Jan/san Web sites are fast becoming virtual one-stop shops — but filling customers’ online shopping carts is just the first step. Once the purchase is made, a quick video provided on distributors’ sites can demonstrate exactly how to use the product. In addition to videos, with the click of a mouse, users can download and print tax forms, credit applications and material safety data sheets (MSDS).

Quick and easy access to these documents can save time — and prevent headaches — for salespeople and their customers. And the more information distributors can provide on their Web sites, the more likely their customers are to return.

Top Forms
Distributors today are providing customers with easy access to a variety of downloadable transaction forms, such as tax forms and credit applications. Not only is this convenient for customers, but it saves distributors money and helps to speed up the process of completing paperwork.

H.T. Berry Co., Canton, Mass., obtained the credit and tax forms that their customers need from the state of Massachusetts, and posted them on its Web site for customers to download. “It’s a big success and has helped speed up the opening of new accounts,” says Chris Nolan, H.T. Berry’s president. “Instead of mailing thousands of forms, we educated our sales force to meet with customers, show them how to pull up the forms on the Web site and download them, and then e-mail the completed form back to us.” New accounts can now be processed in about 10 minutes, he adds.

MSDS are common downloads on many distributors’ Web sites. The original files are usually available from the manufacturer in electronic format. I.S. Gill, vice president of packaging for West Coast Paper, Portland, Ore., recalls the days when the company kept MSDS files in a warehouse. “We have 12 locations, and it was difficult to maintain all those books,” he says. The system involved a lot of manual work and was prone to errors. Now MSDS are readily available on the company’s Web site, which provides efficiencies and can clear up confusion.

Patsy O’Grady, CIO of Strauss Paper Co., Port Chester, N.Y., is building a database of MSDS for the company’s Web site. “We decided to do this because it’s more cost effective, and users can access the information quickly,” she says. “It benefits the customers and us because it doesn’t tie up customer service when requests come in.”

Another advantage of posting documents like MSDS online is that customers have access to them any time of the day or night. “Our customer base does not necessarily work 8-to-5,” says Steve Weber, information services manager, Coastwide Laboratories, Wilsonville, Ore. “It’s a 24/7 operation, and if someone needs that information in the middle of the night, it makes sense to have a Web site with downloads.”

Some distributors still prefer to offer links to MSDS and product literature on their manufacturers’ Web sites. “It saves us a lot of work,” says Gary DeSantis, secretary/treasurer, DeSantis Janitor Supply Co., Meadville, Pa. The company’s Web site, which is undergoing construction, will use icons to link to vendors’ Web sites where customers can access all the documents they need.

But Michael Rosenfeld, managing partner, Web Connection, Baltimore, cautions distributors against linking to third-party Web sites.

“I’m not a fan,” he says of the practice. “From there you can easily get sidetracked and never find your way back to the original site.” Instead, he recommends posting a PDF file that customers can easily view and print, and distributors can easily update.

The Popularity Of PDFs
Whether distributors are posting MSDS, tax forms or product literature, portable document format (PDF) is still the most popular download format. Developed by Adobe Systems, a PDF captures the elements of a printed document as an electronic image that can be read by any computer using Adobe Acrobat Reader, a free application easily downloaded from the Adobe Web site. Benefits include high-quality images and small file sizes.

Coastwide Laboratories offers all of its product literature and MSDS for download in PDF. “We found that this is the easiest way for our customer to receive the information,” says Weber. He also likes the fact that a PDF maintains the appearance of the original document as it was produced for customer distribution, and it cannot be altered. The company’s chief chemist, Roger McFadden, writes training programs and articles that are also offered as PDFs so customers can download the latest cleaning news and techniques.

Creating a PDF and uploading it to the Web site is a fairly easy process, distributors say. If the company decides to scan its own documents, it can purchase a scanner that already has software for creating PDFs. If the company already has a scanner but not the necessary software, it should consider purchasing Adobe Distiller or an equivalent type of software to save scans and convert them to PDF. Once the PDF is created, the distributor’s Web site manager can upload it and apply the proper html tags to create a link to the document on the company’s Web page.

Web Education
Downloads are especially useful for training purposes. When salespeople need to explain cleaning procedures or how to use equipment, words and hand gestures sometimes have their limits. And although video downloads are not yet prevalent on distributors’ Web sites, some are using them to replace or augment instructional text and photos.

