Apparatus Purchasing: Profiling the Purchaser

A department approves funding for a new apparatus and forms a purchasing committee. But, the only vendor personally contacted is the committee’s preferred dealer. Published legal notices, newspaper articles, and word on the street notwithstanding, the fire department is purchasing a new rig, and no other dealer expresses interest. The favored dealer—the only bidder—ultimately receives the contract. Why? What is little known, seldom mentioned, and never admitted is that fire apparatus dealers evaluate fire departments—their potential customers. Sales and marketing academia call it qualifying the customer. The movie industry calls it stereotyping. Some call it typecasting. The fire service calls it sizing up. Legal and law professionals call it profiling. Supposedly, profiling is wrong. It is not fair, accurate, or equitable, but it happens. Welcome to the real world of fire apparatus selling.

Some purchasers become irate, act defensively, and become downright belligerent should a prospective vendor question their purchasing practices. Some look at nonpreferred dealers in an adversarial manner, almost to the point of utter disdain and contempt should a dealer fail to genuflect when entering the fire chief’s office. Heaven help the salesperson not bringing a calendar for everyone in the firehouse. T-shirts and ball caps for all must be delivered with the new apparatus. Although this paragraph is written tongue in cheek, it illustrates some reasons apparatus dealers evaluate potential and repeat customers.

Most fire apparatus salespeople work on a commission basis—no sale, no commission. For this narration, anyone selling fire apparatus is referred to as a dealer.

Countless hours of unreimbursed time can be spent meeting with prospective customers, conducting product research, and preparing specifications and blueprints. Expenses can be incurred providing purchasing committees with prebid factory evaluation trips and displaying demonstrator apparatus. Don’t forget a dealer’s day-to-day office and vehicle expenses. Some manufacturers charge dealers for job-specific engineering and blueprints. All the while, the dealer realizes he may not be the successful bidder and may never recoup prebid expenses.

That’s business. Time is limited, and successful dealers spend their time where there is a fair, equitable, and reasonable chance of making a sale. That is economic reality and another reason prospective customers are profiled. Although they might not use a preprinted checklist, rest assured that, in the back of dealers’ minds, they evaluate departments—just like departments size up dealers. It is a two-way street. The evaluation process includes visual perceptions and past history. Neither are scientific studies but indicate the direction a prospective customer may go. That influences a dealer’s decision whether to actively spend time pursuing a fire department’s business.

The Law

An awkward and sensitive subject to address is whether or not departments follow the law. If not, are they doing so because they don’t want to or don’t have to? It matters. The law refers to explicit rules and regulations promulgated by states and local political subdivisions governing procurement with tax dollars. Some fire departments act as if they are immune to oversight. Some may not follow the intent or the letter of the law with their purchasing practices.

A vendor can be shown preference not only with written specifications but in the manner in which a purchaser evaluates competitive bids. Such favoritism is unethical and morally questionable. In some jurisdictions, it is illegal. Larger political subdivisions are usually more aware. Some have separate professional purchasing departments not easily influenced by favoritism, personal agendas, or fire department tradition. Knowing established public purchasing practices are followed means the rules on the playing field are equal. Regardless of the technical specifications, dealers know the bidding and evaluation process will, or should, be equal. That is important.

Unsuccessful bidders rarely challenge questionable bidding practices because they may be the preferred dealer at the next bid in a neighboring department. If a department has a history of always buying what it wants regardless of purchasing protocol, dealers may not interact with it.

It is important to note some independent fire agencies, not accountable to political subdivisions, are free to purchase what they want, when they want, and from whom they want. It is legal. Those potential customers are coveted.

It is worth pointing out that independent fire departments contracting with political subdivisions to provide fire protection are paid with tax dollars. As such, they and the political subdivision may be subject to scrutiny if publicly challenged over purchasing practices. No fire department wants its name in the media over claims of questionable bidding procedures or unethical purchasing practices—whether substantiated or not. Neither do dealers. If a department’s modus operandi circumvents acceptable purchasing etiquette and dealers choose not to interact with it, the department shouldn’t ask why. It may not like the answer.

