Many — if not most — businesses and institutions are feeling economic pressure and are trying to cut expenses to the bare minimum. When customers “pull back the reins,” it’s their distributor’s profits that suffer. But the impact doesn’t have to reach too deeply into distributors’ pockets. The current economic downturn presents some opportunities for the distributor — as well as challenges. This is definitely the case with floor care chemicals.

“There are still some people who shop for price, but more and more customers are recognizing that value-added products save money in the long run,” says Jerry Vlaminck, president, Pro-Clean Corp., Minneapolis. “They want quality floors, with user-friendly chemicals and non-offensive odors and are willing to pay for same.” Customer concerns fall between durability and maintainability, Vlaminck continues. “Surfaces have to be hard enough to hold up to traffic in supermarkets, medical centers, and manufacturing facilities, but they have to be easy to maintain as well. Some are easier to maintain than others.”

How do distributors find out what chemicals are both effective and easy to use, and how do they convey that to the customer? “You find out what works through experience, and then you do a side-by-side test with your product and your competitor’s,” Vlaminck responds. “Your customer can see what product works best on his particular floor, and if you present ease of use, you have a strong selling point. Seventy percent of all janitorial costs is labor, and customers understand this.”

In terms of chemicals used, “It’s vital to have a good neutral cleaner,” Vlaminck says. But, to make sure clean floors stay clean, distributors must analyze traffic flow.

“One customer had a shop, and when workers entered, they walked onto the wax floor and then onto the carpet. The equation is that every square foot of matting can contain 60 pounds of dirt in a year’s time, and every pound that gets into the building costs $60 to get out. So you have to contain the dirt before it gets into the building.”

Conventional mopping or doodle dusting puts 30 percent of the debris up into the air, and it will eventually settle back down on the floor. The solution, Vlaminck says, is a neutral cleaner that will suspend the dirt and remove it from the floor without damaging it. Don’t use harsh alkaline detergents or bleach, he warns, because often, once the finish is on, it acts like armor on the floor, but it is weakened from within.

Gary Pollard, general manager, New England Maintenance Depot LLC, Springfield, Mass., agrees. “Use a good neutral cleaner. If you use ammonia or bleach, it will attack the finish over time.”

“The critical thing with hard floor care is that you want the products to stay on the floor as long as possible,” Pollard explains. “The challenge is to avoid stripping products and reapplying them — that takes a lot of skilled labor. We’ve been very successful in selling the better brand names, which are costly, and putting [the customer] into a comprehensive program.”

Sometimes there are conflicts between quality and ease of application. “It used to be that sealers and finishers were two different products, but now they’re often combined into one,” says Jeff Salamone, owner, Bear Distribution, Inc., Rockford, Ill. “It’s like when you paint a wall. If you put a primer on and then paint it, it will look better.

Educated Decisions
In terms of a finish, “You want one that is self-leveling, so when you put it down the chemistry of the finish has the right levels of bonding, so there is a nice clear gloss when it’s dry,” Vlaminck says.

“You need a workable finish, preferably not one too hard, because it will scratch. A slightly softer one you will be able to burnish,” Pollard adds. “Here you want to put in a maintaining chemical that puts some moisture back into the finish and allows you to shine it.”

“You want a good spray buffing program,” Vlaminck says. “Everybody has one, but only a couple really work. Ideally, you have a 4 percent solid protection over the finish — like wax over a car.”

The use of good chemicals dovetails into the use of good equipment. “Depending on the size of the facility, rotary auto scrubbers allow you to do the job in the shortest period of time,” says Pollard. “And high speed buffing machines allow you to shine the floor and make the finish durable, since they heat the floor so the finish gets harder.”

There is also an auto scrubber that puts down a neutral cleaner to scrub the floor, Vlaminck says. The user can vacuum to pick up the water and soil but it will leave behind a little spray buff material. “It’s a hybrid — part cleaner and part spray buff,” he adds.

The chemicals used must always match the machine, Vlaminck adds. “If you have a 1,500 rpm burnisher, you want to make sure you don’t use chemicals that respond to a machine with 2,000 to 3,000 rpm.”

