ACTION JPS Keeps Focus On Customers, Employees While Servicing Memphis, TN, And Beyond
By Harrell Kerkhoff Maintenance Sales News Editor
Education and training, quality products at a fair price, dependable service after the sale, and timely delivery — such hallmarks have stood the test of time for many successful jan/san distributorships. They continue to be the steady foundation for ACTION Janitorial*Paper*Safety (ACTION JPS), which has serviced Memphis, TN, and surrounding areas since 1994.
The company’s product line includes janitorial chemicals, equipment and related supplies, paper products, safety and PPE items, food service disposables, office supplies and furniture, traffic safety barricades and cones.
“We are a full-service provider of janitorial and related products. We supply products and services that help people maintain a building,” ACTION JPS President Charles Barnes said.
There is much more, of course, to helping customers keep their facilities clean than simply selling products. That was abundantly clear during the throes of the global COVID pandemic — and its current aftermath.
“Many lessons have been learned by people in charge of facility care during that period, most notably understanding the difference between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. It often falls on distributors to explain that sanitizing a surface, for example, is not the same as disinfecting that surface,” Barnes said. “It is important to show people the best products to use, and how to properly use them. We put programs and documents in place to help customers keep their facilities both clean and safe, which is always important, but especially during a pandemic. We also make sure such information is available to new employees working at a facility, allowing them to continue with the proper products and procedures, as staff turnover is a common issue.”
“The most valuable lessons from the pandemic have centered around the need for added knowledge pertaining to supplies and procedures. It is also important to not take anything for granted,” ACTION JPS Vice President of Sales & Marketing Garland Holmon added. “At ACTION JPS, we show customers how to implement ‘systematic’ cleaning and disinfecting routines to avoid costly ‘knee-jerk’ reactions. That has helped people ‘stay ready so they don’t have to get ready.’”
Another lesson learned at ACTION JPS is the value of “staying in your own business lane.”
“There were certain products during the pandemic that our customers needed. As a distributor, we felt it was necessary to find and stock those products. The problem was, once the pandemic subsided, we ended up with too much inventory of those items,” Barnes said. “I learned that if that type of situation reoccurs, it will be smart to do a better job of staying in our own business lane.”
A History Of Expertise, Service
Soon to celebrate its 30th anniversary, ACTION JPS was started in 1994 by Sherry Crowe as a janitorial supply company. Initially, the customer base consisted of mostly small businesses and churches.
“At the time, I was working for a competitor in Memphis but eventually came to work for Sherry and became a partner in 2010. Sherry and I worked very well together over the years, and she has since retired. I am now the sole owner of the business,” Barnes said. “Today, not only does ACTION JPS focus on small businesses and churches but we have added to our customer base. It now includes health care providers — we supply virtually every hospital in Memphis and surrounding area — large businesses, and both the local and federal government.”
“It helps that we have an excellent management team. These company leaders are given the power to make decisions on their own, and on a timely basis. The only requirement that we have given them is to make those decisions with the best interest of our company and our customers in mind,” Holmon added. “Much of our company’s success comes from the strength of our team and being passionate about customer service.”
What stands out about any good company is customer service after the sale. It’s important customers are using the right products and know how to use them. It’s also important to demonstrate how they can be the most efficient when using those products.
“You can save more money by being efficient rather than just buying the cheapest product,” Barnes said. “I learned that a long time ago. For example, with floor finish, a person can buy the cheapest product, but if he/she must keep reapplying that product, where is the real savings? That process, in my opinion, is inefficient.”
It helps that ACTION JPS offers a variety of training programs for employees and members of its customer base, often with the help of vendors.
“That includes training for our sales and inside customer service teams. Such training helps our employees recognize opportunities to better serve our customers,” Barnes said “A lot of people who are responsible for cleaning facilities run into issues that must be solved. That is where our expertise, as a jan/san distributor, comes into play.
“We also provide training for our truck drivers and employees who work in ACTION JPS’s equipment service department. Those are critical areas when it comes to customer service. At ACTION JPS, we consider ourselves a ‘partner’ when working with customers. That helps us identify and provide products that will meet or exceed expectations.”
