The Fleet’s In

Dec 3, 2009

We had a diseased Dutch elm tree in our front yard awaiting removal by the city. It was marked with a big, red ominous “X” and its days were numbered. There are at least a dozen of these trees along the quiet, tree-lined streets of my neighborhood.

Although the city’s scheduling system for tree removal confuses most residents through random 7 a.m. start times, the bevy of city-owned vehicles removing one of these poor trees is an orchestrated effort of customized orange, yellow and blue trucks, and it’s impressive.

There are pickup trucks with various city service markings, toolboxes, equipment racks and heavy-duty grille guards. There are large converted Chevy Kodiaks with dump beds, wood chippers and grille guards. And then there’s our local police, in a lowered Chevy Tahoe with grille guards and a bike rack, directing the nosy neighbors, me included, around the wood-chipping production.

Every one of these city-owned trucks parked down the street has been customized. In fact, federal, state and local governments purchase millions of dollars in automotive-related goods and services every year. Add in the millions of corporate fleet vehicles you see every day from Best Buy’s Geek Squad Volkswagen Beetles to all the local electricians, plumbers and contractors, to the company-owned Cadillac my neighbor drives, and you can see the fleet sale customization market offers enormous potential. Question is, does this kind of business make sense for you, and if so, how do you sell and service this business?

Business in your backyard

In this case, I found a fleet sale customization opportunity just down the street. I spoke with a local police officer directing traffic about the customizations on the Tahoe cruiser. He tells me it’s the Chevy Tahoe Special Service 4WD ordered directly from GM. The truck comes lowered with a tuned suspension, and his division adds a number of items like larger anti-roll bars and heavy-duty grille guards sourced from a local aftermarket installer.

They further add more lights to the grille guards and additional Scotchguard coating on the seats. All done through several local installers.

Selling government agencies can be time consuming, as most government agencies require you to be listed on their “approved vendors” list. Most federal agencies can only buy from vendors approved by the General Services Administration (GSA). State and local government agencies vary in their requirements focusing on your financial strength and years in business.

“We just need to be sure you can service us after the sale and installation and we’re even more attuned to fraudulent practices as we’re responsible for taxpayer money” says a transportation fleet manager from a large Detroit-area suburb.

Ethan Wendle from DiamondBack Truck Covers, Philipsburg, Pa., says “local governments and local businesses throughout the country have many accessory needs for their vehicles, and they can be easily accessed by calling their main offices and asking for the fleet manager. Your first call should be to find out what steps you need to go through to bid on government fleet needs.”

Plan on at least six months in the selling process with government business. Many local governments update their approved vendors list when a project comes up through a formal Request For Quotation (RFQ) process. Your first goal is to simply have your company name added to the list for fleet management RFQ projects, and once done so, adds John Stethem, national fleet director for LEER, of Elkhart, Ind., a division of Truck Accessories Group, “regular communication is advised.”

Persevere

Many companies find the notoriously cumbersome red tape with government projects a legitimate excuse to avoid them altogether. A good approach is focusing on corporate fleet management projects while maintaining a consistent sales approach with government agencies.

“For businesses, there are many reference sources for finding local businesses through either the “Blue Book” or a business reference guide,” Wendle says, adding, “another is to work with a data company such as R.L. Polk to purchase data on your local businesses.”

Notes Stethem: “LEER encourages all of its dealers to research local businesses and build a database by trade. Many dealers send e-mails or brochures to local trade and fleet contacts.”

This is great advice; and to get your piece of the fleet customization market you’ll want to position yourself as a competent player in this field. Show pictures of other fleet projects you’ve handled. If you have yet to do a commercial vehicle, reach out to a local heating and cooling company and offer to handle customization at a deep discount in return for extensive use of before and after pictures.

Listen, diagnose, consult

“If you can view your role as a consultant to the fleet, you will get further with helping them meet their needs” says Wendle, adding, “Many fleets believe they know what products they want based on what products they know. If you take the time to talk to the fleet manager and really listen to his problems, concerns, needs, and desires, you can help produce a solution that is tailored for him.”