“Even though facilities are under restrictions with budgets, they still want to maintain that fantastic look,” says Deone Johnson, vice president/sales, Brissman-Kennedy, a division of AmSan, St. Paul, Minn. “Since their introduction, the larger riding scrubbers have become very popular. They are most productive and are able to cover large areas, and they can use people on light duty, such as those with workman’s comp issues. The quality of the floor finishes is phenomenal, the dry times faster, and the maintenance minimal.”

Leasing has become extremely popular, Johnson says. “These machines are easy to justify in terms of the cost savings.”

There Are No Rules
There aren’t set-in-stone rules for floor cleaning, Vlaminck says. Different facilities spend different amounts when it comes to cleaning floors. A medical facility or clean room manufacturing environment might spend 50 percent of its cleaning budget on floors, and might clean them every six hours. For an office, the percentage might be closer to 25 to 30 percent, with more sweeping in between. Regular manufacturing facilities might devote 20 percent or less of their cleaning budget to floors.

There isn’t an across-the-board number to show the proportion of hard versus carpeted floors, either. A hospital might be all hard floors and a library all carpeted.

The majority of hard floors are still vinyl tile, says Vlaminck, although he sees more granite, brick, marble and other tile types — each requiring its own maintenance program.

In general, chemicals don’t usually make up the bulk of most distributors’ sales, but that doesn’t lessen their importance. In Pollard’s case, floor chemicals make up only 5 to 10 percent of his business, he says. “Still, the floors are the visible aspect, so if your work results in impressive floors, you impress your customer.”

Salamone agrees, and says floor chemicals bring good margins. “About 20 percent of our line is floor chemicals, but that’s where you can get the edge. You can’t get that with paper towels or toilet paper.”

“If you can control the floor finish, you can control the chemical program for bowl cleaner, window cleaner and other supplies,” says Johnson. “Once you have the floors you anchor the account, which allows for retention and penetration for more sales with good margins.”
All four of the distributors SM spoke with agree that the most important factor in the successful sale of floor chemicals is the education of maintenance personnel.

“As products become more sophisticated and labor becomes tight, you have a potential problem,” says Vlaminck. “If they’re not trained correctly, it’s like having a great car but not knowing how to drive it. Training is a big issue, and end users realize this. If you can provide seminars either in-house or by going to them on site, you will be providing a value-added service that customers appreciate.”

“Many maintenance people have never been trained to do anything,” adds Salamone. “You have to provide a hands-on instruction of what to use and how to do it to develop a procedure that can work for them. Our floor chemical line is about 20 percent of our business, but it takes 90 percent of our time in terms of training and procedures.”

“The hardest part about it is the hours it takes to do both the training and then following through to make sure they are maintaining the program,” Pollard says. “It’s very time-consuming for the distributor, which is why many shy away from it.”

Training, however, is becoming less burdensome because products are now easier to work with, Pollard says. “They’ve evolved into a little easier product to apply and are a lot easier to maintain.” There are more videos now available that aid in product demonstrations. The live demonstration is imperative, but the videos allow workers to review the materials on their own, thus cutting back on the one-on-one time required.

“You have to find out what works best for certain facilities,” says Johnson. There are some shortcuts, but every situation and every floor is a little different. No system works across-the-board, and that’s where people get into trouble — trying to use an inflexible system for every application.”

At the same time, more types of training aids are available. “The training and procedures are now going on CDs rather than video, which results in interactive programs, which are a lot easier to use and learn from,” Johnson says.

“Distributors need to be more proactive with these programs and really utilize these aids,” he adds. “I don’t think the average salesperson on the street uses all of the tools available to him. He’s still trying to hand out literature and give a price. But the customer is willing to pay for quality, and the biggest component of quality is good training. If you are truly a professional and really understand the entire realm of business, there has never been a better time to be in the floor care market.”

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Additional Resources:
Floor Care: Avoiding Floor Fiascos
Solutions Under Foot

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