In jan/san distribution, good service means providing customers with quick, accurate information about everything from placing orders and price adjustments to warehouse management and product delivery tracking.

Industry insiders say the single most effective tool for providing these vital capabilities are software programs that allow for automation. Salespeople must be able to address every aspect of their daily duties from anywhere — be it at the office, in the warehouse, on the road, or at a customer’s location.

One of a number of software solutions offering wireless Web-based platforms for sales force information, inventory management and invoicing, and other duties, is Sales Pro Dashboard by Universal Business Systems (UBSYS).

“It allows the salesperson to access their information through a browser anywhere they can connect to the Internet,” says Chris Raffo, UBSYS president. “They can then access their orders, their back orders and all the information they need to do business and also place orders in real time.”

Raffo says this technology enhances the ability and efficiency of a salesforce.

“It allows the distributor to be more time- and cost-effective in the relationship with their customer,” he explains. “That saves money for both parties.”

Because salespeople are able to update information immediately, the system not only keeps records as up-to-date as possible, it can also cut down on paper, which can ultimately keep clerical staff costs down.

“It allows distributors to minimize — if not eliminate — calls to their sales support staff, so as their customers grow, they don’t need to hire more customer sales staff,” Raffo points out. “And because it’s a Web-based browser format, you don't need to involve [information technology] staff.”

While wireless communication for salespeople is beneficial to the distributor’s internal costs, there are other features of the software distributors can utilize that will demonstrate their value to a customer.

For example, UBSYS offers software that distributors can provide to their building service contractor (BSC) customers that allow the BSC to place and approve orders, maintain a budget and more. As an added bonus, these features are available in Spanish.

Through its Paper Master program, UBSYS also offers integrated proof-of-delivery, customer-specific information such as sales-tax exempt forms, a PDA-based online ordering and pricing program, product information, and accounts payable information. All of these automated features greatly reduce the number of necessary hard copies.

Stepping Up
Another distribution software company, STEP 1, Newbury Park, Calif., announced at ISSA/INTERCLEAN® 2006 that its latest software package was completely rewritten and now folds into wireless interfaces, president Bob Hestenes says.

“For the jan/san distribution industry, the two biggest things [STEP 1 software] provides are keeping track of all the special pricing for every individual customer, and preserving margins as costs, which is important for products like liners which experience pricing changes so frequently,” Hestenes explains.

The company also stays apprised of recent hardware advances. For instance, STEP 1 has optimized its software to run on Microsoft’s new wireless Ultra-Mobile PC, a device larger than a PDA but smaller than a laptop that has a full-size touch screen and runs Windows XP.

STEP 1 also offers an all-encompassing program for distributors’ customers.

“For major customers, like a multi-location customer such as a school district, we have a system where they can see everything going on at all of their locations at a glance, including each building’s purchases,” Hestenes says.

The program keeps purchasing departments in the black, which makes their bosses happy.

“It allows the maintenance manager at a school or university to know if they’re coming in at — or under — budget because that’s how he’s being judged by his bosses,” he explains.

DDi’s User Experience
Adam Waller, president and one of three partners at DDI Systems, Sandy Hook, Conn., believes the company’s Web-based, mobile software package helps to create an effective sales team armed with correct information.

Many of DDi’s program functions will help keep salespeople on the top of their game, including an e-mail alert system. This system automatically informs DDi’s clients on customer information such as gross profits, credit hold warnings, and special order delivery notification, as well as a key alert that notifies distributors when a product’s profit margin drops below the minimal accepted level.

“Instead of people pouring through reports looking for the information, we’re finding it and telling them when changes happen,” he explained.

In April, DDi will roll out its latest distribution software program — Inform — which is based in Microsoft’s .NET format. This will provide users the ability to quickly build, deploy, manage and use security-enhanced solutions with Web services.

Waller says the new program looks and works like other 21st century software in that it is no longer character-based.

“We crafted a whole new user experience using the Microsoft Windows look and feel through the .NET platform and toolset,” he explains. “It builds on 15 years of practices using the classic DDi system but presents them using a much more attractive, easier to learn Windows-based interface. It’s much more user-friendly for the online generation.”

DDi has also begun creating large price data indexes that can be sent from distributors to their multi-location customers, such as hotel chains.

“That kind of communication drives down cost and is more efficient because it’s not such a pain to notify people about such a large amount of information,” Waller says.

Activant’s Activities
In December, Activant Solutions Inc., Yardley Penn., reached a major milestone: the 1,000th sale of Prophet 21 — the company’s leading wholesale distribution software.

Frank Heenan, Activant’s director of product management says this news is particularly exciting because most competitors don’t even have 1,000 customers.

The company acquired Prophet 21 in July 2005 and released version 11.0 last October.

The updated, Windows-based version enhances inventory management and customer relationship management functionality, and adds more than 45 additional features.

Overall, Prophet 21 provides order management (including a one-screen quote and order form entry), warehouse and inventory management, automated purchasing, general ledger capabilities, and reporting and analysis functions.

Prophet 21’s recent sales success doesn’t mean the folks at Activant plan to sit back and relax. Instead, they aim to push forward, continuing to give distributors in the jan/san industry the solutions they need, says Michael Wentz, the company’s director of national accounts.

“What we’re hearing [from distributors] is they want increased or continual development in the areas of hazardous materials (HAZMAT), the tracking of those materials within their facility, and from their facility to their end customer,” says Wentz.

But that’s not all he’s hearing.

“Other segments of the janitorial market are continuing to want us to invest in tools to better price their product to increase their [profit] margins, to better manage those pricing changes and then to better manage the inventory in their warehousing facilities, getting toward automation of the warehouse,” he continues.

Activant tracks all customer feedback and builds viable suggestions into future versions of the software, Wentz added.

The distribution software field is changing and adapting as more acquisitions and consolidations occur. Because of this, distributors need to take a hard look at their software provider, advises Heenan.

“Similar to the consolidation that’s occurring within the distribution channel, there’s been consolidation within the software arena related to the distribution channel,” he explains. “Distributors need to ensure that they are not only running a healthy and viable business that allows them to continue to compete in this highly competitive market, but also ensure they are partnering with a [software] company that is not a short-term player.”

Activant’s acquisition of Prophet 21 continues to be a success, according to Wentz, because the company kept one of the most important resources: support staff.

“Where there were mutual resources, like in finance or marketing, there was some consolidation, but the key part was that support staff was retained so they could continue to offer support to customers,” Wentz says.

The ultimate goal of software developers is to simplify distributors’ jobs. By keeping up on the latest trends, be it Web-based programs or other platforms, today’s distribution software is saving time, reducing redundancies and increasing efficiencies.

Steven Potter is a writer based in Milwaukee.


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