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IT gets swept up in marketing, sales

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Network Services Co. is using the Internet to revamp its 36-year-old business of providing commercial janitorial services, industrial packaging and food service disposables through a national distribution network.

The company’s proprietary Web-based technology is also creating a new relationship between marketing and IT as they communicate the benefits of the system to customers, suppliers and distributors.

Network Services, based in Mount Prospect, Ill., has roughly 75 member-owners that combined distribute more than $7 billion worth of products and services to customers in manufacturing, food service, health care and facilities maintenance.

Until 2000, the company relied on mainframe computers, telephone ordering, faxes and paper invoices to communicate with suppliers, distributors and customers.

But that all changed with the launch of NetLink, an Internet-based system that links partners in its supply chain and facilitates ordering, service calls and electronic payments.

The technology has also changed the nature of the relationship between IT and marketing at Network Services.

"Before these systems, the IT people were behind the scenes," said Dave Smith, VP-sales at Network Services. "Now the IT department is front-end aligned with clients and prospective clients."

Smith said IT managers now regularly participate in sales calls with customers and prospects, as well as meetings and events with distributors and suppliers, to pitch the technology as a key reason to do business with Network Services.

The driving influence behind the technology changes is CIO Mike Hugos, who joined Network Services in 1999 after serving as supply chain practice director at Complete Business Solutions (now Covansys).

Technology creates new role

Hugos said he wanted to use technology to create a new role for Network Services.

"We wanted to enter into a much more consultative relationship with our customers," he said. "We wanted to be not just a vendor of paper towels but truly help customers pick the right product and use it in the most effective way, and be a problem-solver."

NetLink is accessed through the company’s Web site at www.nsconline.com. It began as a site for order entry and sales history reporting for customers and has evolved to include electronic payment processing, more in-depth reporting tools for the Network Services sales team and access for suppliers.

The system uses relational database technology and Java programming. Customers access NetLink via the Web, and orders are routed to appropriate distributors.

"It’s a very neat system and saves a lot of time," said Charles Wax, president and owner of Waxie Sanitary Supply, San Diego.

Waxie has been a member-owner of Network Services since 1994, and Wax said in the old days customers had to call Network Services to find a local distributor, or would call the distributor, who then needed to call Network Services to arrange for the paperwork and billing.

With NetLink, Wax said, "It’s online, it’s fast, it’s 24/7 and there are fewer billing errors and problems. There is a lot of information for the customer."

Hugos said that providing additional information to the customer helps differentiate Network Services from its competitors.

"Anyone can sell the same types of food service supplies or janitorial services," Hugos said. "We talk to them about the total cost of use, not just the cost of floor wax. We can show them ways to reduce their cost of purchasing, and monitor and manage the way they use their products."

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