It's the question on everyone's mind: "What's the best heavy-duty truck parts and service strategy for our company to take during these interesting times?"

You could select the rewind button and pull back into survival mode. Or, you could hit the pause button, taking a "wait-and-see" attitude on the sidelines. Or you could push the play button and move forward to engage your customers with innovative solutions.

Before making any business decision under any circumstances, you need a good, comprehensive marketing roadmap to keep from heading off in an uncertain direction - a marketing plan.

Marketing & Strategy

First, let's take a look at the big picture of marketing, and how strategy fits into the marketing framework as it applies to the heavy-duty aftermarket. But to do that, we need a few important definitions.

A tried-and-true definition of marketing is, "The process and activity of creating, capturing and keeping customersfor a profit." However, there is also a more contemporary definition by Basil Harris Jr., founder and principal of the Boston-based company MarketStreams: "Marketing is solving customer's problems profitably."

Both definitions work well, but the first definition references the "process and activity" element, which cannot be overlooked when discussing marketing or strategy.

But there is also a more contemporary marketing definition that you might feel is more closely aligned with the heavy-duty aftermarket. It's called aftermarketing, which integrates the power of marketing with the driving force of sales.

Now, let's take a look at a good at the definition of strategy. This word is derived from ancient Greek: strategia (office of general, command, generalship); strategos (the leader or commander of an army), stratos (army), and ago (to lead or to conduct.)

Looks like we have a fight on our hands, and a whole new meaning to the term competition.

As Al Ries and Jack Trout note in the book "Marketing Warfare," the very language of marketing has been borrowed from the military. We launch a marketing campaign. We promote people to higher positions in divisions, companies, units. Sometimes we issue uniforms. We go into the field and support the troops. We deploy our sales people. Some of you have even been known to pull rank. We go on sales missions. The competition is the opposing force. Then, we must take tactical action. And, the real ground to be won is the mind of the customer.

Step by Step

You also could think of how a good marketing plan works by visualizing the engineering beauty of any well-designed mechanical system on a heavy-duty truck or trailer. The components of a marketing plan are the same as the air brake system, for example. The compressor creates the beginning of the air flow through the foot valve, filters and valving to the spring brake actuator, to the slack adjuster, to the cam shaft, through the "S" cams, moving the brake shoes against the drum. All work in perfect harmony to stop the vehicle or allow it to move.

Whether it's the air brake system or your marketing plan, all of the parts must be in the correct order to function as a system in harmony.

By following this step-by-step thinking process, you will be guided to the strategy that's right for your company.

1. The EXECUTIVE SUMMARY is ideally a single page that emphasizes the main points of your marketing plan. Many people who need to be on board with the plan simply won't have time or interest to read it in its entirety. Although this is the first thing people will see in your marketing plan, most experts advise that you actually write it after you have completed the other planning steps. It should have both internal and external components, including how you're differentiating yourself from your competitors.

2. Do a S.W.O.T. analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). Use a chart for each, with all four charts including four columns so you can compare your strengths and weaknesses with the competition:

* you

* competitive heavy-duty parts and or service competitors;

* OE truck & trailer competitors;

* independent repair shops.

Then, develop separate benchmark estimates for your available parts and/or service values in your market area.

These are good exercises and force you to "put it on paper." In the process, you will begin to uncover chinks in your competition's armor that result in new business opportunities for you.

3. The next step is to chart the VOCATIONAL NEEDS of your customers. You already know their needs in terms of parts and services. By vocational needs we mean to talk with them about things like, "What business are you in?" "What is the biggest problem you have in keeping your equipment rolling?" "What one thing about your business keeps you awake at night?" "What are the strongest assets that a parts/service supplier could bring to your operation?" "What would your ideal parts or service partnerships look like?"

4.Now you have enough information to write your MISSION STATEMENT. The mission statement is vital in today's market because it reflects a customer-centric need you have uncovered, along with weak spots in your competition. Also, your mission statement will reflect "the soul of your business" to your customers, your employees and your owner/stockholders.

As you're writing your mission statement, keep in mind that the easy access of information and communication because of technology has put the customer in charge. They might not be as interested in or as in tune with your core values as once was the case. In fact, there has been a dramatic customer shift to "What's in it for me?" Remember, it's not about you - it's about the customer. Anything else might be construed as "chest thumping." So make sure your customer is the centerpiece of your mission statement.

5. Separate from the mission statement, a VISION STATEMENT is a detailed picture of the future that your company seeks to create. What do you want to be in one year? In five?

6. Your GOALS describe a desired end state. They are not measured or actionable, and not may not necessarily have a specific time frame. Goals are the heart of business, defining your fundamental intentions and direction - again, as they relate to your customers.

7. Time to move on to your OBJECTIVES, which bring your goals to life. Each objective states exactly what needs to be done to achieve each goal. Goals are in very specific timeframes and metrics (such as dollars or percentages) for measuring your success.

The important thing to keep in mind with objectives is that they define the "doneness criteria" for a goal. Objectives are also the foundation of your company's action plans, or strategies.

Objectives are realized when a set of detailed strategies are linked to them. It's likely you will have numerous objectives, so you will also have numerous strategies linked to each. Another point to remember is that the purpose of a good strategy is to carry out the mission of your company.

8. Now we've set the stage for action: putting into play your marketing TACTICS, which are the actual deliverables - sales programs, support materials, presentations, training, etc. - that will support the achievement of your goals.

Tactics are the end result of all your planning steps taken prior to them. When you have carefully implemented the marketing process, you will be able to trace each tactic all the way back up to your corporate mission statement and your goals.

The New Frontier

The marketing planning process is the new heavy-duty frontier for heavy-duty distributors and product specialists. It's an exciting opportunity. And a necessary one.

MacKay & Co. has reported OE dealers command 68 percent of the service market, and independent repair shops have garnered 18 percent of service repair, leaving