By Rod Carringer
Vice President, Sales and Marketing Task Force Tips
Whether it’s your vocation, avocation, or just a deep-seated passion, those of us in the fire and emergency services business are still just consumers at the end of the day. Bombarded by more than 3,000 marketing messages every day, we’re often unwittingly directed to certain products or services. We try ’em, we like ’em, and we may continue to buy and use ’em. Eventually if the experience meets our personal needs, we turn into some company’s good and desirable repeat customer.
For an example that many can relate to, when I stop by my local Starbucks® in the morning, Donna greats me with, “Mornin’ Rod, the usual? We’ve got those blueberry scones you like too.” The store is clean; the music is just right; and I see a lot of the same folks there each morning using the free WiFi, chatting, and just trying to wake up. Then my order comes. Tracy, my barista, hands me my extra hot venti mocha/no whip. Ahhhh, the taste I’ve come to count on as I travel around the globe.
So as a consumer, why is it I spend so much for a cup of coffee and feel good about it? I could easily stop by Dunkin Donuts® across the street and get what many tell me is better coffee for a fraction of the cost. Is it the “salesperson” Donna, who knows what I want and treats me with her own personal touch? Is it the “dealership” that provides the atmosphere, a simple in and out when I’m in a hurry, and the infrastructure to deliver me my 10 minutes of coffee bliss? Or, is it the fact that I can go to Seoul, Korea; Leipzig, Germany; or downtown Los Angeles and “my mocha” tastes the same? This company just gets it right and that is why they have such a high “brand” identity and loyalty. Is it the dealer, the salesperson, or the brand?
In Starbucks’s case, I believe it’s the harmony of all three creating a brand experience that keeps me coming back, even knowing there are other competitive products out there. So, what does this have to do with the emergency services marketplace? Actually a whole lot.
Being a guardian of the Task Force Tips (TFT) brand for the past 26 years, past chief of our local volunteer fire department, and involved in our emergency equipment industry’s trade association, I believe the underlying philosophy of the Starbucks scenario I outlined is at the core of how we acquire critical firefighting and emergency response equipment.
At TFT, we have completed several projects during the past few months as part of our strategic planning designed to offer insight into where the market is going and how to best support our distribution partners as we progress into the 2013 season. With the national election behind us, political and economic uncertainty will undoubtedly give way to some clarity and possibly new direction by businesses and local taxing authorities. We’ve hosted our annual Dealer Advisory Council, attended the Fire Apparatus Manufacturers Association (FAMA)/Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Services Association (FEMSA) trade association meetings, and received input from the National Association of Manufacturers. Bottom line-although there will be tremendous pressure on market pricing globally, there is a small light at the end of the purchasing tunnel that indicates some of the pent-up demand that took place during the economic slowdown is now creating activity at the dealer and salesperson level. Other trends noted include increased fourth-quarter sales activity, expansion of cooperative purchasing initiatives throughout the United States, and excess manufacturing capacity leading to aggressive discounting and reduced margins at the distribution level. So having acquired all of these market positioning inputs, I again will ask the original critical question: Which is the most important component of a loose equipment or apparatus purchase-the dealer, the salesperson, or the brand?
On a personal note, being in the fire service as long as I have, there are some very long-term multigenerational distributors we have counted on to provide us with products and services over the years. Their service and follow-through remain consistent. Their facilities are clean and modern, the products they carry meet our needs, and their staff appears well trained and proficient for the services we purchase from them. So, why do we do business with them? For the simple reason that they make it easy and they are consistent, if not even predictable. When you call, they take care of you; we receive the services we expect on time with no problems; and we’re willing to pay the going price even though they are rarely the cheapest. We’ve known the owners, and even the son who is taking over the business, for years. So you might say that the dealer and the relationship we have with it are the most important factors in our purchasing habits. But, are they?
We also have another not so local equipment and apparatus company who has a salesperson that calls on us regularly, even when we’re not anticipating any purchases. Often he just stops by to tell us something noteworthy within our local fire department region or to leave us with his newsletter about some new training procedure or new product we have not seen before. The folks at the fire station love him because he seems to be all about making sure we look at him as a resource; or, for product recommendations; or, in some cases, just to keep us informed about some juicy scuttlebutt that is taking place at another department. It seems he is always asking questions. I was even greeted the other day with, “Hey, Rod, I know you folks are saving up for a new personal protective equipment (PPE) extractor. You may want to look at the one I just sold to your mutual-aid department to the west. The chief will be happy to walk you through it anytime you want to go over.” Somehow, I’m not sure how, he just knew what our plans were.
Since our budget is tight, we often find him to provide the low bid when we need some items, and he gets our business. He leaves us his company’s catalog, and he even gave some of us a short course on using his company’s online purchasing Web site. It has made it very easy to place orders, and he even set up our account, although we have not used it yet. And although I know very little about the actual company he works for, he has been a key contact who seems to provide us with value every time we come in contact with him. So, you might say that the salesperson and his relationship with us are the most important factors in our purchasing habits. But wait, there’s more.
As the caretaker of the TFT brand, I find that there’s tremendous emotional attachment to certain product brands within our industry. Certainly we see it with nozzles, but even apparatus, PPE and clothing, and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) all seem to possess substantial brand loyalty. One glance around our station will quickly tell you what protective clothing we have chosen and have stayed with through several generations of models and protective material changes. Our SCBA brand is the same one we have used for more than a decade and, having standardized on it, will probably stay with for many more years.
The information and technical service provided directly by the manufacturers when we need help are second to none. They have folks on 24-hour hotlines for help; have excellent online support; and have handled, either directly or with a regional representative, every problem we have ever experienced with their products. As with any consumer, there are just some brands that we respect and accept more than others.
Now, here is the problem with brand loyalty. Sometimes our normal local channels of distribution may not represent a product or brand that we want. A good example is that my department has an affinity for a certain brand of rescue struts. Our local distributors do not represent this product line. Yes they have already given us a dozen reasons why the brand they carry is better, but we like and will buy what we want. With the manufacturer providing a great product, excellent after-sale follow up and service, and providing the products at a competitive price, isn’t it clear the answer to the age-old question is that the brand is the most important aspect when purchasing?
The Blend Equals Success
In these uncertain economic times, the answer to the overall purchasing question is not easily identified, as you can see in my previous examples. Every level of product development, manufacture, and distribution within our industry is feeling the pinch of increased global competition, shrinking margins, rising healthcare and tax costs, and the constant challenge of recruiting and retaining high-quality sales team members.
All of these inputs lead to a very real conclusion that how products are produced and brought to market may be very different in the years to come. Even TFT is experimenting with a whole new distribution model, the NewForce in Firefighting, in an effort to test the market. What I can assure you is, just as Starbucks has found out, the importance of the salesperson, the dealer, and the brand and how they are all meshed together will be a key to future success. As a consumer: I want the products I want; I am willing to pay a fair but not excess price; I respect the value of a trusted salesperson; and I desire a purchasing and after-sale process that is easy, professional, and quick. It’s really just that simple.
ROD CARRINGER is vice president of sales and marketing for Task Force Tips (TFT) and serves as lead instructor for TFT University and as a member of the company’s Strategic Planning and New Product Development teams. He is a life member, past chief, and current captain and training officer for the Center Township (IN) Volunteer Fire Department.