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What Customers Want from Distributors: 5 Questions Answered by Facility Maintenance Decision Makers

Aren’t distributors are always wondering what’s really on the minds of their customers? What do customers want, what do they need, what bothers them, what services do they value most? Rather than guess, we thought we’d ask 4 actual facility maintenance professionals to answer 5 questions. We hope their responses provide some insight for you.

Let’s meet our panel of professionals:

Rick Pankey is Vice President at Crescent Cleaning Company in Chicago, Illinois. His job is to coordinate operations with sales, management and customer relations.

Ed McDonald is Director of Facilities and Operations at The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, IL.

Randy Martin is owner and President of Professional Building Maintenance, a building service contractor in Tallahassee, Florida.

Dave Parker is the Superintendent of Building Services at the Illini Union, University of Illinois, in Urbana, Illinois.

Question 1. What are three things you value most in your distributor or supplier?


  1. Performance
  2. Honesty
  3. Proactivity



  1. Customer service
  2. Honesty
  3. Integrity



  1. Good service. Part of good service would be availability if I have a question. There’s nothing better than (that) my distributor calls me back like clockwork. Another part of good service is communication; if there is an issue, let us know right away. There is nothing worse than finding out there is an issue on the day that you need something.
  2. Offers solutions. I have one vendor that I call for anything. I don’t even care if he does what I need done or provides that product or service, because I know he’ll find a solution. Always having a good solution, no matter what the issue.
  3. Punctuality in processing & shipping our orders, as well as minimal backorder issues.



  1. Availability. When I call I want to be able to talk to somebody. I don’t want to deal with a machine or computer; I want to be able to talk to, hopefully, the person who is responsible for our business.
  2. I want them to be able to have a decent enough inventory on hand so I don’t have to wait 2, 3, 4 weeks or more. Some things you’re going to have to wait for, but your routine stuff, I want my distributor to have their inventory managed properly so that at the end of the day they’re going to have the routine stuff we always order.
  3. Having information for us. Knowing where to find the answers to questions I may have, the latest technology as far as equipment or processes or chemicals. Somebody always coming up with something new. I try to keep up on stuff like that but if (I can’t) I would like my supplier/distributer to say “hey, we’ve heard about this”, or “What about that”.


Question 2: What role, if any, does your distributor play in the success of your business or operation?


They help us out in a pinch without question. When we get in a bind and need something ASAP, they get in a car and figure out a way to get it to us. Sometimes we get a situation that means a lot to us. Their solution also makes us look good to our client.


I need to meet budget every year and that means not going over. So I don’t look good if prices increase after the fiscal year, or if a distributor is aware of price increases down the road but doesn’t let me know. I’m looking for a partner; I don’t want to be viewed as just a client.


Finding solutions. An example is flooring; we came across a huge job in flooring. I needed a specific type of floor finish and my distributor was able to locate that for me. He found a solution.


They play a vital role because if I can’t get my supplies then I can’t take care of my customers, which is the staff, the public, the students… meaning I can’t clean the building, I can’t take care of all the issues that come up as far as keeping the building operating, I can’t have a building that looks nice, that is germ free, or smells good and so forth. So they’re a vital part of my success.

Question 3: What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen a distributor make?


Making a commitment to do something for us and then not following through and making excuses as to why they couldn’t.


Taking a client for granted. In other words, “I’ve had this account for two or three years. I’m safe. I don’t need to worry about the account. I just keep filling the orders. Oh there’s a price increase, I’m going to just keep increasing it, no contact [with the client], no ‘this is what’s happening with the market’. There’s new products out there but they’ve been with us for so long”. In essence, not being good at customer service.


Being out of stock on a major item and not letting us know until we found out when the truck came in that our order was not on the truck. It is definitely more the communication aspect than the fact that they were out of stock. We have multiple distributors so we can always go elsewhere, but it’s nice to know a day in advance so we can find what we need somewhere else.


Overpromising. Saying that they can get me a piece of equipment or a chemical and then we wait and we wait, and they’re either super late or we find out that they really can’t put that product or system in place, whether it’s a chemical system or a type of machinery. They talk fantastic about how it’s going to cut my production time in half. And then they don’t deliver.

Question 4: What do you see as the pros and cons of today’s online distributors?


  • Pros: I don’t see any pros to online distribution.
  • Cons: I don’t like online distribution at all. It’s very impersonal, and if you order something, you have to hope it gets there. I love interaction; I’m a big believer in interaction. I do not use online distributors.