He noted that the company’s truck drivers often develop a special relationship with customers.
“We are very particular about our drivers and provide them with training on how to interact with the customer base, while also identifying opportunities. It’s important our drivers deliver products according to customer directions,” Barnes said. “It all goes back to providing quality customer service. The same is true for our equipment service department. We have a team in place that can provide cost estimates on repairs as well as look for new ways to generate additional business.
“We sell a lot of equipment and when you do that, it’s important to also service the equipment. It’s probably the fastest growing part of our business right now — selling and servicing equipment. Training customers on the proper use and care of that equipment is included, and part of our ‘added value.’”
Holmon added: “We not only service the equipment but offer preventative maintenance service contracts that are customized to fit the needs of each customer.”
Helping customers in a variety of ways has helped ACTION JPS grow through the past three decades. That includes adapting to the way many people now view cleaning and cleaning supplies, such as the use of sustainable practices and products that are considered more environmentally friendly.
“We have the capabilities and training to help people who are in search of ‘greener’ products and practices. It can sometimes be a hard sell, but we do provide those options. I recently traveled to Scotland and Ireland and was amazed by all the products in use there that are friendlier to the environment,” Barnes said. “Our company representatives attend expos and training programs to stay in touch with industry trends and new developments. ACTION JPS also offers training and demonstrations to help customers remain current. Our efforts have been received very well from such customers, especially those working in the health care industry.”
According to Holmon, “The continued growth of ecommerce remains a big influence for business in general, allowing companies, such as ACTION JPS, to expand their footprint.
“Technology, overall, is making a big impact. From new equipment like AMR floor machines to state-of-the-art software, ecommerce and technology have helped not only our business — but the entire industry — grow.”
Working In A Post-Pandemic World
Although officially declared over, there remains aftershocks in society and business today from the global COVID pandemic. For the jan/san industry in particular, the post-pandemic world has brought for many what Barnes describes as a “flat” business climate. Part of the problem is fewer people are working inside office and government facilities, which means those facilities do not require the same level of service and supplies as before 2020.
“There are more people working from home, more people watching church services online, etc. We are also seeing shorter hospital stays by patients. As a distributor, the very fabric of who we service has been shrinking, as there is less traffic within many of those facilities,” he explained. “In response, it’s important to reach out to new customers and opportunities.
“On the flip side, we are seeing more people becoming frustrated with the lack of customer service when ordering products online. That is where we, as a distributor, shine. There’s nothing more important to a business like ours than providing customer service. It keeps our company growing.”
A rare benefit to the pandemic is that it showcased to many people and companies the true value of keeping facilities clean. The problem, Barnes noted, is that people are often “creatures of habit” and often fall back to old ways of maintaining buildings. It’s therefore important to continue the dialogue about proper cleaning, for the wellness of all building occupants.
“Everything we sell, as a distributorship, is an expense to our customers. Therefore, it’s critical that we show them the real benefits of cleaning, while also providing them with the best products to properly maintain their locations,” Barnes said.
Another challenge that many people blame on the pandemic is what seems like a universal shortage of workers — no matter the business or industry. The jan/san distribution business has not been immune to this shortage.
“I never had a problem finding new people to hire over the years, but something happened after the pandemic. It’s like everyone who needed a job disappeared. I don’t buy that most of those people are not working because of government subsidies. There may be some of that, but I think a lot of people just decided to look for a different line of work or perhaps adjust their standard of living so that they don’t need a full-time job. I’m sure many people are also still concerned about their health due to the pandemic and have decided to leave the workplace setting,” Barnes said. “The biggest challenge right now is finding warehouse and delivery personnel. To hire dependable and qualified associates, we must compete with union jobs relocating to our area and large companies that can offer higher wages.”
“Seeking employees will continue to be a challenge as our company grows. I must say our standards are high. Having passion for customer service, in my opinion, isn’t learned, it must already be inside a person. Therefore, we continue to search for the right people. When we find them, we take care of them and make sure they know that they are our most valuable resource,” Holmon said. “Each member of the ACTION JPS sales team focuses on one expertise. We call that SME or Subject Matter Experts.”
