How well do you know your customers? Do you know the superficial stuff, like their birthday or which sports team they follow?
Or do you really understand the equipment and maintenance challenges they face?

As I worked with the Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week education committee this summer, as I researched the story on why fleets buy that appears in this issue, one topic kept coming up: Successful distributors really get to know their customers, so they can work with them as a true partner.

What better way to learn about what makes fleets tick than to get involved with a group of fleet maintenance decision makers, helping them tackle thorny issues such as counterfeit parts and corrosion?

That's what Kenneth Calhoun did more than six years ago, when he attended his first meeting of the Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations, and he's never regretted it.

"There's no way for me to express in dollars the effect it's had on my business or my career," says Calhoun, who at the time was with Detroit Diesel/Allison distributor United Engines in Little Rock, Ark., and now is vice president of customer relations at Truck Centers of Arkansas.

For more than 50 years, TMC has been a forum for fleet maintenance managers and equipment suppliers to develop better maintenance practices and tackle equipment problems. But if current TMC Chairman Brent Hilton has his way, there will be a lot more dealer and service provider members like Calhoun. Hilton, director of maintenance at Arkansas-based Maverick Transportation, has made it his mission during his term to reach out to companies that maintain and repair trucks and get them involved.

"TMC needs to grow, and the service/dealer network would be a great contribution to the council," Hilton says. "The input from the service/dealer network in our Task Force meetings would be priceless." (TMC's Task Forces write the group's highly regarded Recommended Practices.)

"Times are changing dramatically in our industry," Hilton says, "and we must all work together to face and conquer these challenges head-on."

One of TMC's major benefits is networking. Calhoun notes that TMC has helped him build a network of friends - not only fleet members that represent business, but also OEM and service vendors from around the country, who have been able to help him solve problems for his customers when they're out of his area.

"It builds your credibility with your customers when you can not only take care of your equipment when it's in your house, but also when it's on the other side of the country," he says.

There is growing talk in the industry that heavy-duty distributors should look at adding or expanding truck maintenance and repair services. At HDAW '08, Dave Fulghum, vice president of MacKay and Co., pointed out that heavy-duty distributors and specialists have a smaller piece of the parts sales pie today than they did two decades ago. During the same time period, independent garages saw their piece of the pie more than double.

As truck owners increasingly get fed up with long waits at dealers, independent distributors who can offer service are expected to become more and more important.

Whether you offer service or not, TMC membership could help you give fleets what they truly need, instead of just being order-takers.

For more information on TMC, contact Janet Howells-Tierney at TMC, or (703) 838-1763. You can e-mail Deborah Lockridge at