Social media provides a new and affordable way for distributors to engage and respond to their current or potential clients' needs. Through quick and short profile updates, tweets and posts, distributors are introducing new products, fixing problems and communicating one-on-one with their clients.

"You can't ignore social media," says Paul Hanney, marketing director at Crown Products in Yonkers, N.Y. "We had to adopt it to stay relevant. The more social networking we are involved in and tied together, the better for Crown and its visibility and for branding."

Crown's customer base consists of institutions such as universities and healthcare facilities, which are fully engaged in using Twitter. According to Hanney, jan/san distribution firms should go where their current and potential clients are, even if it is in the virtual world of social networking.

"This is a way for us to reach existing buyers, existing warehouse people and new or existing business," Hanney says.

According to distributors, setting realistic expectations for customer service on Facebook and Twitter for the entire enterprise is a key element for any jan/san company wanting to go in that direction. Social media, they say, will not break the bank both from a cost or revenue standpoint.

Results should not necessarily be measured by dollars and cents but by how efficiently social media fits into the entire customer service and marketing scheme of the company now and into the future, according to Hanney.

"It's something we want to do in hopes that the people that are not using it currently will pick up on it," he says. "More people that are coming into middle management that we are trying to attract or target will eventually pick it up and we will already be established in it."

Free, Easy To Use

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook along with Linkedin and YouTube are free to use. Creating an account and getting up and running on many of the popular social media sites takes only a few minutes. These two initial factors — cost and ease of set up — are huge benefits for those in the jan/san industry.

"If one account or one order comes from social networking, then it was worth the investment because it doesn't take long to set up a Twitter account and it is very easy to tweet," Hanney says. "It's not a whole website. You don't have to invest as much time. It's very simplified and it reaches people a heck of a lot quicker than traditional means."

Terry Brock recommends distributors explore the use of social media platforms because it gives them the ability to communicate with their current and potential client base in real time.

"You can connect with them when they say, ‘Gee something is not working and I am stuck here' or ‘I just bought a widget from you and I don't like your widget,'" says Brock, a marketing consultant with Achievement Systems Inc., Orlando, Fla. "Companies that are doing the right thing will monitor that and pick up on it and respond quickly."

This response gives the jan/san company an advantage because it can quickly address the needs of that one customer that is having the problem. It also allows other customers who are following the distributor on Facebook or Twitter to read the response.

"You want to look at that complaint online as a gift," Brock says. "They are saying they don't like something, but they are also at a point where they are saying something about you and that gives you an opportunity to make it right."

Twitter and Facebook allow various levels of communications with those that follow a distributor online. From the ability to post responses that all followers can read to one-on-one messages, understanding the different levels of engagement on each platform is essential to build a customer service presence online.

Other social media platforms such as YouTube offer unique ways to serve clients. For example, if a customer service department is experiencing a high call rate on a certain product that customers are having trouble with, the distributor can use YouTube to post a quick tutorial. YouTube allows for comments, is free and is extremely simple to use.

"You can buy a flip camera, point it at a new contraption you have for cleaning and talk about it," Brock says. "You can illustrate the benefits of your product more vividly through video."

Softening The In-House Environment

Texene Van Pelt is the director of purchasing at Brame Specialty Co., in Durham, N.C. She has been following social media since its inception and is a firm believer in its power in the customer service realm.

Van Pelt began discussing the use of social media to reach customers with the owner of the company two to three years ago. She received a small bit of push back regarding social media because at the time it was relatively unknown. As a result, her advice to those who are exploring the use of social media as a customer service tool is to soften the internal environment over time.

Another recommendation Van Pelt makes to distributors thinking of using social media for customer service is to assign a point person inside the company. This person should be knowledgeable in the technology and should act as an advocate for the use of it.

"You've got to know some history about it and you got to know who in your industry follows it and participates to be able to connect with it on an intellectual level, rather than just use it for fun, so to speak," Van Pelt says. "You need someone that really understands it and what it has to offer."

About a year ago, Van Pelt convinced company leadership to begin using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as a marketing and customer service tool.

Van Pelt says Facebook has been a successful avenue to reach customers and even employees in other locations. Twitter, which is used more as a marketing tool, has not had the same success for Van Pelt's company.

"We are kind of having a slow start because I don't think a lot of our customer base is on Twitter," she says. "But we keep advertising it so we hope one day we will get more and more followers."

Van Pelt now oversees a couple of employees who post and publish to the two social media sites on a regular basis. She reviews all content that is posted before it is published to social media platforms.

"Being the director of purchasing, I felt I wanted control in what went through it (since) I am the one that handles what is in stock, what goes on internally and what we would to present and put out to the media," says Van Pelt.

Before posting, Van Pelt says she investigated how her company's competitors and company vendors were using social media.

"They were actually participating in it and I just felt we were missing some market by not participating in it so I kind of had that background when I spoke to a couple of people internally about it," Van Pelt says.

In-house training on social media applications has been sparse for Crown Products. The key is not to force those in the office to understand and use Twitter and Facebook if they do not need it for their jobs, Hanney says. Van Pelt has attempted to break some of those cultural barriers down in-house by framing the use of Twitter and Facebook as an enjoyable task.

"I've had to express to (some procurement team members) that it is fun," she says.

Van Pelt has asked each of the company's six procurement team members to send her an e-mail each week containing a product or issue they want to talk about online.

"I told them to send me something 140 characters or less and we will do the legwork for them," Van Pelt says. "That is kind of how I started with them to ease them into it."

Hanney sends emails to the entire company to explain what inroads are being made online with the company's site as well as its Facebook and Twitter page. He suggests customer service and marketing professionals set their expectations low for those employees who are not tech savvy.

"I would like to show them what it is and what it is about, but if they don't get it, I have only so many resources and time during the day," Hanney says.

An issue that jan/san marketing and customer service professionals are facing is that Facebook and Twitter are not used universally in the industry yet. Hanney says while he does not expect to reach all customers through social media, he wants his company to be there when they arrive.

"It's still in its infancy. A lot of people that I deal with both internally and externally are using it, but it's not across the board as I would like," Hanney says. "It's something that we want to use for the people that are using it with the hopes that those that are not, will pick up on it soon. We will see the value in it in the future."

Brendan O'Brien is a freelance writer based in Greenfield, Wis.