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The Evolving Facility Maintenance Distributor Model: Finding New Significance in a Changing Environment

Written by  Leah Runge

04- FMDModel-1

Experienced building service contractors (BSCs) are well aware of all the changes that have occurred when it comes to selecting professional cleaning products, tools, and equipment. At one time, the only option for buying professional cleaning chemicals, commercial vacuum cleaners, and other tools and equipment was to shop at a local facility maintenance (FM) distributorship.

But today, there are scores of options for selecting these products in both brick-and-mortar settings as well as online. In fact, e-commerce for professional cleaning products has advanced further than anyone a decade ago thought it would.

This trend has had a sobering impact on the facility maintenance distribution industry, as it has struggled to deal with these changes—and many have not. The number of FM distributors in the United States has declined significantly since 2000. Some distributors have gone out of business entirely; some have merged with other distributorships to weather the storm; many were bought out by stronger distributors seeking more national coverage; some entered other markets and added vertical service offerings; and others became affiliated with national buying or marketing groups, allowing access to a wider range of products, support, professional marketing services, and related help to better serve their customers.

As a result, the traditional business model FM distributors have followed—and BSCs and facility managers have supported since the start of the 20th century—is coming to an end to meet changing market conditions. Proactive distributors are rapidly developing new business models that allow them to expand their services and further enhance their ability to provide solutions—beyond just products—for end customers. Whether referred to as “add-on” services or expanded services, the goal is the same: to re-establish and restore the distributor’s significance to BSCs and property managers.

Expanded Services

Many BSCs and property managers are aware of some of the expanded services FM distributors now offer. For instance, it is fairly common for an astute, dedicated distributor to meet with a customer’s cleaning crew late at night and educate them on how to use a new product or piece of equipment. Additionally, a FM distributor has the unique ability to address cleaning-specific challenges.

However, some expanded services are less known or still evolving. For instance, many FM distributors are more involved in product innovation than end-customers may realize. Through their feedback, experimentation, testing, benchmarking, and even establishing what one distributor referred to as “cleaning challenges” (comparing multiple products for performance and effectiveness), distributors have become a valuable communications channel to manufacturers, helping them develop products that offer a wide range of solutions for end customers.

Additionally, today’s distributors bring a breadth of product knowledge to their customers, which may not be fully realized or appreciated until it is needed. Invariably, the distributor is well aware of virtually every problem a BSC or property manager might encounter when it comes to cleaning and maintenance. Instead of searching the Internet for effective or unproven solutions, a call to a local distributor can often solve a problem.

Other expanded services some distributors are now providing BSCs and other end customers include:

Workloading: Typically using web-based analytical tools, workloading allows BSCs and managers to better understand and determine the cleaning needs of their facilities. It can provide such information as how many workers are needed to maintain a location, the amount of time it should take to clean a facility, labor and supply costs, etc.

Enhanced product selection: Technologies now available to some distributors allow them to suggest product alternatives to BSCs. For instance, they can suggest an environmentally preferable product to replace a conventional product with similar cost and performance standards or a comparable product that is less costly or more effective. These systems enable distributors to collect and interpret vast amounts of data and turn that information into insight for their customers, which empowers BSCs and facility managers to make logical, fact-based decisions and streamline the procurement process.

Product Access: In some cases, distributors often have greater access to products during times of shortages. They also may be aware of future price changes, which can help their customers save by purchasing ahead of these changes.

Streamline purchasing: Purchasing and procurement for BSCs and facility managers have traditionally been a time consuming and, as a result, costly process. Distributors can help improve efficiencies and streamline the procurement process for their end customers through the use of new technologies and analytical tools. For some facility managers specifically, these tools provide an opportunity—sometimes for the first time—to better understand exactly what cleaning-related products they are purchasing, if redundant purchases are being made, and if less costly or more environmentally friendly alternatives are available.

Click and Deliver: Some distributors now allow their customers to shop online for products, which are then delivered to the customer or ready for pick-up, whichever is easier.

Cost savings: Typically, when we think of purchasing professional cleaning products at a reduced cost, we consider mega-retailers and some online stores. However, many manufacturers offer distributors special rebates and promotions that can be passed on to end customers. Invariably, distributors that are associated with buying groups or sales and marketing organizations have access to these special programs.

Making sustainable choices: As referenced earlier, some distributors are now going beyond just offering green cleaning products and are helping customers be both green and sustainable. In coming years, sustainability in all aspects of building operations, including cleaning, will increasingly become center stage.

Future Trends

Probably the most difficult period for FM distributors was in the early 2000s. This was when the full impact of mega- and online-retailers was being felt. This was also the time when the industry realized it would have to change its business model in order to survive these changes. The economic downturn of the past few years has also left its mark, causing the demise of some distributorships that did not made adjustments fast enough to deal with changing times.

What BSCs and facility managers can expect in the next few years is further consolidation of the FM distribution industry, but most likely not at the pace of earlier years. However, and what is likely more important to BSCs and facility managers, we are likely to witness the evolution of FM distributors that are far more technically savvy. Successful distributors will also have a variety of analytical tools and technologies available, be much stronger and viable businesses, and be more aware of and have access to a wider variety of products to meet evolving cleaning needs.

Will FM distributors continue to play an important role in the professional cleaning industry? While the distributor model of the past century is fading fast, the new model will likely make the FM distributor not only valuable, but also an increasingly important partner for BSCs and facility managers as they meet their own challenges and changes.

Leah Runge is Marketing Manager for AFFLINK’s eLev8® system. AFFLINK is a leading sales and marketing organization for the facility management, healthcare, education, industrial, packaging and related industries. Runge can be contacted via her company’s website at http://afflink.com/Default.aspx

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