During the purchasing process, fire departments evaluate fire apparatus dealers as well as the manufacturers they represent. Whether in volunteer, career, or combination entities, the evaluation process is as varied as the organizations and the apparatus they purchase. Dealers are viewed differently by those complying with formal bidding protocols and those who do not. Most evaluations are informal. Others follow a regimented format to compare and qualify prospective dealers. In this article, “dealer” includes all employees of a dealership interacting with purchasers. “Evaluate” means to appraise and assess. Many purchasers have preconceived opinions of a dealer’s qualifications. Some are unrelenting in validating personal opinions, whether justifiable or not. An opinion is not an evaluation. An opinion is defined as a view, a belief, or an attitude.
Assessing a dealer’s qualifications occurs in phases. The first phase occurs prior to writing purchasing specifications. The second encompasses the period from contract signing through delivery. The next covers the warranty period. The last encompasses service after the sale—an ambiguous statement explained later. Not every dealer is afforded the opportunity to participate in the first phase, nor is the successful dealer always allowed to participate in the latter. Both are addressed. Is your dealer evaluation process fair? Is it based on opinion or fact?
Evaluation and Reputation
Biased personal opinion can unfairly tarnish a dealer’s reputation—as well as it not being objectively evaluated. As an example, one purchasing committee worked only with Brand A’s dealer in developing proprietary purchasing specifications. All its apparatus were Brand A. That is what the commitee wanted now. Committee members liked the product, personally liked the dealer, and did not want or consider other manufacturers. It is a common occurrence. Prior to putting out the call to bid, the political subdivision responsible for purchasing opened up the specifications. They were mailed to numerous dealers. Several responded. Brand B, an equivalent manufacturer and lowest responsible bidder, was fairly and legally awarded the contract. The fire department and purchasing committee were livid. They did not want Brand B. They did everything possible to derail the purchasing process, degrade the manufacturer’s product, and demean the dealer. In their opinion, the dealer was no good, probably never accomplished anything worthwhile in the past, and likely would never do anything meaningful in the future. And, the apparatus represented was probably junk. That dealer’s reputation was fraudulently tarnished. Dealers not considered by a purchasing committee or invited to attend a prebid conference are not evaluated. Whether it occurs because of tradition, accident, personal preference, or preconceived opinion is irrelevant. It happens often.
Warranty or Service?
Expeditious resolution of warranty issues is nonnegotiable. Whether warranty claims are channeled through the dealer or handled factory-direct is immaterial. I believe dealers are responsible to ensure prompt resolution of warranty concerns, whether the dealer performs the work or coordinates it through others. The dealer profits from your purchase and should be held accountable for unresponsiveness after delivery. Repetitive and documented unsatisfactory performance in fulfilling warranty claims is justifiable cause to write the dealer out of your next purchasing specification and legally disqualify him from being an acceptable vendor.
Buyer, beware—resolving warranty issues and providing service are analogous but should be evaluated individually. Apparatus dealers owning service facilities can be disingenuous when describing warranty work and describing service after a warranty period expires. They promote both as service after the sale. They encourage a written requirement detailing service capabilities to be included in purchasing specifications, albeit with a proprietary slant toward their facilities. The common inference is misleading. Consider evaluating warranty and nonwarranty service separately. There is a difference. And, there are acceptable alternatives to requiring each bidder to own, within six blocks of your fire station, a 70,000-square-foot facility with multiple service bays, three on-the-road service trucks, and 16 certified technicians on the payroll.
Dealers are bound by contract to resolve warranty claims. However, they may not be allowed to provide service on sold apparatus after the warranty period expires. Some political subdivisions mandate that nonwarranty work be performed by their municipal repair shops. Others outsource emergency vehicle repair work to independent service centers that may or may not sell apparatus.
Usually prearranged with written authorization, independent service shops regularly perform warranty work for multiple manufacturers. Some fire department shops surpass the service capabilities of many dealers. It is not unheard of for a fire department or its political subdivision to be authorized to perform warranty work and to bill the manufacturer. Some manufacturers require all warranty work to be performed by their dealers. Others may acquiesce to alternative sources. Ask. You may be surprised. Many very successful fire apparatus dealers do not own service facilities. They contract with local providers. If the service provided is not acceptable, they would not survive in business. Consequently, owning a service facility may not be a tangible factor in evaluating a dealer. The true measure of acceptability should be how responsive, prompt, and professional the dealer is in fixing your fire truck if it breaks under warranty. Where or who does the physical work should be inconsequential. For example, an apparatus dealer performing the majority of service work in one area had the largest repair facility within 100 miles. He commented, “It doesn’t matter whether I sell a truck or not; I’ll end up doing the service.”
