Doing business during the last 10 years has been revolutionized by the use of the Internet as a tool to generate leads.

But very few jan/san distributors have embraced the information age for all of its benefits and advantages when attempting to generate leads, says Dave Kahle, president of DaCo Corp., in Comstock Park, Mich.

“Most of them are still relying on a salesperson to generate his or her own leads as well as traditional means through advertising,” Kahle says. “That’s the predominant mode that we are dealing with right now. My anecdotal experience is that only one out of 10 to 20 have the presence and a mindset to try to generate leads off of the Internet. The whole wholesale distribution industry is years behind the rest of the world.”

Web Sites: Lead Drivers

If a distributor yearns to generate leads through the Internet, they must first make a serious investment in the development of a Web site.

“Don’t try to do it yourself,” Kahle says. “Don’t have your brother’s kid in high school set up the Web site. And a lot of them, that’s what they do. It’s a much more complex and sophisticated issue than that.”

A partnership needs to be built with a Web development firm, says Marci Palmer, marketing and communications specialist at Nichols, a Muskegon, Mich.-based distributor.

“They understand what our vision is,” Palmer says. “Our Web site, because of this, demonstrates our commitment to quality.”

While Nichols does not have hard and fast numbers as to how many leads are garnered due to its Web site, Palmers says it acts as a virtual showroom to all of the products and services the company offers.

“We get an incredible amount of leads through our site,” she says. “The leads that we get are due to requests for online

catalogs, registering for training or seminars. This is a way we get a handle on new prospective customers.”

Ed Hildreth, co-owner of Sound Janitorial Supply in Tumwater, Wash., touts his company’s Web site as one that won a national industry award. From Hildreth’s perspective, a Web site should establish credibility with potential customers and as an entryway for potential leads into the distribution in that many visitors are shopping around the Web for prices.

“The Internet makes it very easy for the shopper to compare prices and products real easily,” says Hildreth, who indicated that many visitors request a catalog.

Initially, the company was getting flooded with requests for catalogs. Now, Sound Janitorial Supply screens the requests by requiring the name of the company. Hildreth says that the information gleaned from the catalog requests is used as a virtual handshake and leads to marketing in that area of the country or into a certain niche sector of the jan/san industry.

“I am going to say that 90 to 95 percent of our requests for catalogs come from the East coast,” Hildreth says. “For some reason the East coast is more into that.”

The request for catalog function is prominent on the company’s Web site front page, along with a “contact us” link so that prospective clients can easily reach the company. Another way the company greets the prospective client is by providing prices on many of its products. Many times a prospect will call after finding a competitive price for a product that they are searching for on the site.

“They see a floor machine and they see the price and they will call us,” Hildreth says. “They want to know the technical information and where it would ship from. Those kinds of things is what the consumer is more interested in at that point and that’s where the relationship really starts with the customer.”

Sound Janitorial Supply also touts individual log-in capability to prospective clients once they become regular customers.

The log-in allows clients a view of their purchases, information and the ability to cross reference supply delivery after they enter an access code on the Web site.

“It’s seamless, it’s easy,” Hildreth says. “A lot of times there is turnover in the people that are doing the ordering. So the new person takes over and their manager trains them in ordering from Janitorial Supply.”

This functionality can be a major selling point for prospective customers who typically do not want to spend a lot of time on the Internet making supply purchases. Individual pages with the customer’s logo and information can be set up, creating a one-on-one virtual relationship over the Internet.

“The salesperson can set this up with the customer so that anyone inside the customer’s enterprise can order anytime they want over their site,” Kahle says. “In that page are the products that you buy and your prices and no one else has access to that except you. That is a best practice.”

This virtual procurement flow removes heavy duty logistics on the part of personnel at Sound Janitorial Supply. Business, however, can be lost if security and the right technology is not in place, according to industry experts.

“Many times we won’t see the customer and many times we won’t see the actual product that they get,” Hildreth says. “We know the product, we have it, we use it, but the actual one may ship from the factory to them.”

In turn, this functionality allows the company to concentrate on building its client base and chase strong leads.

Another Internet tool Sound Janitorial Supply uses to garner more business and to appeal to more prospective clients is putting its credit application prominently on the site. This application allows clients to open a 30-day account and keeps them captivated on the site.

Keeping It Fresh

A Web site must be kept fresh by allocating resources to maintain and update the site for marketing purposes.

“You create the Web site and the next week you tweak it and the next week you tweak it. It never ends,” Kahle says. “You can’t just think of it as an event, you have to think of it as an ongoing process. You need that mindset and to create a relationship with someone who is a professional in the Web business and allocate the resources long term.”

Visitors not only use the site Nichols has built to buy products but also as an educational resource on subjects such as safety and green cleaning. The company accomplishes this by posting training sessions and seminar announcements, blog items, as well as providing videos pertaining to products and training on its site. All of these tools makes the site a destination for potential clients and creates a “sticky” site where visitors stay.

The Web site also sets a tone for Nichols as an authority in the industry for those prospective clients who are searching for a trusted, knowledgeable distributor.

“Our site shows the depth of what we offer. We understand the business and we want to be a partner and provide resources in total, more than just products,” Palmer says. “Our Web site and newsletters are designed to demonstrate what we can offer as a company, more than just a bottle of cleaner or a mop bucket.”

Another way to drive traffic and potential clients is to form an agreement with vendors to have a link to a distributor Web site. Proactive marketing efforts over the Internet can also be beneficial such as e-mail blasts that send out messages to potential clients, Webinars regarding new facets or products throughout the industry, or electronic newsletters that describe new products or sales the distributor is offering.

“All of these things are ways to bring people to the Web site,” Kahle says. “You should continuously look for people to link to, places to link to, you can continuously look for groups or lists of people. It’s a forever project.”

One of the approaches that some in the Web marketing industry agree with is to view the Web site as a human employee that needs to be nurtured and trained. Much like an employee, if they are not treated with respect, they will become less valuable of an asset to the company.

“What we have found is that we get a lot of inquiries through the Web site,” says Hildreth, whose site gets about 17,000 hits a month and is responsible for 10 to 15 percent of the company’s sales. “It’s like a silent salesperson out there. They are there 24 hours a day and there is virtually very little cost to it, as long as you keep it maintained to date and current. Just another median to approach the customer with.”

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