Getting the Most From Distributors

Getting the most from distributors
Knowing what they offer can help rationalize the purchasing process
Nursing homes typically rely on different distributors for different categories of needs, from medical devices and pharmaceuticals to foodservice disposables, janitorial products, and office supplies. You should periodically evaluate your distributors to ensure that they are helping your facility operate as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Some distributors might have special services you have overlooked or might be willing to accommodate your particular needs if you simply ask.

Begin with the basics. Does the distributor always have what you need and deliver it to you on time? Is your sales representative attentive and responsive, alert to changing needs, and keeping you informed of new products? Are the prices competitive? Once you are satisfied with the standard expectations, explore these other considerations:

Depth of product offerings. It’s efficient to use a distributor that meets several of your needs, but make certain it has a broad and deep mix of each product category it represents. For example, cleaning chemicals and equipment should be a specialty, not a secondary category. Cleanliness is essential in nursing homes, and certain areas must pass state inspections. A good distributor will guide you on what works best and is environmentally safe, and will keep you informed of product improvements or technologically advanced scrubbers, polishers, and other equipment.

Flexible delivery capabilities. Make certain that your distributor of choice can work with you on delivery options that will accommodate your needs. Frequent deliveries are desirable if limited storage space prevents you from receiving large volumes of supplies with each shipment. If your facility restricts large truck traffic during peak hours, can the distributor use smaller trucks? An option some distributors will consider is early morning or late evening deliveries.

Information technology capabilities. Ordering and monitoring purchases electronically increases efficiency. If you don’t do that now, you might consider it in the future. Ask your distributor about its electronic data interchange (EDI) or online programs for ordering products, tracking the history of what you purchased over the course of a year, and sending invoices. These capabilities are particularly helpful if you have a large facility or do the purchasing for several locations.

Convenient warehouses. Are you doing business with a local warehouse or with a regional distribution center that is several hundred miles away? The proximity can make a difference if you have an immediate need or inclement weather slows down deliveries. If the warehouse has a shortage or other problem, how far away is the distributor’s next one?

An outside salesperson. Working with an outside salesperson is always more reassuring than dealing with a faceless voice on the phone. You discuss more issues when you meet in person. You learn quickly if your contact is knowledgeable about the workings of your nursing home, as well as nursing homes in general and the products they need. He or she is likely to be more responsive to your particular needs if you have a friendly relationship.

Training and education programs. Many distributors and their manufacturers offer training programs on how to use their chemicals and equipment for properly cleaning hard surface floors, carpets, and food preparation areas. Some distributors are addressing the concept of “green” facilities by providing products and processes that protect the environment and are not harmful to employees and residents. Also, classes on protocols for infection control, food safety, disease prevention, and employee management are value-added services offered by a few distributors or their suppliers. A good distributor with initiative will let you know what’s available, and might perceive a need you have and recommend a program for dealing with it. Ask your representative if he or she can help you in a particular area, provide you with literature, or refer you to trade shows that include relevant seminars.

Competitive pricing. In addition to providing competitive pricing for contracted items, your distributors should have multiple suppliers for all of your noncontracted items, allowing them to find or negotiate the best values for you. Remember, cost is more important than price. It is the total value of the products and services offered by the distributor that will assist you in controlling your total cost of operation.

Michael Olde is the National Account Director for healthcare facilities of Network Services Company (, a $12 billion organization of independent distributors selling janitorial supplies, foodservice disposables, industrial packaging products, and printing materials. For more information, phone (610) 719-8603. To send your comments to the author and editors, please e-mail

Note: Adapted with permission from Healthcare Purchasing News, March 2006.

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