemicals
Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the main research division for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have developed an interactive Web site that uses a calculator to measure the capacity of a chemical to be absorbed through the skin.

The site’s calculator, available at www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/skin, is intended to gauge the potential risk of adverse effects from chemical absorption.

Buyer’s Guide Online
The February 2006 issue of SM featured
he 50th Annual Buyer’s Guide. Visit www.cleanlink.com/buyersguide for the online version.