A lot of commercial dealers don't think of him as a tire customer-at least not in the same sense as a trucking company's purchasing agent or the individual in charge of fleet maintenance. The tendency is to see him as just another truck driver stopping by to get a tire replaced or telephoning in for road service. And unless the boss sets a more positive example under such circumstances, chances are the dealership's service employees won't treat that driver like a customer either. In fact, some mighteven be less than cordial when called out in the middle of the night to change a flat.
For even though he may not be wearing a necktie or carrying a briefcase like the brass at fleet headquarters, that all-too-frequently overlooked truck driver actually may be the key to determining whether your dealership gets or keeps his company's tire and service business.
Thus he's entitled to the same courtesy and respect you'd pay any valued customer.
That's the advice of Don Perkins, vice president of maintenance and purchasing for Roberson Transportation Services, a long-haul trucking company in Farmer City, Ill.
A featured speaker at Continental General Tire's International Dealer Meeting in Kamuela, Hawaii, during January, Mr. Perkins couldn't have said it more plainly for the benefit of his commercial tire dealer audience:
``You don't need to market to me any more,'' advised this man in charge of purchasing for his company's 1,200 tractors and 1,800 trailers-with 27,000 tires on the ground any given day. ``You need to market to our drivers.
``You have to get them to want your products,'' he said. ``You have to get them to want your company. You have to treat them with respect. You have to get them involved.''
In today's highly competitive marketplace, with vendors knocking themselves out to garner the fleet customer's purchasing dollars, trucking company purchasing agents face difficult choices in determining what to buy and from whom.
In such a business climate, he said, the preferences and prejudices of the fleet customer's drivers can spell the difference between gaining or losing a sale. Manufacturers, in fact, have found certain fleet accounts virtually impossible to crack because the employees of those companies refused to drive on their tires.
Moreover, recruiting and keeping capable drivers is one of the toughest challenges now facing the trucking industry, Mr. Perkins told dealers.
``Today, we are focused completely on the driver, and we're doing things we've never done before in order to take care of this person,'' he said.
Mr. Perkins' company, which he considers typical in this aspect, spends an average of $4,000 more for each new tractor it buys in order to accommodate the man or woman behind the wheel. This covers the purchase of such niceties as air-ride suspensions, enlarged sleeping quarters, more powerful engines and less fuel efficient but more driver-friendly gear ratios.
To help tire dealers and others get their message through to drivers, Roberson Transportation offers vendors the option of advertising in its employee publications or conducting direct-mail campaigns via a company-provided mailing list.
In addition, the Illinois-based trucking company also holds an annual, three-day open house in which dealers can meet and talk directly with its drivers. Nor is this unusual, according to Mr. Perkins. Some trucking companies have designated departments to facilitate the interaction between their drivers and vendors.
In addition to supplying customers with quality, lowest-cost-per-mile products when and where they're needed and backing this up with accurate invoices issued the same day as the tires arrive, Mr. Perkins offered dealers the following suggestions for increasing their sales to truck fleets:
Become more driver friendly. Make drivers welcome by treating them like valued customers and providing them with a comfortable place to wait while their vehicle is being serviced.
Offer drivers realistic choices rather than selling them tires solely on price. Tell them about performance differences and advantages, then let them make the buying decision.
Expand service hours at your outlets and ask road service workers to be more understanding when called out after hours.
The bottom line: ``Dealers need to work harder at networking in larger fleets and treating drivers like customers,'' summarized Mr. Perkins.
That's sound advice coming from the man on other side of the purchasing desk. And commercial dealers, who need all the help they get these days, ought to pay attention!
Mr. Slaybaugh is executive editor of TIRE BUSINESS.