Customer service - going the extra mile

26th of September 2013
Customer service - going the extra mile

If distribution were simply a matter of moving products from A to B, anyone could do it and there would be no incentive for customers to choose one company over the next. So how do distributors manage to distinguish themselves from the competition? We ask them how they add value to their offering.

Distributors are essentially the middle-men – and women – in any supply chain. They take in the orders and make sure the right products reach the right customer within an acceptable timescale.
Their key role is to carry out deliveries as quickly and efficiently as possibly. Mistakes need to be kept to a minimum and a good distributor should also know what he or she is talking about when describing the features and benefits of the products they sell.

But presuming most – if not all – distributors fulfil these key requirements of speed, efficiency, reliability and knowledge, what else can they do to make them stand out from the crowd in an increasingly competitive marketplace?

One option is to ensure that the ‘face’ of the distributor – those people whose job it is to interact with customers on a daily basis – is as customer-friendly as possible. One company that works hard at this is Smith and Coburn.

“You can’t get away from the fact you need good staff in the front line,” said director Glen Smith. “Our drivers do more than simply deliver boxes - they offer product advice and feedback information and are praised weekly by our clients.

“They also wear smart uniforms and the vehicles they drive bear our company’s livery. Our drivers are paid a higher than average rate and they have all remained loyal to the company for the five years we have been in operation.”

All Smith and Coburn employees are asked to attend a ‘customer is king’ workshop to improve their service ethic. According to Smith is it important for representatives to spend time with clients in order to develop trusting relationships. “We work with them on various long-term projects that are designed to deliver more than just box savings,” he said. “Our aim is to ‘touch’ the customers as often and in as many ways as possible through a variety of different media.”

He says another added value feature of the company is its website. “This is a quality site designed to provide good, clear information along with trusted products,” he said. “Everything we do has to meet an overall standard and we have further plans to develop our staff and market range while upgrading our IT systems.”

Marketing researcher of Cromwell Andrew Lawton says one of his company’s USPs is the fact that it is privately owned and well run. “If we have something in stock and a customer wants it, we can deliver it the next day,” he said. “That has always been our way of operating.

“We also have a lot of warehouse space which means we can afford to store a wide range of equipment that has no expiry date - such as cleaning machines - until we can achieve the best price for it.”

He adds that Cromwell strives to be a one-stop shop for customers and aims to supply all types of equipment an average business might want including personal protective equipment and office furniture as well as cleaning and janitorial products.

Another distributorship striving to be a one-stop-shop for its customers is MTS according to export manager Diana van Nimwegen. “We achieve this by offering a wide range of products and efficient logistics,” she said. “This means our customers never need to waste time searching for different vendors for the various services we offer.” Van Nimwegen adds that the company’s customer-directed service concept and its focus on innovation also help to add value.

Director of Netherlands-based distributorship Exclusiva Simon van Dijk feels that his company’s just-in-time deliveries are among the factors that sets his company apart from the competition. “This is more important than simply speed,” he says. “You need to pre-determine what the customer needs per day or per week and ensure all this pre-planned information is correct. This is the key to flawless distribution.”

He says Exclusiva also adds value by training its staff and equipping them with a basic knowledge of the products they sell and ensuring they understand the icons and labels on the packaging. “All our drivers are trained in the transport of hazardous goods,” he adds.

According to van Dijk the company can deliver smaller shipments where required and if possible will deliver on the specific day and time of day requested by the customer. “This can vary by target: for example, catering customers prefer deliveries later in the day while shops tend to prefer early morning shipments and industrial customers prefer us not to deliver on Friday.”

He says a concern for sustainability in all its processes is another of the company’s USPs. “We consider the consumption of fuel of our vehicles and also train our drivers to consider fuel consumption on all their deliveries,” he said. “And we do our best to ensure vehicles are always full when on the road.”

A personal approach is one of the USPs of Spot-On-Supplies according to marketing manager Ben Raban. “We have a field-based sales team and they visit our customers on a monthly basis,” he said. “We also offer COSSH safety training and have a small office-based team that offers a personal approach.

“I think this is the only way to conduct business: it means you know your customer and you don’t waste their time. When visiting a customer’s premises, for example, our delivery people know which door to drive through and which cleaning cupboard to drop the goods off at.”

Industrial Cleaning Equipment adds value via operator training, a 24-hour help desk and an asset management tool according to sales director Rob McInally. The company offers certified training for cleaning teams. “In this industry training is no longer a ‘nice to have’, it’s a must-have – and it shouldn’t just be a one-off exercise,” he said. “Our industry moves at a fast pace with new cleaning methods and equipment being developed continually, so training is important to any business that wants to remain up-to-date.”

He says the company’s 24-hour help desk allows ICE to quickly deal with any problems or queries, and its latest asset management tool - ServiceSmart Lite –  provides clients with online tracking and support. “This gives customers instant updates on repairs and servicing at the touch of a button including real time updates on inventory status,” said McInally. “It also allows clients to anticipate operational challenges and take action before they happen, safeguarding service delivery and controlling budgets more effectively.”

Adding value has become a key requirement for suppliers in today’s turbulent times, he says. “Price does have a part to play, but in our experience clients place just as much value on the additional extras suppliers can provide.”

Marketing vice-president of Pro-Link Mike Nelson says his member-owned association is in a strong position to offer added value to end-users. “We offer a Pro-Link branded line of products across a broad range of categories and this gives our distributor members something unique to offer their end-users,” he said.

“We also develop complete programmes and approaches when selling to key segments such as nursing homes and building service contractors. These programmes include facility audits and cleaning procedures that are tailored to a particular type of building.”

Pro-Link is a network of 90 janitorial supply distributors that operate throughout the US. A sustainability programme and staff training are also among its ‘added value’ offerings, he said. “Our training to date has largely been focused on our distributors employees, but we are in the planning stages of rolling out online training for end users.

“My view is that distributors who simply deliver boxes and compete on price are the ones who are slowing going out of business,” concluded Nelson. “They can’t compete with larger, more efficient suppliers so the ones that will survive are the ones with knowledge and training to share with end-users.”


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