Barnes added: “Everyone here also supports each other, with the goal of providing the most knowledgeable advice for customers. That enables us to become consultants, rather than just salespeople. Our employees are willing to share their knowledge and expertise with customers and co-workers alike. That helps ensure the overall success of both our customers and our company. We are a true team.”
The shortest company tenure of those working in sales at ACTION JBS is three years. However, every member of this sales force has 10-plus years in experience within the jan/san industry.
Another challenge to running a business today, according to Barnes, is the abundance of fraud.
“It has become worse since the start of the pandemic. For example, recently somebody from the outside world made an unauthorized purchase concerning one of our accounts. Since I am the business owner, I was the person who had to take care of the problem, which took a lot of time and effort,” Barnes said. “Business owners are having to pay a lot of money to guard against fraud. It’s a very big problem.”
Thriving In A Distribution-Centric City
When it comes to entertainment, Memphis is home to many famous attractions. That includes blues clubs along the world–renowned Beale Street, Elvis Presley’s Graceland, Sun Studio, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Memphis is also the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. When it comes to distribution, Memphis also takes a back seat to no one. With an approximate population of 633,104, Memphis is the largest city bordering the mighty Mississippi River. The city is also intersected by five major freight railroads and two interstate highways — I-40 and I-55 (with a third, I-69, under development). Meanwhile, Memphis International Airport is one of the world’s busiest airports for cargo, and it serves as a primary hub for FedEx Express shipping. All of this makes Memphis well positioned for distribution and commerce.
“As a city, the geographic location of Memphis provides access to every form of logistics — including air and waterway. It’s all right here,” Barnes said. “As for ACTION JPS, our location allows for easy access to downtown Memphis while also reaching customers in northern Mississippi, eastern Arkansas, and western Tennessee. We benefit from a modern warehouse and a fleet of trucks, while 20 percent of the products we sell are drop-shipped.”
When it comes to suppliers, Barnes looks for companies that provide quality products, competitive pricing, the ability to understand ACTION JPS as a company, and most of all a willingness to build a “partnership” with the distributorship.
“Our suppliers can also greatly help by making us aware of industry changes as soon as possible,” Holmon added. “We look for suppliers that want ACTION JPS, as a distributor, to win the business. That is because, when we win, they also win.”
As 2023 is quickly turning into 2024, Barnes remains optimistic about not only the future of his own company, but the overall jan/san distribution industry as well.
“I feel the sky is the limit as long as our sales team stays hungry, we continue to be passionate about customer service and we do the right things for our customers. New business is the key, and that is our focus as we move into a new year. We’ve done an excellent job growing our existing accounts, but adding new accounts and increasing segments, such as safety supplies and apparel, is a major focus,” Barnes said. “It helps that some major companies are moving into this area (Memphis) which will hopefully benefit our company. My main objective is to take care of my team and their families. ACTION JPS also has a niche, being a minority-owned business. That not only helps meet the social needs of many of our customers, but also sends money back into our minority community.”
Having worked in jan/san distribution for decades, Barnes remains bullish about this line of work.
“I believe entering this industry is an excellent career choice. One major reason is despite the state of the economy, people are going to still clean their facilities. Our products are always in demand. Economic conditions touch every industry, but the impact can be less for a jan/san distributor,” Barnes said.
To make that point, he tells the story of working with a university official in 2008 during The Great Recession.
“A lot of companies were cutting back on various supplies due to the recession. I visited this official at the university and asked him if he was going to cut back on his orders, due to the current economic climate. He said, ‘Absolutely not. We have parents coming in next week and this place must be clean. We’re not cutting back on anything,’” Barnes said. “That is the kind of business that you have with jan/san. People must use what we sell. If they don’t, they will eventually suffer.
“My career started in the apparel business. I went from selling clothing to selling janitorial supplies, but soon found out that this business (jan/san) is a necessity. If you do it right, and properly engage with your customers, it’s an excellent business to spend a career. Product knowledge is everything. Everybody’s got a need for cleaning supplies and expertise. It’s like buying a new car, you want to keep it nice. The same is true with a facility. We help our customers do that on a consistent basis.”