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Establishing And Cultivating Relationships With Big Dealers

18 Feb, 2001 By: Jim Intravia imageSource

Establishing And Cultivating Relationships With Big Dealers

Last month, I talked about small dealers and how they can help each other. Small dealers and big dealers often consider themselves to have nothing in common. In many cases, neither has any idea of how the other operates. The small dealer frequently thinks of the large dealer as a mega-corporation with deep pockets, non-dedicated employees, and unhappy customers. Also, an unlimited and unfair access to so many things that the small dealer would die for such as; parts, manuals, technical assistance, low wholesale prices, service bulletins, and even factory training.

Many small dealers are intimidated by large dealers. They think that the large dealer will put them out of business, blow them out of every possible deal, and sue them for trying to compete. They often assume that the large dealer is an enemy. They may think that the large dealer will not help them, will not sell to them, will not do a favor, accept a favor, or return a favor. These things may be true sometimes, but in many cases; small and large dealers have friendships and business relationships.

There is no clear-cut definition of what a small dealer is and what a large dealer is. To the one-person operation, a dealership with 15 employees is large. That dealer may consider the operation to be a small dealer when they encounter dealerships of several hundred employees. All dealerships and most manufacturers' branches have several things in common. They all have a service department and one person who is ultimately responsible for that department. They all have a similar arrangement for sales, and for administration. In the small dealership, the owner-operator is often responsible for all of these. Growth requires the division of responsibility between two or three people; not always competent people.

The Overloaded Service Manager

For the purposes of this article, I am going to assume that you are pretty much a “one horse show” who occasionally needs help in various ways. It is likely that you will need much from the large dealer, and that they will need little, if anything from you. You must recognize that small dealer requests are often very troubling to larger dealers. Their service manager’s primary job is to supervise his or her own technicians. There are often additional responsibilities for technicians’ productivity, parts usage, and, of course, technicians who always finish their last call just a few minutes too late to go on another one, but get home a few minutes early! This job often includes physically troubleshooting or solving difficult problems in other ways, manufacturer's reps, dispatching super-techs to certain problems, rearranging territories, managing vacation and sick-time labor shortages.

Also Included Are:

· Scheduling technician's training, whether on site or to manufacturer's schools.

· Monitoring performance and trying to spot customer problems before the customer does.

· Knowing when to turn certain accounts over to salespeople.

· Monitoring, deciding on and administering technician's salaries and expenses.

As you can see, that service manager has a lot to do. When you call once a week to ask why such and such model is misbehaving, you can understand why it is not his first priority to take the time to give you a perfect answer. If you call in once a week and ask for a bunch of parts by description (“The little white gear, and the pin that drives it”), the fact that you are paying for the parts does not make you a “customer” in his mind. You are probably a “pain.” If you are allowed to wander through the premises, you will probably find technicians willing to stand and talk to you all day, answer your questions, look up bulletins and part numbers and so on. Now, think about this. If the service manager can't be bothered with you, do you really think he wants his employees to spend time doing that?

How To Avoid Being A Nuisance

To establish and cultivate a good relationship with such a dealer, you must eat some crow. Forget that you are smarter than that entire service department put together (Remember; businesspeople have large egos which are very tough to control. I know, because mine is out of control!) Consider yourself to be an annoyance to them and do what you can to minimize that. If they are willing to sell you parts, you will make their life much easier by supplying part numbers. You might find that if you graciously ask to look in a parts book, they are happy to accommodate. If so, be sure to stay in the open while you are copying down the appropriate part numbers. You might even want to make it a point of putting the book back on the service manager's desk, or returning it to the shelf and letting it be known that you are doing that. You don’t want to be accused of walking out with the manual. Service manuals are always hiding and disappearing. The itinerant dealer is going to be blamed for those the same way the housekeeper is blamed for things that are missing.

When you order parts, if you ask for a price in advance, you will be making them do double work, since checking prices is usually rather tedious; CD-ROMs, websites, cross reference manuals, faxes, or phone calls. If you receive a wrong part, the cost of them taking it back is often more than the part and labor is worth to them. Consequently, they don’t want to handle a return and may be less likely to help you at all next time.

Don’t even think about asking for “net 30” when buying from dealers. Markup and net profit are small, and office procedure (invoice, billing, etc.) costs just as much for a $3.00 wholesale item as it does for a $10,000 machine purchase. Offer to pay on the spot, and if they don’t insist on it, be sure to pay those bills immediately.

The Busy Salesperson

Dealing with salespeople can be similar. Since they work on commission, they are less likely to give up their time if there is no impending sale. Asking for sales tips and brochures is not likely to endear you to any of them. The fact that you help them move inventory only matters to the dealer principal. It does nothing for them. Giving them a sales lead might improve your relationship with them. There will be situations that you cannot handle. Rather than letting the customer go to the phone book, match them up with your favorite dealer. Depending on circumstances, you may get to keep the customer, you may get a finder's fee, or you may be happy to have sent them the lead, no strings attached.

Returning The Favor

It is quite possible that you have nothing to offer the large dealer, but don’t sell yourself short. There will be times when the dealer principal or sales or service manager recognizes that you have a different take on the industry. Don’t be surprised to receive a request every now and then. Answer eagerly and to the best of your ability. Make it clear that you appreciate their past help and want to do whatever you can. They may ask you about technician's looking for work how to handle shopwork, gossip on another competitor, if you know who got a particular account, and why.

It is not likely that you will be able to successfully have a dealer of any substantial size help you out in the case of vacation, illness, etc. If their technicians are dispatched, it is very difficult for a dealer such as that to have their technician change from standard procedures. You, as a small business owner or manager, are accustomed to wearing many hats, and treating each customer as a new experience with a set of pre-programmed solutions and responses. The dealer technician operates very differently. Technicians who report to a service manager often must operate in a “McDonald's” manner. All customers and all products are treated identically. There is no room for creativity or change of direction. This includes invoicing, parts changing, maintenance measures, and many other procedures.

If you establish a relationship with a larger dealer, it can help you substantially. You might eventually find that you can call for advice regarding sales, hiring, administration or purchasing. A larger company will invariably have had more experience in all these areas, and once you have a good relationship, these requests will not be difficult.

Some dealers will not give you the time of day. Regardless of who helped them on the way up, or any favor you might have done for them, they won't care. It might be the principal, the sales manager, the service manager, the office manager who feels that way, or who can't be bothered. If so, there is nothing you can do about it. That's life in the copier business.

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