Bottom Feeders and Cherry Pickers
A nonscientific but sometimes accurate and amusing insight into dealers’ characters and qualifications is to listen to them describe their peers. Most will categorize others as being honest competition or as running a good show or will respectfully decline comment. With prejudice, some label their competition “bottom feeders,” “part timers,” and “cherry pickers.”
Bottom feeders are not often seen in public. They rarely attend prebid meetings and seldom meet with purchasing committees. Their technical expertise is questionable, and it is doubtful if they can write specifications. Bottom feeders bid on fire apparatus rather than attempt to sell them. They scrutinize legal notices and request bid packages. If they can determine what size motor, pump, and tank are required, they’ll submit a bid—usually low-balling it. Everything else is immaterial; exceptions are seldom listed. If they do sell a truck, they are seldom seen after it is delivered. Their reputation is that they are on to the next deal. It usually precedes them.
“Part timer” is an offensive term with multiple meanings. One describes a dealer just starting in the business. Another refers to one who expends minimal time and effort. Yet another describes a dealer holding a second job. There is no malice intended toward those entering the profession or anyone dependent on a second income. Many dealers forget that they, too, experienced a first day on the job. Another derogatory and unfair characterization is to claim a competitor works out of the trunk of his car. Many dealers covering sizeable territories spend an inordinate amount of time in their vehicles calling on customers. Their vehicles are their offices on wheels. Does it reflect on their product knowledge, experience, and expertise? No.
“Cherry picker” is not a derogatory term. Cherry pickers select the customers they want to work with and what specifications they will bid on. They do not waste their time and will not waste yours. If their product lines don’t match your requirements, they’ll tell you. Most will respectfully decline to participate, will thank you for the opportunity to do business, and will go on their way. Purchasers who work with them have a high regard for them. Most other dealers are jealous of cherry pickers.
Another evaluation is how well dealers interact with today’s “McDonald’s Kids.” McDonald’s Kids is an amusing but somewhat factual term coined by a long-time fire apparatus dealer. It describes some of the newer generation of purchasing committee members predominant in volunteer organizations. Years ago, a purchasing committee would hold numerous lengthy meetings. Today’s economy and on-the-go society results in less time available for volunteerism including time serving on committees. Some members want to get in, get out, and get on with their lives. They are fast-paced—like fast food restaurants. A meeting scheduled for 7:00 pm may find two or three people 30 minutes late and two more leaving early for a second job or to pick up a kid at soccer practice. In the limited time available at fewer meetings, a dealer has to glean as much information as possible about the department’s needs, prepare specifications and blueprints, show a demo apparatus, and make presentations to the committee—all without causing that kid to miss his ride home from soccer practice. The dealer is golden if it can be done. If not, evaluation marks are poor.
Dealers may interact with and be evaluated by another class of purchasing committee members—the Whiz Kids, prevalent in career departments. This is a colloquialism for firefighters appearing to be younger, better educated, more technically oriented, and with more computer savviness than their predecessors. Many of today’s career firefighters admirably approach the fire service as a profession in which to excel and advance rather than just a job. Successfully serving on an apparatus purchasing committee can be a plus, a stepping stone in establishing a career. Old timers in the firehouse learned about fire apparatus on the job, whereas today’s career firefighters may go to college to learn about them. They look at apparatus purchasing seriously—the same way they evaluate dealers.
Fire apparatus dealers must be as knowledgeable and up-to-date as their customers. Understanding sales tactics and marketing strategy is just a beginning. They must continually educate themselves about new products, be aware of the latest trends and techniques in firefighting, and be proficient in the electronic information age. A dealer’s time in the profession is similar to a firefighter’s years on the job. It is experience—an asset that is invaluable and something that can never be taken away. However, if the dealer is not current in product knowledge or functioning in today’s purchasing environment, that experience is no longer an asset. It becomes history.
BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.