"I only have one customer, and that's our company," says Dave Markey, CEM, vice president of equipment services for American Infrastructure. "A dealer has many, many customers, so he can get spread pretty far."
Yet, Markey says, he and other fleets depend on the dealer for sales knowledge about their equipment. "We can't just go online and order a tractor," he says. "We need a sales rep who is willing to help us with a solution. Equipment has become more sophisticated, there are many models out there, and I don't think anybody can be that well-versed on all of them. I can't, so I depend on the knowledge of the dealer's sales rep."
Butch McCaleb, sales and product support for Columbus Equipment Co., says, "customers have to have confidence you are bargaining in good faith, have the experience and ability to make commitments, and have the support you need to meet those commitments. Communications has to run both ways, from the fleet manager to the dealer and back." With so much riding on the fleet manager-dealer relationship, the "tie that binds" has to be strong, positive and mutually beneficial. Establishing a good business relationship takes time, McCaleb says, and Markey agrees.
"It takes time, communication and work," Markey says. "You don't suddenly wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to have a good relationship.' You have to establish a track record."
In a word, dealers and fleet managers alike say success depends on trust.
Randy Brooks has worked in a dealership and is now senior marketing consultant for Caterpillar. Large fleet owners today are asking for new ways to minimize owning and operating costs of their equipment, he says.
"They want improved productivity that results in lower costs per yard of material moved," says Brooks. "We understand the importance of the manufacturer, dealer and customer relationship in this new area of competitive bids." Caterpillar and its local dealers have shifted from sales-focused transactions to business consulting, Brooks says. Cat can assist with owning and operating costs, project analysis, and productivity, he says.
Benefits that derive from a good business relationship pay off when it comes to such things as warranties, Markey says. "Warranties, in my opinion, are not a win for anybody. Warranties are costly for the dealer, for the manufacturer, and for the end-user. Oftentimes, the dealer isn't compensated fully, the manufacturer is spending money, and the end-user suffers because his machine is down.
"It's great when the dealer really understands your business; it makes it easier for everyone."
Markey says his company really needs the dealer "to do some of its own work. It is a joint affair. We can't do all of it, and we can't have the dealer do all of it, maybe because of the lack of technicians or the lack of time. But jointly, we can work our way through these things."
Building a good dealer relationship doesn't necessarily mean getting to know the dealer principals only, says Markey. "That is a good thing," he says, "but that relationship should also include the sales manager, sales reps, service manager, parts people, and field technicians. We've had dealer service staff knock themselves out to resolve warranty issues over the years, so I got a list of technicians who worked on the job and sent them a personal thank you letter for their extra effort, just to let them know they were important to us."
Brooks agrees. "By making the leap from an adversarial relationship to a strategic partnership, customers can determine their own core competencies along with the dealer's core competencies," he says, "which may allow the customer to outsource part of his business that is not the dealer's strengths. By doing this, many customers have realized lower owning and operating costs and improved reliability and availability of their fleet."
It doesn't happen overnight, McCaleb says. "We have numerous accounts, and each one is different. Each one has different expectations and requirements. The more a dealer communicates his abilities to a fleet manager, and the more a fleet manager understands the dealership's workings, the stronger the trust and the better the relationship."
From any perspective, clear communication is essential. Markey likens it to a marriage. "Is every day in a marriage perfect? Sometimes there is miscommunication, disappointment, expectations that aren't fulfilled. But if you're serious enough about it, you can make it work."
McCaleb says he "adopts a customer from cradle to grave. The days of just selling pieces of equipment and not giving active support are gone. Supporting the equipment after it gets out into the field is what strengthens the relationship between dealer and fleet manager.
"It takes understanding," McCaleb says. "If the dealer doesn't understand the customer and his expectations, and the fleet manager doesn't understand what the dealer's capabilities are, or underestimates what he really needs, then that leaves a lot of gray area and the dealer can't service the customer properly."
Not communicating, or not communicating clearly, may be the most common mistake fleet managers make in working with dealers. To avoid that kind of mistake, says Brooks, fleet managers should "perform an internal analysis of their core competencies.
"Look for areas where you may need additional assistance to remain competitive in today's market," Brooks says. "Ask for a visit to the dealership and determine what solutions they can provide for your needs."
Markey says that an end-user's needs may not be what he thinks they are. If there is a clear communication line open with the manufacturer and dealer, they can make him aware of other options that may get the job done more efficiently and better.
"Over the years we've made some changes on how we wanted to equip a given machine," he says. "We've even moved to a different model because, after discussions with the dealer, we felt it was the thing to do. The more information you have, the more it helps you make decisions."
Markey has never seen a time when manufacturers were more open to listen to what the end-users' concerns are. "And I don't think there was ever a time when equipment managers were more willing to talk," he says. "They want to talk, and they are not badgering each other. They are trying to understand each other's roles.
"This industry has some great people working in it and it would be a shame for us not to talk to each other," he says. "We can work toward solutions rather than tossing grenades around."