There is a unique and curious sentiment one feels when – after months or years of politicking and saving – the green light is given to purchase new apparatus.
But euphoria can quickly sour with the inundation of phone calls and e-mail from prospective apparatus suppliers, all seeking an audience with you. Lest you end up with a vehicle outside or not even close to your expectations, your journey through the purchasing process will be equal parts daunting and frustrating.
There are many elements to buying apparatus that will impact the outcome, not the least of which is the quality and professionalism of the sales representatives you encounter. Making certain you are comfortable not only with the manufacturer you select, but also the sales representative, is essential and something that may make-or-break your experience.
We tend to think of “salespeople” as the slick-talking types typically found in car dealership parking lots. The reality is fire apparatus salespeople are, by-and-large, not formed from this mold.
Although the fire apparatus industry has been slow to evolve with professional training for its representatives, the basic tenets to which good salespeople are judged are easy to spot. It goes without saying that knowledge of one’s product is essential, as is a quality reputation for customer support, delivering on promises made and adapting to the needs of your committee.
There is, however, one singular trait – empathy – that should stand out as a must-have characteristic as you evaluate prospective suppliers. Without it, you can find yourself flying blind as salespeople take advantage of you in ways that might not necessarily fit your determined direction.
Empathy is the characteristic by which another person embraces your problems as their own and sees the challenges you face from your point-of-view at an intimate personal level. There is genuine authenticity to a sales representative’s interest in helping you, an inherent emotional pull for your situation.
The empathetic sales representative takes a “how can I help this department” approach, rather than “what can I do to this department for my benefit.” Empathetic representatives are neither aggressive nor overbearing. They sit back to discern through intense listening if there is an actual product match for you. When they do speak, it is typically to ask questions in the hopes of understanding your situation more clearly. They stay on-point with all aspects of the sale until you are comfortable and ready to proceed.
Empathetic sales representatives don’t come through the door with designs and specifications already in-hand, claiming what they have in their possession fits your bill without affording you a chance to define your requirements.
True empathetic sales representatives are trusted advisors who readily admit the shortcomings of their product offerings when they do not match your requirements. Then they turn around and lend a helping hand in making recommendations on where you can turn.
Not surprisingly, empathy was cited in landmark research from 1964 by two Harvard Business School professors as one of the most relevant traits for a professional sales representative. This is especially true of high-ticket purchases, where relationship-building and trust among all parties is a much-needed element of the sale.
There are behaviors exhibited by apparatus sales people that should raise an immediate red-flag to you and your committee. A principal breach of etiquette is waxing poetic about the weakness of competitors. When faced with what is essentially “trash-talking,” ask yourself why those sales representatives are not talking more about their own product offerings.
While it is best to do your needs-assessment homework in advance of meeting with representatives, you nonetheless face the specter of weeding out those who will try clouding your judgment by throwing out anything and everything to convince you to look in their direction. There is a belief in certain circles that by clouding the situation as much as possible, sales representatives can trick you into seeing their solution as the best selection, even when it doesn’t meet your defined needs.
If representatives act that way before you’ve awarded a contract, you should consider how they will act after the contract is signed and your truck is moving through the production cycle. This is especially true of a representative who handles a product-line that meets your needs.
Some people believe that departments give up their rights in the purchasing process once a bid is published, especially when taxpayer money is involved. The fact is buyer’s rights are an integral part of the process. It is important for you to grasp this concept before you hold even one meeting with a prospective apparatus supplier and make clear your expectations.
This means you are to be assured the apparatus you buy meets your defined needs in terms of design, performance and character. You should expect and demand transparency from salespeople as to the positive and negative attributes of the apparatus they propose.
Most importantly, you have every right not to buy from companies not subscribing to the requirements and product needs defined by you and your committee. While this right is certainly open to interpretation if a bidder offers a stock unit that is close to your requirements, this entitlement can nonetheless take on new meaning if your buying decision is challenged by a losing bidder. Having all your facts in order at this point to rationally defend your decision is crucial.
The empathetic salesperson will insist on your rights being protected on the basis of ethics. Representatives to avoid are those with a history of threatening legal action if they don’t get their way.
When you sign a contract for new apparatus, you hire that company to perform a job for you. One way to determine who might best represent your interests is to pre-qualify sales representatives by holding an open forum and interview process with five or six manufacturers before you start the specification process. This way, you can outline your expectations and establish the ground rules under which you intend to work from start to finish.
You may inquire about sales philosophies, the time sales representatives expect to devote to the project and their previous experience. Ask them to provide verifiable examples of their customer support along with references. You can ask whether they’ve been involved in any cancelled contracts or lawsuits related to sales contracts. You may also ask if they would object to making unsworn falsification a reason to disqualify a bid.
Have community pillars sit in on the interviews, as well as the city attorney. These individuals no doubt can provide a refined perspective that may prove beneficial.
Because fire apparatus is a capital expenditure which will probably become part of your community for 10 to 15 years, if not longer, it is imperative that you get the best value and product out of the process. Ensuring you partner with a quality sales representative who will serve as a solid front-line advocate working on your behalf is imperative.
With taxpayer dollars and firefighter safety at stake, your political standing – within your department and the community at-large – is at risk.
Editor’s Note: Sean P. Duffy, a 27-year veteran of the emergency services, including 18 years as avolunteer firefighter, is the sales and marketing manager for Plastisol Composites of North America, located in Groton, N.Y. He is a regular speaker at the annual apparatus symposium of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association.