What do distributors do, anyway?

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Michael Wilson
Michael Wilson

Many long-term care administrators and executive directors, as well as the leaders of many other types of facilities, are unaware of the important role distributors play in keeping their facilities open and operating effectively.

The administrator or executive director may be aware of a product's name, for instance, but he or she often is not aware of the distributor marketing that product. In other words, the distributor often plays an invisible role for many long-term care and senior living leaders.

So, let's try to correct this. We already mentioned that distributors play in keeping communities up and running, but how do they do this? Here are some examples:

  • Many manufacturers do not market their products directly to end customers — the term they use for the administrators and executive directors of senior living communities and other settings. Instead, they depend on a network of distributors to market their products around the country.
  • Distributors educate the end customer of the features and benefits of a product and suggest those that may work more effectively in their community, and why. 
  • In many industries, end customers can select from numerous products from scores of different manufacturers, and all are designed for the same or similar purposes. Trial-and-error purchasing is not an option. Some distributors have elevated the buying process by giving access to online dashboard systems. These computer-based systems can compare products, helping administrators and executive directors make thought-based purchasing decisions.
  • The distributor also educates administrators, executive directors and their staffs on how to use products; this is a role manufacturers usually do not or cannot play. It is not unusual in the professional cleaning industry, for instance, for the distributor to work directly with custodial staff members, training them how to use a new machine or cleaning solution.
  • Without a distributor, many administrators and executive directors would not be aware of what products are available to handle specific situations or challenges.
  • Distributors transport products from large warehouses to facilities throughout the country. They are the direct contact for administrators and executive directors when they are selecting products for their communities and having them delivered.
  • The distributor handles all the paperwork and invoicing. Very often, distributors have systems to help determine when a customer will need more of a certain product — for instance, a cleaning solution. This ability frees administrators and executive directors to focus on their many other duties.
  • In some cases, end customers purchase products and equipment directly from a manufacturer. If issues arise with these products or the use of these products, however, whereas the manufacturer may provide some assistance by email or on the phone, ultimately, the manufacturer will refer the end customer to a local distributor for help using the product or if it needs service.

I also should note that the more complex or technical a product is, the more end customers need the guidance and help of a distributor.

For instance, some larger senior living, long-term care and medical facilities are purchasing what we could call “robotic” floorcare equipment. The ways these machines work is simple, but getting them to do their job can be complicated.

These robotic floor-cleaning machines are designed to perform repeatable work flawlessly. For instance, a robotic floor machine can be taught to scrub-clean a long hallway or lobby floor every day or whenever needed. Each time it is used, and if it has been adequately “trained” and the right cleaning solutions are used, it will produce the exact same results.

But teaching the machine how to do this work every time, as well as teaching the custodial crew how to make sure the machine is working properly, is programmed correctly and that all safety issues are addressed, takes time. This time typically is provided by the distributor, not the manufacturer that has developed the machine.

And one more thing that long-term care administrators and executive directors should know about distributors is that they are becoming very focused on sustainability. Using the professional cleaning industry, again, as an example, many have teamed up with ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association, to adopt initiatives that have helped them scale back their consumption of fuel, energy and water. These distributors have saved, on average, $20,000 annually in operating costs.

Many of these distributors now are helping their customers adopt some of the same sustainability strategies and initiatives. So now they not only are marketing products that can help keep a senior living or long-term care facility open and operating effectively; they also can help them cut back on their operating expenses as well.  

Michael Wilson is vice president of marketing for Afflink, a global company specializing in supply chain optimization, providing clients with the Elevate process as well as procurement solutions meant to drive efficiencies and help reduce operating costs.

McKnight's Senior Living welcomes marketplace columns on subjects of value to the industry. Please see our submission guidelines for more information.

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