The fleet manager will require additional levels of service, as he’s responsible for many vehicles, and one small problem multiplied across 10, 20, 50, maybe even 100 vehicles can become a serious problem for a company’s or government’s day-to-day operations.

“Start by asking as many questions as you can about the real issues the fleet manager is facing,” advises Wendle. “Don’t offer solutions until you’ve diagnosed the real problems the fleet manager is facing.”

Stethem says to “be prepared to provide prompt and professional quotations that are detailed. These quotations should include the exact product specification, part number, regular price, quantity discount for volume, if any, and an accurate lead time.”

He goes on say, “Communicate clearly all labor, delivery, and any taxes on all quotations.”

There are plenty of pitfalls to fleet sale business.

“Fleets can often demand a large amount of time from you and your organization and may, at the end of the day, choose to go elsewhere,” Wendle adds. He goes on to say that “to avoid getting into a time-wasting trap, evaluate the scope of the need at the outset. If the fleet manager is in charge of a large fleet of trucks, you may determine the time risk is worth the potential rewards. Yet if the manager is only looking for a solution to one or two vehicles, you may want to make yourself available, but not spend much time working on special customized needs.”

Of course, you’re not the only one looking for this business. One large fleet account can make or break a business.

“Fleet and commercial sales have strong competition,” says Stethem. “Quite often the competing products are similar and specific differences and advantages of your product require additional time or explanation.”

Get ‘fleet ready’

You shouldn’t plan on landing any large fleet sale customization deals within the first month of trying. Volume-based sales deals take a long time to cultivate. It all starts with one first step.

“The best way to market your company to this business is by attending local equipment shows or events that target these local businesses and/or government fleet managers,” says Wendle. “There are many regional and national shows targeted at putting information in front of the fleet managers.”

He goes on to say that “another great place to find local businesses is through networking events such as your local NAHB (National Association of Home Builders) chapter meetings, chamber of commerce networking events or other business organization chapter meetings in your area.”

Adding the words “fleet sale customizations” to your sales literature including your website, signage, etc. will catch the fleet manager’s attention.

DiamondBack recently helped a dealer with a fleet sale project.

“We met with a fleet that was using a plastic cover to meet their bed storage needs,” says Wendle. “The plastic cover did not allow for access to the bed that the fleet required. We were able to work with them to develop custom in-bed bins that, when coupled with the bi-fold quality of our cover, allowed the fleet complete access to their bed. This met a specific need of the fleet and we able to move 170 of their vehicles over to this system.”

Stethem adds that “fleet and commercial customers are eager to hear about your product quality, installation, and service share all this important information and routinely follow up with the fleet manager to answer any questions or resolve any problems should they arise.

“After the sale, service in the fleet and commercial business is the key to building the relationship and earning those next important orders.”

Form a strategic plan

Fleet sale customization business offers huge potential and requires a higher level of consistent service; before, during and after the sale. Jumping into this kind of business requires plenty of strategic planning and the time investment involved will take you away from your current customers. Take the time to strategically plan, sell and service this market and you’ll grow your business.

As I watched the city remove the elm tree from my neighbor’s front yard I counted at least 30 separate aftermarket products on these city-owned trucks. Stuck in traffic behind me, a Comcast Cable van loaded with aftermarket products. And coming down the street in the opposite direction, a local plumber in a customized Ford van. Behind the van, the ubiquitous summertime ice cream truck.

Fleet sale customization business is everywhere and with a smart and sensitive sales approach, can be yours today. Or at least in a few months.

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5 Ways to Get and Hold New Business

  1. Commit to finding local prospects within local governments and local companies.
  2. Cultivate these prospects continuously through e-mails, direct mailers, and phone calls.
  3. Get on the approved vendors list with your local government.
  4. Consider yourself an on-going consultant to the fleet manager.
  5. Over-deliver customer service and plan on a time-intensive sales process