Apparatus Purchasing: Frustrating the Dealers
BY BILL ADAMS
A dealer is the individual, regardless of gender, who interacts with an apparatus purchasing committee (APC) during the purchasing process. A dealer is also called a vendor, salesman, salesperson, sales representative, dealer principal, peddler, and inside sales contact. What he is called is unimportant. How he is treated is.
With few exceptions, APCs have two perceptions of fire apparatus dealers. One is a favorable opinion reserved for preferred dealers. Many APCs elevate a preferred dealer to the level of a deity. That dealer’s word is gospel—never to be doubted or challenged. It would be blasphemy to actually question him. Those same APCs have little care, concern, or use for the rest of the dealers in the Western Hemisphere—until they are needed. Not only is that hypocritical, it is frustrating to nonpreferred dealers.
Definitions of frustrating include infuriating, challenging, annoying, irritating, aggravating, and discouraging. Quite often, purchasing committees will only communicate with one or two dealers. Their reasoning is most, but not all, fire departments know whose rig they want to purchase. The rare exception is when an APC truly evaluates multiple apparatus manufacturers by meeting with their respective representatives. Some fire departments do not realize their interactions with dealers, or lack thereof, can have negative effects both before and after specifications are written. After an APC has finalized its purchasing specifications is when nonfavored vendors can really become frustrated with the process.
Purchasers should be aware that dealers they have not communicated with only have the purchaser’s written document to evaluate when deciding if they should submit a proposal. They should not hold vendors in contempt because the vendors may not understand some verbiage in their specifications. When addressing a vendor’s question, a purchaser’s inadequate written response or an obviously misleading verbal answer can be aggravating to the point that a dealer will not bid. Purchasers should realize vendors deal with the purchasing process on a daily basis and they just know when a purchaser needs multiple bids to justify a preferred purchase. They know they are being taken advantage of. Many dealers can justifiably say it is not their first rodeo or, to paraphrase an insurance company’s popular television commercial, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
THE REAL WORLD
Most apparatus vendors are paid on a commission basis. Some are salaried, and some are on a salary plus commission schedule. How much they earn is not the fire department’s business. The point is the majority do not get paid unless a sale is made. It is not unheard of for vendors to expend an untold amount of nonreimbursed hours and expenses and not get the job. It is an accepted part of the business. There is a saying that “all is fair in war and games,” and most vendors expect to lose a sale from time to time. What aggravates them is an APC not being up front and honest. Regardless of whether it is unintentional or deceitful, it is not right. Dealers are justifiably infuriated when they are lied to. That’s why many do not bid.
Although most dealers will not admit it, some fire departments and purchasing committees are known in the industry for being difficult to deal with. They’re unreasonable, they do not follow their own specifications, and they have a condescending “holier than thou” attitude. Most sensible and realistic dealers avoid dealing with them. Saying the challenge may be too difficult is a polite way of saying there might not be enough profit to justify the grief and aggravation.
BEING LIED TO
Probably the most aggravating situation dealers encounter is when they tell an APC they are not bidding because the APC’s specifications are proprietary to a particular manufacturer and the APC replies, “Oh no they aren’t—that’s an open spec.” Anyone who has been in fire truck sales for any length of time can tell whose spec it is or what manufacturer the specifications are geared toward. Equally irritating is when the APC says to go ahead and bid it and they’ll consider exceptions when their document has “NO EXCEPTION” written in it more than a dozen times. Should the dealer believe a nonbinding hard-to-prove verbal statement from an APC member or the actual verbiage in a written legal document? Equally infuriating is when the APC publicly disparages and even denigrates a vendor for not bidding. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
WHAT IRRITATES VENDORS?
Irritating is when the APC’s resident experts admonish vendors, telling them how they should fabricate a fire truck. Just because an APC member is a professional truck driver or an auto mechanic or designs bridges for a living doesn’t necessarily make him an expert on how fire apparatus are built. Leave the minute details of construction to the engineers, designers, and manufacturers of fire apparatus. It is commendable to ask to learn and compare; it is demeaning and unprofessional to ask merely to criticize a vendor and delegitimize his product.
