maintaining service

While the importance of strong customer service and the advantages it brings can be easy to grasp from a distributor’s perspective, having a blueprint for doing so is a more complicated matter. Those who have a successful program start at the top where the CEO makes it a priority.  

While management may say the right things, such as the common refrain that everyone on staff is technically responsible for customer service, that message can ring hollow if their actions don’t reflect the words.  

“It is true that everyone in the company is responsible for providing customer service. That also needs to be conveyed down to everyone, from upper management to the most recently hired salesperson or warehouse worker,” says Griffin. “But if the employees at the top aren’t reinforcing its importance or failing to lead by example by interacting with customers themselves, then the rest of the workforce may be less inspired to give their full effort.” 

When it comes to implementing customer service training options, Griffin recommends creating programs with incentives for employees. The topics for sessions can cover product features, common maintenance issues, or how to best clean specific rooms such as restrooms or lobbies, among other topics. The most important aspect, he stresses, is holding these sessions routinely to reinforce the message.  

Maintaining frequency means these sessions only need to last 15 minutes, which is perfect to maintain attention spans. This concise and frequent communication is what helps salespeople, warehouse staff, drivers, and conventional customer service staff have buy-in.  

“Providing ongoing training with incentives, upward mobility opportunities, and developing a culture in the organization can make it so that people want to come to work instead of having come to work,” says Griffin. “If we don't do those things in our distribution businesses, then we're going to have trouble providing the services.” 

Carrizales echoed the importance of getting everyone involved in the service efforts, noting that it not only provides valuable perspective, but can break up the monotony of a workday; an invigorating distraction or exercise that pays dividends. 

It also provides an opportunity for employees to put the training they’ve learned to the test, especially when it leads to interactions that are outside the typical scope of their job description.  

“The position of the employee will drive how customer service is delivered. For sales, I believe that there should be a combination of in-person and phone communication,” says Carrizales. “Having scheduled in-person visits gives the salesperson a chance to check in and get a real look at how the customer is feeling about how they are being treated. It’s an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships. In the meantime, phone calls between visits are always a great way to interact.” 

It’s not just salespeople who can benefit from these opportunities, Carrizales continues. It can positively impact every department if they understand and embrace the importance of customer service and the rewards it reaps.  

“Customer service reps usually are limited to the phone, but I think it is important to get them in front of customers with the salesperson from time to time to get a look at what happens daily at a customer’s business,” says Carrizales. “Warehouse people should also have a chance to do customer visits sometimes. It may just be a box to the warehouse person, but it is the customer’s livelihood. Having these types of interaction allows customer facing and non-customer people to have a different perspective on how what they do affects the customer experience.” 

Moody emphasizes the importance of training delivery drivers on their role in the customer service equation, as well. Small gestures can make a big impact — positive or negative — at any point in the customer service process, and the final delivery is no different.  

Being careless when dropping off shipments may not damage a product, but it gives the impression that the distributor doesn’t care. On the other hand, something as simple as having the drivers ask the customers if there’s a preferred way to drop off a shipment can go a long way toward building equity and loyalty. 

“We make it a priority to have courteous drivers, and I get calls from customers all the time saying it’s a huge factor in why they buy from us,” notes Moody. “One facility we deliver to has a difficult lip to get pallets of ice melt over, but our driver knows exactly how to do it. He doesn't complain, and he gets it done. They had other companies deliver in the past, and the drivers were complaining and saying they're not going to do the extra work.” 

There is, unfortunately, no “cookie cutter” customer service plan, but overcoming the unique challenges of customer temperament separates the strong distributors from the ordinary. By conveying the value of a customer service plan and putting the pieces in place to ensure consistent quality, distributors can achieve buy-in from their staff and a loyal customer base that takes notice.  

SIDEBAR: Opinions on AI 

The growing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the business world has affected most sectors, with companies either experimenting with the potential benefits or fully transitioning some of their operations to it in some way. When it comes to AI’s role in customer service for cleaning distributors, the feedback and potential is mixed.  

On one hand, Bill Griffin, CEO of Cleaning Consultant Services, Inc., Seattle, believes that AI will continue to see a growing presence in customer service because of its instant-response capabilities. While it shouldn’t replace conventional customer service departments altogether, it can provide distributors with a safety net if requests or inquiries can’t immediately be responded to.  

“People like to talk to other people, but at the same time, everybody wants their stuff quicker. The grace period people allow for when waiting for a response is shorter than it used to be, and their expectations for service are a lot greater,” says Griffin. “I think companies that don’t embrace some of the benefits [of AI] are at risk of falling behind and losing business to competitors that do.” 

Phil Carrizales director of Hygiene and Facilities Solutions for Acme Paper and Supply Company, Savage, Maryland, however, sees the potential of AI differently. In other businesses, implementing it can improve efficiency and reduce workloads — but when it comes to sales, service and overall customer interaction, the quality of an AI chat bot doesn’t meet the necessary standards.  

“The products that run through most distributors vary, and sometimes more often than we would like due to supply chain issues,” says Carrizales. “Without that human component, customers may not get the proper explanation, guidance, or direction that only a human can provide.” 

Charles Moody, founder of Solutex, Sterling, Virginia, falls somewhere in-between on the two opinions; not entirely dismissive of AI’s capabilities when it comes to providing customer service, but not ready to fully jump into the broader applications of the technology either. He sees some capabilities, albeit limited, of implementing an AI chatbot to answer customer questions when business is closed — yet at the same time the specialized nature of his business would likely make it less of a fit than others.  

“I feel that we do need to embrace some of that technology, but with the cautiousness of not letting it beat things to the punch,” notes Moody. “I think it's more important in a scenario where someone's main business is an online presence, but with us, we really go after the markets that we know we can serve well. I think one thing that's made us successful as a company is we're not always trying to sell to everybody.” 

James DeGraff, Senior Associate Editor, has spent four years creating and overseeing content for Facility Cleaning DecisionsContracting Profits, and Sanitary Maintenance magazines, as well as

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Tips for Distributors to Improve Customer Service