Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems have traditionally been handy software tools for jan/san distribution enterprises to compile client’s phone numbers or to create a list of addresses for upcoming e-mail blasts. But it’s time, according to jan/san distributors and CRM experts, to allow the system to flex its muscle in the realm of contact management and business intelligence.

CRM is a broad set of business practices that attempt to understand and predict a client’s needs  — everything from purchasing levels to business goals, says Paul Greenberg, president of The 56 Group LLC, an enterprise applications consulting services firm based in Manassas, Va.

“It comes down to not only their purchases, but responses to marketing campaigns and customer service interactions they have had with [your company],” says Greenberg, who is also the author of “CRM at the Speed of Light: Essential Customer Strategies for the 21st Century.”

Nichols, a Muskegon, Mich.-based jan/san distributor, has captured customer data by customizing its customer relationship management software system to allow staff to view each client’s purchasing information. This data is used to determine how much business the client has done with the company over the course of time.

“It will also drill down further into their orders to help us identify, in a broader sense, how much they purchase in paper products, can liners, chemicals and equipment,” says Marcie Palmer, the marketing coordinator at Nichols. “We generally use our CRM to see where opportunities are with specific customers.”

Nichols has five main product categories. When analyzing customer data, the staff can see if there is a “void,” or lack of purchasing, in one of the product categories, says Palmer.  

“We can have a better idea about approaching a specific customer about whatever the void is and can see who we need to be talking to about those product categories,” she adds. “The data is telling what the customer’s needs are and we can provide better solutions when we know what the needs are. When you don’t know, the data shows you the patterns and gives you the know. At least better than what you might call ‘winging it.’”

Another example of how CRM is being used to predict the needs of customers is occurring at Bruco Inc., in Billings, Mont., where the software is being used to benchmark operational efficiency and performance against other jan/san distributors. The customer relationship management software is pinpointing where sales dollars are being generated or not generated by geography and client size. It is also used to track the success rate of marketing campaigns.  

“It is absolutely critical that we not assume that our customers will continue to see us as they have seen us in the past in the realm of janitorial distribution,” says Ben Uselman, president of Bruco. “We are judged by what the customer experiences in the broad realm of relationship management with all of their vendors.”

Uselman is even considering hiring an individual to act as a liaison between the software and the sales staff, as well as an upgrade of his company’s software given the importance of CRM.  

“You better not give up consistent, predictable presence with the customer,” Uselman says.

Jan/san distributors must embrace technology to fully realize the power of CRM. Hardware and software must be integrated into the customer relationship management system so that order information is captured in real time and provides granular details about the purchase. John Treat, president of Treat’s Solutions in Oklahoma City, recommends equipping sales staff with laptops and tablets and then requiring them to electronically enter their orders as an incremental first step.

Another initial step is to understand the system that is in place to embrace CRM capabilities in terms of capturing and tracking customer patterns.

“It can be a big animal, but you start with one strategy and take a look at a certain period of time (for example, a quarter)...evaluate that data and identify one strategy you can take action on,” Palmer says. “It’s always the first step that’s the hardest. I truly believe the reward is in the grunt work. Doing all of the evaluations, pulling the reports, identifying the strategies and taking action on those strategies.  That’s grunt work, but that is really where the reward is.”  

Brendan O’Brien is a freelancer based in Greenfield, Wis. He is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.