Visual Perceptions

Visual perceptions do not guarantee purchasers’ future actions; however, they do give an indication. History tends to repeat itself. Looking inside a fire station gives a dealer an idea of what his chances may be. If every rig, including the department’s antique, is manufactured by one builder, chances are that builder will be favored. Apparatus from a variety of builders could indicate the customer may not favor one particular manufacturer and may seek competitive bids.

Another indicator is the type of rigs in the barn. Some departments purchase relatively simple apparatus—known as industry standards or sometimes referred to as “plain janes.” I intend no malice or insult toward these purchasers. They spend much less money and probably receive more value for dollars spent than those who purchase off-the-wall rigs known as wombats. A wombat is a one-of-a-kind, never-been-built-before apparatus that probably will never be duplicated. Wombat purchasers are demanding, particular, and sometimes difficult to work with. They scare some dealers away. Wombat buyers typically have the biggest, best, and largest quantity of whatever will fit on a fire truck. Expense is no problem.

They are not to be confused with purchasers of job-specific customized apparatus. Quite often apparatus must be custom-designed for bona fide firematic and operational reasons, such as fitting into tight quarters, operating in extreme weather conditions, and addressing extraordinary hazards particular to given response areas. Some manufacturers have carved a niche in the market, such as building highly customized apparatus. Dealers know where their manufacturer’s expertise lies. It may not be compatible with your intended purchase.

Another visual indicator is the price range of an existing fleet. Just as purchasers rate manufacturers, manufacturers and their dealers rate each other, albeit not always in friendly terms. Some consider themselves to be premium top-of-the-line manufacturers. They proudly declare themselves to be in the top ten or top five. They and their dealers sometimes demean other manufacturers by categorizing them as mid-range or low-end builders. It is unfortunate when one dealer unfairly categorizes another’s product and the purchaser who buys it.

If a station is full of apparatus built by smaller manufacturers, the big boys may find it beneath them to solicit that station’s business. Some dealers may not actively pursue the business of nonaffluent customers who always purchase low-bid vehicles. Shame on them; perhaps they do not deserve their business. The workmanship, quality, and expertise of some smaller and regional builders can surpass that of their larger counterparts. If a department’s prior purchases are not representative of what a manufacturer is proficiently producing, its dealer may not camp at its doorstep. It’s not fair, but it happens.

Past History

Contrary to common belief, competitors talk shop with each other, usually when discussing difficult customers. When asked how it was dealing with one fire department, a former competitor replied, “That was an interesting project.” Nothing more had to be said. Additionally, the word on the street (aka rumor mill) can influence a dealer’s perception of a potential customer. Concurrently, past personal experiences with customers sway decisions to renew business relationships.

As an example, one chief, who knew beforehand what manufacturer of apparatus he was going to purchase from, had to receive three bids to satisfy his village’s procurement policy. He browbeat, begged, and coerced several dealers to submit quotes, promising each all bids would be considered. They bid. He didn’t consider any of them, instead purchasing what he wanted. Would you bid there again?

Another fire department promulgated an open, but technically specific, set of purchasing specifications for a very customized rig. The bid specifically stated the award would be made to the lowest responsible bidder who met the technical specifications without exceptions. Multiple dealers bid. However, the department accepted an unsolicited proposal for a demonstrator rig not meeting the technical requirements of the specifications. It did not matter that all bidders were not given the same opportunity to provide quotes for demonstrator units. How much effort would you put into that department’s next purchase?

Qualifying a potential customer begins with knowing and understanding the demographics of the marketing area. It is influenced by observation and reinforced by past interaction. Fire apparatus purchasing should occur in an arena of mutual trust and honesty, reinforced with the legality of the written word and not in an atmosphere of doubt, perception, rumor, and deception. Fire departments continually judge the performance and reputations of the fire apparatus dealers they work with. They are justifiable in doing so. Fire departments should be cognizant of the fact that they also have reputations in the business world. They are earned with those same dealers.

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.

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