Mar-Co Equipment, Pomona, Calif., has several videos on its Web site, including two that show equipment in motion. Each video is only a few seconds long.

“When we went live, these were the models that were most popular,” says Becky Brown, office manager. “The footage is similar to what we would do for our customers or prospects when we go out to their location. It’s a mini-demonstration so they can see what the machine does and what it looks like.”

The video also gives the viewer a better appreciation of scale. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell what size the equipment is,” says Brown, “so it helps when you see someone standing next to it and using it.”

In addition to video clips, Mar-Co Equipment provides as many photo views as possible so customers can see the equipment from every angle. Andrew Williams, president, Nectar Marketing, Grafton, Mass., a Web site and business consulting company favors this approach. “In this industry, keep it simple,” he advises.

If you must include video, Williams says you should keep it short. “Complication adds confusion on every level, and it certainly increases cost. People try to do too much. For example the 360 degree video: it’s totally ineffective. When you add a file that size, the load time becomes 50 seconds instead of seven, and people leave before 50 seconds is over.”

Instead, he advises distributors to focus their efforts on product descriptions and images and provide as much detail as possible.

Size Wise
Web Connection’s Rosenfeld believes that video is a valid application for distributors, but he admits that file size can sometimes scare them away.

“They may have an arrangement with their Web hosting provider to give them finite disk space to host the Web site,” he says. “When you start talking about video, you can get into the large megabyte/low gigabyte file size, and that often exceeds their space requirement.”

First, make sure you know how much space is available from your provider. Hard drive space is cheap, says Rosenfeld, so it should be inexpensive to add space to the server if needed.

Distributors can approach their suppliers to determine if they already have a video that could be adapted for their Web site.

“The distributor wouldn’t have to absorb the costs of creating a video,” says Rosenfeld, “but they might absorb the costs of sizing that video for use on the Internet.”

In addition to ensuring an appropriate file size, distributors should choose a popular video format to ensure that customers and prospects can easily view them.

Most people have Microsoft Windows; therefore, they have access to Windows Media Player for watching downloadable and streamed videos. And distributors with Windows XP already have the built-in capability to make movies with Windows Movie Maker and save them in the Windows Media format.

Coastwide Laboratories is working on a professionally produced video that will play on Windows Media Player. “The movie talks about our commitment to sustainability and our green product line,” says Weber. Customers can download the 10-minute video and watch it at their convenience.

Apple’s QuickTime is another popular video format. Viewers can download the QuickTime player for free whether they’re operating in a Windows or Mac environment.

Most users today have high-speed Internet connections, but distributors should still be careful not to bog down their Web sites with huge downloads.

“Customers aren’t impressed with flashy graphics,” says Williams. “If you impress one or two people, but frustrate three, that’s not the direction you want to go.”

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.


K-C Launches Safety Portal
Kimberly-Clark Professional, Roswell, Ga., recently announced the addition of a Web portal that provides information and tools regarding occupational safety.

The site, www.kc-safety.com/kn, is intended to be a one-stop shop for all occupational safety needs. Worker health and safety is a main component, and special attention is given to specific concerns such as avian flu, disaster remediation, and protecting workers from hazardous situations.

Finally, the site will give users access to news on industry events and conferences as well as tools and calculators.

Ecologo’s ‘Fraud’ Advisory Now Online
The EcoLogo Program, formerly known as the Environmental Choice Program, recently instituted a new “Fraud Advisory” service on its Web site, www.ecologo.org. The advisory lists the manufacturers and products falsely claiming certification under the EcoLogo label. This list is intended to help distributors and end users determine whether a product is indeed certified as green by EcoLogo.

Since the advisory began, two companies were noted as falsely claiming certification. Once their names were posted, those companies either removed the certification or fixed the compliance issue, and their names were removed from the list.

CleanHound Adds Article Search Function
In May 2006, the industry’s first search engine, www.cleanhound.com, was launched. To make the site even more user-friendly, a new search feature has been added that gives users the option of focusing their search specifically on industry-related articles.

To access the “article search,” click on the “articles” button above the site’s search window. The feature displays recently-published and archived articles from all industry publications and government agencies.