There is no doubt that COVID-19 had a dramatic impact on businesses, and the trucking industry, while an essential industry, was not immune – not just fleets, but also the companies that provide parts and service for the industry. At the recent Heavy Duty Aftermarket Dialogue, put on virtually this year by Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association, a panel of industry stakeholders talked about how they responded to the COVID-19 crisis.
Kent Jones, president, Americas, SAF-Holland, said that the health and safety of workers at its seven plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico were his top concern. When truck manufacturers stopped production in the early days of the virus, Jones said his company right-sized the organization, and took steps to manage the supply chain to make sure it kept up with deliveries. He indicated that because SAF-Holland is a global company, it had conversations with its China-based operations, so had received some warning about the virus and was able to prepare and find alternate sources of products (the Chinese government shut down all businesses in an effort to contain the virus) so it could continue to serve its customer base.
Wayne McKitrick, vice president, sales, N.A. Williams Co., describes his company as “feet on the street," normally relying heavily on face-to-face contact. When COVID-19 hit, the company canceled all travel and moved to what he calls “constant contact mode,” using the phone, email and video conferencing to keep in touch with customers.
“We surveyed our customers to find out about what their needs were and how we could help them. Then we crafted individual plans based on what we were seeing.”
Kyle Treadway, dealer principal, Kenworth Sales Co., considers himself lucky because the company already had an emergency response plan prepared. “We looked at it and made some tweaks for the situation at hand, but having many of the decisions made in advance helped us [move forward quickly].”
Tyler Robertson, chief executive officer at Diesel Laptops, said, “We battened down the hatches more quickly than a lot of other businesses and we took a data approach. Every day we’re actively monitoring phone calls, email, website traffic, and views on YouTube, and we could just see the dips and climbs — which are indicators on volume and transactions inside your business.”
Both McKitrick and Treadway said they offered customers a variety of ways to communicate with them, letting the customers make the decision on what worked best for them. Kenworth Sales Co. also offered video walkarounds of vehicles and drone videos of its facilities.
The panel was then asked to share best practices on how to stay connected with customers. SAF-Holland invested in online ordering and as a result saw e-commerce sales go from about 7% to 25%.
And while firms have seen e-commerce grown, Robertson said a big issue in the heavy-duty market is that fleets cannot look up their own parts. As today’s parts counterpeople and their wealth of knowledge are retiring, the industry will need to put parts and diagnostic information online so fleets can access it themselves, he said.
The panelists shared some of their lessons learned from the pandemic, especially surrounding business travel. Kent said his company is looking at the way his people travel and the efficiency of video conferencing. “We deployed travel money into technology solutions [for staying connected to our customers.]”
“There were inefficiencies in our travel,” McKitrick said. “That won't happen again.” While he said that there are benefits of in-person visits to customers, video calls also can be beneficial to maintaining relationships.
Treadway reminded the audience that trucking is a relationship business, “so if we can’t be face to face, we have to find another way to communicate.”