It is exasperating when an APC does not know the budgeted amount available for a purchase. It is more so when the APC knows but does not tell the dealers. An old-time school of thought is the APC believes by telling the dealers, the dealers will try to “get every dime” the fire department has appropriated. A more reasonable school of thought is: Why waste everyone’s time designing and specifying a million-dollar fire truck when only $800,000 has been appropriated? Being up front and honest will prevent wasting the dealers’ time and money as well as the APC’s time and effort. The APC should have interacted with dealers to obtain approximate pricing prior to seeking funding from the authority having jurisdiction.
It is challenging for dealers to decipher a document written by a spec writer with only a novice level of experience. Some have written specifications for rigs that are physically unable to be built. Frustrating is when an APC is asked to clarify obvious inaccuracies and inconsistencies in a specification, and the APC still publishes the original document. It is understandable for dealers to question if the APC will put as much honesty and effort into evaluating bids as it did in writing the original purchasing specifications. Time is a precious commodity to dealers.
APCs seldom admit they’ll have a preferred dealer write or help write their purchasing specifications. It’s a fact of life most nonpreferred dealers reluctantly accept. What is aggravating to them is when an APC using proprietary specifications has no clue of basic particulars in its document—having taken the preferred dealer’s word as gospel. It is readily evident when the APC is asked a very simple question about the specs and can’t answer until it checks with the vendor who wrote the document. An APC unable to answer a simple question probably has predetermined whose rig it will purchase.
Some dealers avoid what they call “bottom feeder bait,” which is an accurate but derogatory term for very short, unclear, and confusing specifications. As mentioned earlier, if a dealer has not formally met with a prospective purchaser, the dealer might interpret such an ambiguous purchasing specification as being reflective of the fire department’s interest or capability in procuring a quality rig. Dealers rightfully believe the product they represent should be evaluated and compared to others in more aspects than being “NFPA-compliant, red in color, with a 1,000-gallon tank and a real big light bar.” They might not want to participate in an arena where quality doesn’t matter, competitive bidding means less, and the low bidder wins regardless of compliance. It can be frustrating to pass up a potential sale, but sometimes it just isn’t worth the effort.
Some fire departments do not possess the in-house expertise required to develop an effective set of purchasing specifications. Federally mandated rules and regulations are forever changing. National Fire Protection Association standards are constantly being upgraded. Some apparatus vendors have a hard time keeping up with changes from their own manufacturer, let alone product updates, changes, and discontinuances from the myriad component parts suppliers.
It is challenging for dealers to interact with “determined” APCs that are adamant about writing their own purchasing specifications. The dealer who, in good faith, advises an APC that the axles it is proposing are just borderline adequate for the intended apparatus, or the model generator is no longer available, or the size motor specified will result in an underpowered apparatus, or the hosebed dimensions specified should be reevaluated may end up alienating a “pig-headed” committee. If you mud wrestle with a pig, both parties will get muddy and the pig might get aggravated and retaliate. Although frustrating, it may be advantageous for a dealer to respectfully decline participating in a barnyard brawl.
The rules and regulations in the public bidding arena afford a degree of protection for both buyer and seller. The arena of negotiated sales, common with independent volunteer fire companies, is where dealers can become perplexed. A dealer can attend multiple meetings, provide detailed blueprints and specifications, and demo his product to no avail. It is expected that a purchaser may choose another vendor, but it is aggravating when the purchaser sends out a competitor’s specification but still wants the dealer to bid. Equally exasperating is when the customer is requesting pricing on completely different apparatus. Is comparing “apples to oranges” an honest evaluation? Their words of, “But we really like your truck and want a price,” are meaningless.
With the cost of new fire apparatus in the $500,000 to $1,200,000 range, an unintentional error can cost thousands of dollars, waste precious resources, and lock the department into a mistake for the lifespan of the apparatus. It is immaterial who wrote the specifications. The dealer who sold the rig will be blamed—and probably will be banned from that firehouse forever. This will hurt the dealer’s reputation and his company’s reputation. It could tarnish the industry as a whole and, more importantly, it could waste the resources of the fire department by not procuring an apparatus that could have and should have met its expectations.
When someone makes the statement “deal with professionals or suffer the consequences,” is he talking about the dealers being professional or the purchasers being professional? Buying and selling fire apparatus should be a two-way street with mutual but verifiable trust and honesty on both sides. When failure happens, both parties can lose.
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.