Fleet operators should expect their fleet dealers to go above and beyond to earn their business. Conversely, dealers could use a little understanding from their fleet customers. "Ask not what your fleet dealer can do for you, but what you can do for your fleet dealer." Seriously. It will only lead to a quicker and easier fleet transaction.
I spoke to a few fleet dealers to get an idea on how fleet operators can foster a better fleet/dealer relationship from the dealer's side of the fence. Our "Joe Dealer" is a composite of a few fleet dealers.
Know the product - at least a little.
Fleet dealers have seen the "know-it-all" customer one-too-many times. "People don't want to admit that they don't know, but that's dangerous," says Joe. "They need enough knowledge so they're not suspicious of everything a fleet dealer tells them."
If you know very little, please say so-the dealer understands. "I've never [met] a dealer who hasn't bent over backwards to educate the fleet customer," says Joe.
Help is not contingent on a sale.
Are you considering a new truck body or upfit for future use? Fleet operators may think that the dealer won't want to help if the question is not directly related to a purchase. Not true.
"You want to cultivate the guy that thinks way ahead, so when the time comes, you're who he calls," Joe says. "And the only way you can do that is to spend time with him up front."
Let drivers speak up.
Dealers complain that they're seldom communicating with the actual driver of the vehicle when it comes to writing truck specs and upfitting. But would a driver then demand more costly "bells and whistles?"
Rarely, Joe Dealer says. Direct end-user feedback will better tailor the functionality and ergonomics of a vehicle in ways you may not have considered.
It's okay to shop price - when it's apples to apples.
It is your job to secure a low, fair price from your vendors. Dealers understand that. But when you return to your dealer with a lower quote from somewhere else, just make sure you're comparing apples to apples.
If you're quoting a liftgate of a different brand, is it the same capacity? Is the utility body made of the same materials? Have a printed quote in a readable format. Have the components named by brand and broken out by cost, including labor.
The idea is not to contend the price, says Joe, but to get the customer thinking about how the product will best serve his needs.
You're not saving when you under spec.
Though "right spec'ing" is always the goal, Joe says that under spec'ing is much more common than over spec'ing. Fleets rarely complain a year down the road that the truck is over spec'd, Joe says.
Are you buying a Class 3 truck when you need a Class 6? A bigger truck costs; sticker shock is real. Try not to concentrate on acquisition cost, but cents per mile over the life of the vehicle, which factors into service and maintenance and resale value-and is negatively impacted by an under spec'd truck.
Start with load, not truck model.
Many small fleet operators want to purchase a specific truck model. "Let's not worry about whether you need an E-250 or not, let's talk about your load first," says Joe.
Load (size, weight, type, how it's loaded, how long it stays in the vehicle) will dictate model type and modifications. And then the E-250 may not be the best choice after all.
This conversation allows the dealer to show he's interested in what you do, which changes the conversation from "'You're trying to screw me out of as much money as you can,' to 'You want to help my business,'" says Joe. "And that starts to build trust."
Know what's out there.
"I've never seen it this bad on inventory," says Joe. "Most dealers are only getting about 60-70 percent allocations of what they need, and pool inventories are nowhere near where they were three years ago."
A number of factors brought on by the recession-including bankruptcies, factory shutdowns and Cash for Clunkers-have drained dealer inventory that has not been replaced. This has constricted dealer and upfitter pool inventories and has stretched order-to-delivery times, particularly on light-duty trucks. The result is small fleets can no longer rely on their dealer to procure a truck with their exact specs "yesterday."
"It's finally sinking in [for small fleets] that you may have to go over three states to get what you want and the dealer wants $500 over invoice." says Joe. "That would have been unthinkable two years ago."
Joe believes the old days are probably gone for good. To give you an idea on how this will affect your fleet, perform this exercise: pretend three or four fleet vehicles dropped dead on you and you needed to replace them immediately. Call your dealer and ask about in-stock availability and OTDs on those vehicles to your specifications. Set up a calendar reminder to check current OTDs. Do this when you don't need them. This should give you a reason to think farther down the road.