A History Lesson Of Perseverance, Growth And Success
By Linda Silverman, Executive Chairwoman, Maintex
Maintenance Sales News requested I contribute an article on the cleaning industry’s achievements and what the future may hold. In pondering the request, I decided the best vantage point from my perspective was to turn back the clock to 1978 when I began my career in sales at Maintex, our family-owned chemical manufacturer/distributor. Here are my thoughts about industry changes through my journey to today and into the future.
I was a recent college graduate with a few years of work experience when I joined Maintex. All my colleagues and competitors were primarily older white gentlemen. The industry looked very different in 1978. One would not describe it as a diverse workforce. This was my first official outside sales job and the process seemed relatively straight forward. I was told my job was to open and develop new accounts. Sales planning was very different then, I was not given an existing book of customers. There was nothing referred to as “a funnel” at that time. I knew we needed to grow our business and always add new accounts. It was not referred to as “churn”, however logic dictated that to succeed you always needed to add new customers to your existing account list.
Customer targets were developed by seeking new prospects. I looked for possible businesses located near current accounts. One trick I learned from established sales reps was to tear out the relevant pages from the Yellow Pages phone books. I could not just rely on the phone book, so I went to the library and looked up lists of school districts, municipalities, businesses, and government targets. I took every opportunity to ask friendly contacts for recommendations. I knocked on doors, networked and joined industry groups including ISSA to improve my knowledge and skills.
Technology as we know it today was nonexistent. When I cold called, there was gathering information by “snooping in the back of facilities” and speaking to anyone who might help me. I was able to walk unfettered onto school campuses. I used phone booths to make calls. I carried a roll of dimes in my purse for that purpose. I found my way driving around Los Angeles with a Thomas Bros. map. I organized myself with a day timer for follow-up notes and relevant information.
I read magazines as they became available, including Maintenance Sales News. A successful technique I relied on was to approach my career as I had my college education. I researched, studied, sought knowledge, wrote proposals as I would have prepared college papers during my years at UCLA.
When I obtained an appointment for a product demonstration, I performed the work and explained the features and benefits. When a prospect approved the product, I provided a competitive price quote and hopefully opened the account and continued nurturing friendly relationships. In those days orders were either phoned in, mailed in, or picked up in person. When technology advanced in the late 1980’s, orders were faxed in.
The products I presented worked well, however there was little knowledge or concern about environmental impact or health and safety concerns in those days. There were very few regulations and little oversight. The equipment which was used was very basic…floor buffers, vacuums, buckets and wringers. Ergonomics was not a point of consideration, however price weighed heavily. It was important to become an expert and consultant to my customers. I was a hard worker who was persistent and eventually successful.
Things have changed radically since the early 80’s. Fast forward to today and it is a very different world! There have been recent real-life issues of pandemic, unprecedented supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, inflation and environmental, health and safety concerns.
In today’s marketplace we search customer prospect information with Google, use AI-generated mailing lists, websites, and LinkedIn. We use CRM to track our customer and prospect’s information. Everyone uses cell phones for calls, calendars, reminders, maps, traffic directions, photos, videos, contact information, and weather. We listen to podcasts and share information with a keystroke touch.
Purchasing experts today expect rapid and informed responses. Technology drives everything and information is readily available. Ordering is possible online through B2B marketplaces allowing for 24/7 service. Customized order forms and information about purchasing history is easily available. Product information is vast with lifestyle photos and YouTube videos. Successful businesses rely on technology. Cyber security threats are very real, and we have seen leading industry companies impacted.
Industry competition comes in many forms today:
- Traditional Jan San dealers
- Safety Supply companies
- MRO firms
- Office Supply dealers
- Food Service and Packaging distributors
- Amazon and other online firms
- Big box stores
Many distributors belong to “buying groups” and sales today involve vertical selling, inside sales teams and utilization of GPOs. The competitive landscape from mergers and acquisitions has resulted in a few very large private equity-owned or publicly traded national competitors. Privately-owned regional distributors remain as well as smaller local independents. Similarly, there are fewer manufacturers rep organizations due to mergers and acquisitions by private equity. Merging of manufacturers is occurring as well.
I believe the future will reflect the best of what we have today and more! COVID changed the image of the cleaning industry, as today we are considered essential.
We will see continuous technology-driven advancements with a greater utilization of robotics and AI in the cleaning industry. Routine and repetitive tasks will be performed by autonomous equipment. Cleaning tools will be designed with improved ergonomics and enhanced productivity. Cleaning chemicals will be developed with sustainable ingredients and renewable packaging at the forefront. There will be emphasis on water conservation and waste reduction.
I also believe companies with welcoming and inclusive cultures which value diversity, work flexibility and respect will be where workers will want to work. “Nostalgia for days gone by” is not a strategy for the future. Our industry has tremendous opportunity for success; however, we must be willing to adapt and recognize change will continue.
Linda Silverman is a past ISSA President (in 2000), Founding Council Member and Co-Chair of The ISSA Hygieia Network, and current ISSA Charities Board Member. Founded in 1960, Maintex is an industry-leading manufacturer and distributor of high-quality janitorial supplies, cleaning chemicals, and equipment in Southern California. Visit maintex.com.