In 1966, the National Academy of Sciences released a report titled “Accidental Death and Disability: The Neglected Disease of Modern Society.” In the emergency services industry, this report is simply called “The White Paper.” It detailed and documented a wide array of problems with emergency services including the unsuitability of ambulances to care properly for the persons being transported. This resulted in standards being put in place, and today’s ambulances are much different than yesterday’s.
The equipment and supply needs of ambulances were identified in this white paper, and it produced a dramatic change in the industry. If you’re old enough to remember, it was usually the local funeral home that also provided ambulance service because they usually had a vehicle that could hold a person lying down.
This points out the need to understand this market before you approach it. Often, the necessary equipment, vehicle markings – in short, just about everything – that goes in or on an emergency services vehicle has specifications regarding its construction and installation.
Shane Barrington, of CRE Products, Logan, Utah, manufactures rocker flares and also operates Thunder Mountain, an accessory installation company.
“We started seeing the change in the market a couple of years ago,” comments Barrington. “Addressing those changes required us to shift our focus. Previously we had been selling a lot of parts to body shops, parts departments, car dealerships. As that business started to dwindle we looked at what in the market seemed to be the most likely avenue for potential growth. The emergency services fleets looked like a good prospect, so we dug in.”
Assess the market
Servicing this market required some forethought.
“We needed to develop a strategy”, notes Barrington. “Many of these vehicles are put in use under conditions we don’t normally encounter. Some [in this part of the country] hardly are ever on paved roads. As a result, suspensions need to be set up differently. There are a lot of tire punctures, so we need to be stocked and ready for it. For police vehicle interior products, think ‘easy cleanup’ for obvious reasons.”
Nils Forsmann, Truck Covers USA, San Diego, agrees.
“Do some homework. Find out what vehicles are in the fleet and tailor your presentation to meet the needs they have.”
This exercise is useful in many ways because it not only reveals what array of vehicles are available, but also helps determine challenges, problems and needs the customer has to have solved.
Assessing the market, having an idea of good potential customers, and even understanding some of the particular needs of those customers is just the start. An important part of the process involves understanding how business is done with emergency services fleets. If you’re used to car dealerships, you’ll need to learn a whole new method. Forsmann shares his expertise:
“There’s no easy way to get in. Keep knocking on doors,” Forsmann advises. “Eventually, you’ll get the right person in the right department to make a decision. Departments communicate and share information, so one may open the door for another one for you.”
Scott Covelli, Go Industries, Richardson, Texas, agrees.
“To become a ‘Cop Shop,’ work with your local agencies to get the jobs,” he says. “If they know you can supply the parts and handle the upfitting, they will work with you. Working with the dealerships that supply vehicles for the different agencies is another avenue. Some dealerships will outsource the upfitting. Often, the dealership’s internal labor rates are much higher than the upfitter will charge.”
One of the remarkable things about dealing with municipalities is the challenge of locating the person who makes the buying decision. Barrington found this to be true in his local area.
“We went to the Logan City fleet manager,” Barrington recalls, “but learned the fleet manager doesn’t make the buying decisions for the sheriff and police departments. We learned we needed to go directly to police chiefs, captains and sergeants. Fire chiefs were also in a special category. If you target only the fleet managers, you’re not going far enough.”
Understand service, bids
The next stage involves understanding the bid process.
“There is no negotiation,” states Forsmann. “If you’re used to going back and forth with car dealership salesmen or managers, this is a different experience. When you give a price for a product, and you’re too high, they simply thank you. They may tell you the price is too high, but then they move on to another supplier.
“It’s important that you analyze carefully what you feel to be a fair, one-shot bid price for your products and services. Once you present it, they will either accept or reject. If they reject, they look for another supplier.”
Barrington has also found that to be true. He’s also discovered something else valuable to know. “Bid jobs have reverted to ‘Give me a quote.’ So they don’t shop around now.
“However, a supplier must be prepared to give service, service, service. We keep our facility open at times even until 1 a.m. so they can keep fleet vehicles out on the road when they need them.”
The service aspect cannot be overlooked. Without exception, all interviewees agree that service is paramount. A vehicle that is down due to installations or repairs to installed parts hinders the operation of the department. Therefore, companies that approach this market must be prepared for giving superior service to fleet customers. Over and over, respondents told us that service is a deal breaker. If a company isn’t quick to provide installation or repair products, the customer will simply stop doing business with you and give the business to someone else.
This also points out the need to make an honest evaluation of what your company, whether a manufacturer or installer, can realistically supply. Covelli of Go Industries supports this thought.
“There are several sectors to consider, but this all depends on the shop’s capabilities,” he says. “Certain segments require certain accommodations that not every outfitter has access, to. Do the research and see if this fits in with your abilities. Also, get in contact with your city officials to see what you can do for them, as well.”
Forsmann adds further insight: “Know your strengths. Don’t take on installation work you’re not able to do, or you don’t have the right people with the right skills to get the job done. Make sure you have the correct equipment. In some accounts, you only get one chance to make a good impression, so you need to make it count. Customers like a ‘one-stop’ shop. So, you need to try to accommodate all the needs of fleet customers so they don’t have to engage several suppliers.”
The bid process
In addition to understanding the bid process, getting into fleet sales means learning the bid process. Ask your car dealers, especially those that do a lot of fleet sales, to explain the bid process. It will involve a willingness to deal with paperwork, deadlines and finding the responsible parties. This may require some legwork to get all the answers and to make sure you’ve submitted your bids properly.
The bidding process puts you in competition with other potential suppliers, so you will quickly find out whether you’re pricing yourself out of the market.
For manufacturers, there’s another route to follow, according to Forsmann.
“We obtained GSA (General Services Administration) approval,” he notes. “What this means is we provided proof via the paperwork we submitted that we are supplying products at the lowest possible cost. Once you obtain GSA approval, then you no longer need to go through the bid process. You are put on a list of approved suppliers, and municipalities simply need to contact you and purchase product.”
The upside is the potential of large volumes of work. “It gets your products out there”, observes Forsmann. “Potential customers in the retail segment will notice their police department has a product from XYZ Co., and then they’ll look for the same products when they shop. It helps build brand awareness and credibility for your company.”
It also is made more profitable because the work involves installing the same parts on the same vehicles, so as personnel get familiar with the installs, their install skills increase and the time it takes to do a job decreases. This, of course, equals more profitability.
Fleet turnover is good for business
It should be kept in mind that fleets have a regular turnover of vehicles. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what this means for a manufacturer or installation company.
“Build a calendar,” urges Barrington. “It impresses fleet managers when I see them around town and I can remind them it’s getting close to the time to start replacing vehicles. This tells the customers you really care about their business. It’s a way to demonstrate your professionalism to them.”
Emergency services fleets are not the only possibilities for expanding your markets. Look around and you’ll see tons of opportunities. Other possibilities include these: utility companies; universities; school districts; electrical, plumbing and painting contractors; and other service companies.
The beauty of this kind of work, according to Forsmann, is “it’s very productive.”
“These entities are fairly recession-proof,” he reminds. “Once you get your foot in the door, live up to your promises. Deliver a quality product with superior service. Since these customers are always changing and upgrading vehicles, it can provide a steady stream of business for you.”
If you’re one of the thousands of restyling company operators out there who has been wondering, “Where did all the business go?” then it’s time to start looking at your market. The business is still out there; it just wears a different face than you’re used to.
Take on the challenge of learning this new market, acquire new skills and serve a whole new brand of customers. Your rewards will not be just financial, but a stronger stature in your marketplace as “the guy” who does all the fleets in the area.