The Changing Role of Distribution

Rod Carringer
Vice President, Sales & Marketing Task Force Tips

During the course of daily business, many of us routinely navigate through a vast array of methods and administrative procedures necessary to investigate, specify, and acquire fire and emergency response equipment. Frequently, the process of trying to find information on the products you want, getting the necessary quotes and specifications, making payment, and finally actually receiving the products and getting them into service can be frustrating. Ever wonder if there was a better way? Well times are changing, and so, too, must fire equipment sales professionals if they are to survive.

For almost 40 years, I’ve had the good fortune to be an active member of the local volunteer fire department while also serving Task Force Tips (TFT) for 25 years as vice president of sales and marketing. Having the unique perspective that being a fire equipment specifier and purchaser as well as a sales professional offers, it is becoming increasingly clear that time constraints and budgetary demands are changing the scope of how business will be done in the future.

Consumer Expectations

Although securing fire and emergency response equipment may be a primary responsibility, our expectations as consumers are often shaped by the simple transactions we carry out every day. Consider that perfectly blended coffee from your favorite coffee shop, or that book ordered online just yesterday that was delivered to your doorstep today, or even the ease and simplicity of a return taken back to the local department store. These inputs all serve to create the level of expectations we have for outstanding customer service. So, when we’re trying to buy critical departmental equipment, it’s no wonder that our frustration level skyrockets when salespeople don’t return our calls, we receive incorrect billing and invoices, or the products we’ve requested are accidentally mis-shipped.

Since it relates directly to this article, I would like to share a short excerpt from a recent audio newsletter that TFT distributes quarterly to more than 2,500 fire service sales professionals.

“Then I took a moment to watch how the kids at the fire station went looking for information. It was an interesting glimpse into the future of our marketing. Given a project to find a new product that would meet our department’s needs, I watched as they searched Web sites, watched videos, looked at operations manuals, ‘Tweeted’ friends they know on other departments asking for their opinions and recommendations, and within an hour coming back to me with a recommendation on the best product for us to purchase.

“ ‘OK,’ I said, ‘let’s get a salesman in here to show us the product and give us some feedback.’ They looked at me and asked, ‘Why? We found the best product. We watched the operational videos. We downloaded all the operational manuals. And, we had three other firefighters recommend the same model to us. What value does a salesman bring? We just need to find the best price.’ I’m not sure, but I may have just witnessed a huge shift in how decisions are made and products are sold. So, this may be a lesson for all of us that doing business the way we used to do business just may not cut it in the next few years.”

Like many manufacturers (apparatus and equipment) in our industry, TFT puts tremendous pressure on our distribution partners by publishing extensive data online. With hundreds of companies and thousands of products being introduced annually, there is a growing expectation for sales representatives to be technical experts on nearly every product, as well as on unique procedures that manufacturers use to fulfill orders and provide service. As a result, it isn’t unusual for fire department customers to be much more knowledgeable about a specific product than the salesperson who is calling on them. As manufacturers, we not only create but expand this knowledge gap by posting every technical document, operational and service videos, and around-the-clock technical assistance online for easy access.

As today’s consumers, our expectations are to have immediate access to the information we seek, to review what others who use the products have to say about the performance, and to have a transaction that is quick and error-free. Those who understand this new business model will see long-term success.

The Value of a Salesperson

Whether it is the extensive and often intricate process of specifying a new apparatus or something as simple as getting new gloves (all things in the purchase process being mostly equal), we typically choose to do business with those we like and trust. And, on the supply side of the equation, sales success is usually enjoyed by those companies that make the entire process simple and mistake-free. So, how does a salesperson bring value to this entire purchasing process? With all of these pressures, how will the successful sales representatives of the future meet or exceed our growing consumer expectations?

For the past several years, Task Force Tips University, through its “Sales Boot Camp” and “Advanced Selling Skills” classes, has provided distribution partners worldwide with not only extensive technical information and education on our products but also leading-edge sales and support techniques. TFT believes as a company, as I do in my fire department position, that times are changing and are driven in part by the digital and social media that have become such integral parts of our daily lives. So, what will sales professionals of the future look like?

They will:

  • Act more as consultants and less as salespeople, providing technical information in a nonthreatening and nonmanipulative manner. With proven product performance knowledge and skills, they will offer meaningful input to product evaluations and act more as trusted advisors during the specification process.
  • Become problem solvers. They will prevent specification, ordering, and shipping errors before they happen and communicate honestly and completely on order fulfillment procedures and deadlines.
  • Communicate with their customers in the most efficient and desired (electronic, telephone, or in person) manner when customers want the information.
  • Bring the newest solutions, the latest technologies, and the latest information about peers in the emergency response market who have adopted new strategies. In short, the salespeople of the future will become much more important partners in the overall specifying and purchasing process.

Return on Investment

With many municipalities facing daunting economic challenges, coupled with the excess production capacity in the fire equipment manufacturing sector, there is substantial price and profitability erosion compared with even two years ago. With every manufacturer scrambling to maintain sales, and most willing to take business at substantial discounts (sometimes working around their own dealers), price has become a dominant component of today’s fire equipment business. In my role as a small department purchaser, at first glance, I love seeing continued price decreases because it expands my purchasing power. On the other hand, I’m not so happy to lose the support of our local sales professional who can no longer call on us because of the reduced revenue we produce for his company. Nor am I thrilled with the prospect of calling for technical support and service only to find that staffing cuts only allow me to leave a message with a telephone auto attendant. Certainly these are not the expectations I have for my other daily purchasing experiences.

Even in today’s new “normal” of extreme budget constraints and immediate on-demand information and social feedback, the value of providing a high return on investment must be at the core of any fire equipment distribution partner who expects long-term success. Although there will always be companies whose business models are to sell at the lowest price, there also will always be companies that place the importance of long-term relationships, outstanding product knowledge, great customer service, and being trusted advisors at the top of their corporate goals.

Be Problem Solvers

So what does the future hold for distribution? As we all work to provide more services with fewer resources, I believe the true measure of change is yet to be fully understood. But, if you’re lucky enough to be serviced by one of the hundreds of TFT University graduates, you already understand the impact of true sales professionals as well as the value they can bring to the specification and purchasing process. Their efforts to be trusted advisors, consultants, and problem solvers may very well be that glimpse into the future.


ROD CARRINGER is vice president of sales and marketing for Task Force Tips 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.

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