  • Pros: The prices are usually a bit cheaper, due to the fact that they can eliminate the middleman and they don’t have to worry about inventory control or what they have in-house for a particular order or rush orders.
  • Cons: It’s harder to return items that are not compatible with the equipment you are using or what you ordered. You don’t get to ask questions about it. You don’t know when a new product has been introduced or what’s coming down the road. Shipping time can be anywhere from now until next month.


  • Pros: Ease of ordering. We have one distributor that uses an online system and our warehouse manager loves it. I personally like that sort of system as well, so long as it generates a response confirming the receipt of the order and then generates shipping confirmation information. This system will let you know if something is out of stock, if the order has been placed, when the order has been shipped, etc. The communication for what my needs are is better in a way. The same company that gives us great solutions also has a great online ordering system so we feel completely covered. Being an online shopper, I love a distributor with a great website. Anything I need I can find online. Immediate access of information is important. Online shopping is not in the future, it is the way of the present – if [distributors are] not offering it, they’ve missed the boat.
  • Cons: There are no cons.


  • Pros: Availability. You can go online and see exactly what they have, if they’re running a good business. Usually, if they say they’ll deliver a product in two days, itit shows up in two days.
  • Cons: Not talking to a human voice or not developing a human relationship where they know your operation and what you do, and they come to know what your expectations are and they’ve figured out how they can service you and how to make your job easier. When I started, it was all face-to-face. Distributors would come in for a visit and you’d show them your operation and they’d say “I have an idea here, I have an idea there…” Now you order online and everybody’s worried about cost, so you don’t see your sales people nearly as often. That’s very frustrating at times. They’re not proactive at all. In today’s world things change quickly and with all the buy-outs, you have a hard time keeping track of who is making what, and which equipment line is now out of service, or who took it over and renamed it. It’s all about the bottom dollar now and they seem to forget sometimes that part of service is getting to know your customers and being able to help them keep up with everything. Distributors should be experts on whatever line of equipment or chemicals they have, and it’s hard for us who are trying to take care of our buildings/areas to keep up with everything. Good distributors are almost like partners. They see what we’re doing, look at what their other customers are doing, see something great, and suggest it to us. I like the human contact where we can bounce ideas off each other and say “hey, do any of your customers have ideas or have they done this, what’s new out there?” And sometimes that goes by the wayside now. I feel like I don’t get it at all online.

Question 5: What is the most effective sales pitch/technique you’ve ever received?


Action. I think it shows more by if you do the job, or how you do the job, rather than sitting here and listening to you give me a verbal pitch. You can talk to me all day long … words are great … but [you need to] show me you can do it. That’s the biggest thing you can ever do to convince me that you’re the right company for me in a sale. Performance is the biggest sales pitch that I could ever receive. If your performance promise is true, you’ve got me hooked. In the end, it’s the action and how you handle yourself rather than how you talk. Don’t keep telling me how great you are, just perform well.


The most effective sales pitch was something said by a company; “If you can find a better price, I’ll pay double the difference”. If you’re willing to put your neck on the line or you’re willing to make that statement, and if I do find it cheaper and you’re willing to pay double the difference, then I trust you.


Funny story: I was single in my mid-late 20s and the salesman came out and saw me looking at a brand new Chevy Tahoe, and he dangled the brand new keys to a Chevy Tahoe. I was like “No, it’s way out of my price range”. He said, “Just drive it, it’s a great vehicle”. The best sales pitch I ever heard was when he said “Hey Randy, did you see those girls in the car next to us checking you out?” I bought the Tahoe.

Relative to this industry, the most effective sales technique is when you partner with the other company and let the other person know that when you work together there is synergy. Both of our companies together are stronger than the individual companies. A synergetic relationship. If a person can show me how working together has a synergistic value to it, it would be a great sales pitch.


The most effective sales person is somebody who is down to earth, been there, done that. He or she says “this has been my experience and I would be willing to come in and show it to you.” I like a competent, logical person. If a happy-go-lucky person comes in and says “I’ve got the greatest new machine” I’d probably kick them out the door. I like when people treat me like a regular person. If they say “I’m here to help you if I can, and am more than willing to come in and show you something,” I have a tendency to take time to listen to them. If they don’t try to blow smoke, they may get some of my business.


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