Distributors don’t need to be an expert in a nontraditional category to take orders for oddball items, and they don’t need to have an established relationship with the company supplying the distributor, either. What the distributor does need in a situation such as this is a strong relationship with its customer. This has to be absolutely rock solid.

“I think it’s extremely important to have that trust factor with existing clients … for them to have that trust that you’ll deliver in an area that’s not your expertise,” says Nolan.

When a distributor gets sent on a mission to retrieve special products it knows its effort is probably not going to be in vain. The customer wants to treat that distributor right, and vice versa. So if what the end user is asking for is just too much or simply not practical, the distributor should be able to say no without there being an offense taken.

Moody says a great example of when “no” might be the best reply is when an end user asks for something large, like a step ladder. Sure, the distributor can buy that from a wholesaler, but because it’s a bulky item the shipping would probably cost the end user more than the ladder itself. In that scenario, he says a distributor should be upfront — tell the customer they can go buy that at a store for less. If the end user still insists on the distributor servicing them because they don’t want to deal with the hassle, then at least they know the distributor was being honest.

“If you have a strong relationships, ideally they trust you as a service provider,” says Bader. “They’ll trust you to get that (product) for them.”

Another thing a jan/san distributor is going to need before it starts offering outside product lines is a market. The nontraditional items being sold by a distributor aren’t always going to come after a customer makes a request. Sometimes it’s the distributor who will want to initiate the jump into the category.

Solutex will sometimes reach out to customers and tell them that they’re doing some research into a certain type of product or product line they’re considering selling, says Moody. Solutex will then ask that customer what they like, as well as the pros and cons of these items — another example of what a strong business relationship can do.

“Sometimes your customers can educate you on what their issues are so you can best serve them,” says Moody. “And you can apply that to many categories.”

Nolan recommends that jan/san distributors track the opinions of trusted customers before they venture into a new product line.

“I think if you were going into a new category, the best thing to do would be to survey your customer base,” says Nolan. “Go out to existing clients and see what their other needs are.”

Customers can also tip a distributor off to a bad situation before they enter a new market.

In Bader’s mind these are the three questions all jan/san distributors must ask themselves before entering into an outside product line:

  1. Is the market available and not saturated?
  2. Is this product line something that can be easily be picked up by the company’s sales team?
  3. Is it something the existing customer base is having trouble getting?

“If you’re getting into an already commoditized market … I don’t know, it sounds like a headache,” says Bader. “What do you think you can do better than the existing distributor?”

When it comes to nontraditional product lines, Bader and Moody agree that it is possible for distributors to get carried away. Bader advises that jan/san distributors never let nontraditional product lines make up more than 10 percent of their business.

“When you start offering more categories there’s more product lines that your reps have to specialize in,” says Bader. “The more and more you do it without the adequate education the more likely you become an order taker and not a salesperson.”

So don’t be afraid to explore nontraditional product lines. Just make sure the research is done first.

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