Not too long ago, Lanny Schuster witnessed firsthand the impressive influence that cutting-edge technology can have on a customer. What jan/san technology did he unveil to said customer? Well, it wasn’t a digital warehousing program that enables high-speed deliveries or a futuristic autoscrubber made with a revolutionary variant of titanium.

It was his cell phone.

Schuster, who is president of United Sanitary Supply in Baltimore, recently found himself bending down to analyze a tough spot on a carpet that one of his customers was responsible for cleaning. Neither he nor the end-user customer could diagnose the best way to treat the stain, so Schuster pulled out his cell phone and took a digital picture of it. He then took the image back to his salespeople (he could have just as easily e-mailed it to them via the cell phone), and solicited their expertise for treating the spot.

“The customer was quite impressed,” says Schuster. “I hadn’t even done anything very helpful — it was mostly window dressing, if you know what I mean — but it sure raised his opinion of me and my company.”

Of course, Schuster could have snapped the picture with a digital camera, rather than his cell phone, but that would have meant carrying two devices instead of one.

“I can foresee a time when our salespeople will be equipped with cell phones that not only have the digital camera option, but also a host of other options,” says Schuster.

If technology analysts are right, that time will come sooner than later. In fact, says Steve Epner, president of BSW Consulting, St. Louis, it’s already here.

The Phones — They Are a Changin’
“At an International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) meeting eight or nine years ago, I predicted that the television, the computer and the telephone would all interface in one machine,” says Epner. “Now, it’s actually happening. People are receiving text, voice and picture information all in one device. What we dreamed about almost a decade ago is now a reality.”

Many jan/san distributors are already experiencing the benefits of arming their salespeople with personal digital assistants — such as Palm and Blackberry — so that warehousing information and pricing data can be accessed in real time, regardless of a salesperson’s location. The next logical step seems to be combining the data-access power of a PDA with the easy communication of a cell phone.

In July, T-Mobile USA and Hewlett-Packard announced a joint venture to produce the first-ever handheld computer (Hewlett-Packard’s area of expertise) that also works as a cell phone (T-Mobile USA). The two companies announced that the device will also be able to tap into the Internet using high-speed wireless hot spots.

Schuster’s experience with the carpet-stained customer showed that cell-phone technology can impress customers, but the technology has the potential to aid distributors in concrete operations that go beyond attitudinal impact, says Epner.

“In the commercials for the digital camera/cell phone devices, you always see a bunch of kids at a rock concert, and they’re taking pictures of the rock concert to send to their friends,” he says. “That’s great for the kids, but it doesn’t really address the powerful way that business operations — the operations of sanitary supply distributors — can be affected by cell-phone evolution.”

As cell phones become more user friendly, with larger viewing screens and crisper graphics, it’s possible that someday soon distributor salespeople will use their cell phones to give their customers product demonstrations.

“It makes sense that the picture technology could be used quite well for sales calls,” says Stan Olsen, president and owner of Pro-Kem Supplies, Rose Hill, Kan. “It would be a lot easier than carrying around larger video equipment. I think the small size would help, because you could just give a quick demonstration as you’re casually talking to someone.”

Content in Current Features
The technology is already becoming available for distributors to implement high-powered cell phones into their sales arsenal, says Epner. Still, many sales managers and other executives have shown they are reticent to enter the fray.

“I know my cell phone — the one I have already — has the capacity to do a lot more than I’m using it for,” says Olsen. “I know that it can store information and help me keep track of sales data, but I guess I was born too late. I’m just kind of comfortable using it for a just one or two things, namely calling my employees.”

Not that Olsen hasn’t bought into the benefits cell phones can bring to his business at Pro-Kem: “I use [my cell phone] all the time, and so do my four salespeople. I could hardly live without it anymore. It saves me hours a day, because I can call my customers and make sure they’re getting the supplies they need, or make appointments to meet with customers — I can do everything I’d do in the office, but I don’t have to be in the office.”

Schuster agrees that cell phones, even in their basic form, have become a staple of the supply chain. “Every one of our employees — from the salespeople to the secretaries to the warehouse workers — has a cell phone.”

There is one employee, Schuster admits who refuses to use a cell phone. “We kid him about it, but it’s not surprising or any trouble for us. He doesn’t even like to use voicemail.”

Cell phones and voice mail are intrinsically connected at United Sanitary. “If someone gets a call at his or her desk, and the voicemail starts to pick up, it will automatically ring that person’s cell phone,” says Schuster. “The employee can then look at the cell phone, read who is leaving a voicemail and then choose whether or not to intercept the voicemail and take the call.”

The Information Age Arrives
Despite all the current features that cell phones possess, business owners who are interested in productivity are smart to investigate the newest options, says Epner.

“The cell phone-PDA looks like it’s ready to take off faster than any of the other applications,” he says. “The reason is simple: it’s an advantage that offers huge savings — both in time and money.”

Right now, says Epner, a salesperson needs to meet face-to-face with a customer in order to communicate about pertinent information, even though that information can be carried easily via a PDA and addressed in real time. With a cell phone/PDA, that same information can be exchanged and discussed with either party being in almost any location.

“Imagine creating a bid spec while I’m sitting in one place and you’re sitting in another,” says Epner. “I can calculate price and give it to you as we’re talking on the cell phone. I can do everything that we’d be doing if I was sitting in my office with the customer and I had a big laptop or PC on my desk.”

When Schuster was in Amsterdam for ISSA’s international trade show, he noticed that cell phone/PDA devices aren’t an anomaly for many of his Asian and European distributor counterparts.

“I saw people — salespeople and other executives — who would constantly pull out what we would call Blackberries, and make phone calls or check warehouse data with that one device. They would just push a button and use it for checking data; then, they’d push another button and call someone like it was a cell phone. I also noticed that they could use that same device for sending e-mail or even surfing the Web.”

The Land of Rising Tech
Many of the Asian companies — distributors from Japan and South Korea, for example — seemed to be especially ahead of the technology curve, according to Schuster.

The fact that Asian companies are using cell phones in ways that American businesses haven’t even thought about isn’t surprising to most technology analysts.

U.S. and European cell-phone manufacturers have a keen eye on which applications become popular in Asia. The reason: any hot cell-phone trend in Japan, South Korea or Singapore usually becomes a hot trend in the United States a few years later.

The number of people using cell phones in Japan, for example is a staggering 78 million — about 2 out of every 3 people. Every cell phone in Japan is equipped with e-mail — called “sky mail” — in addition to regular audio communication.
It’s also not unusual to see lines of people in several Asian countries read newspapers, magazines and even novels via their cell phones, according to Trends in Japan, a website that analyzes Japanese trends.

In late August, Laila Weir reported in Wired magazine that cell phones are being used in Japan and Korea in place of credit cards.

“People fed up with the proliferation of credit cards, IDs and key cards that fill their wallets to bulging may soon have an alternative,” writes Weir. “New technology could bundle such functions into just one item: your cell phone.” Weir goes on to detail how companies like Sony, Nokia and Royal Philips Electronics are developing cell phones with embedded microchips, so that each phone can be scanned as a debit card or for electrical identification.

Communication is Key
In the end, whether businesses or individuals reside in the West or the East, everyone seems to agree that communication is changing rapidly, and that businesses will have to adapt to those changes.

“There’s no reason for distributors to be wary of the changes — they’re good for us,” says Schuster. “The more information we can get to our customers, the more valuable we prove to be as partners in the supply chain. Today, communication is selling and selling is communication. It’s as simple as that.”


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