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Talk It Out

J erry Springer's name was bound to come to mind when the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) announced that dealers and fleet maintenance managers would participate in a "talk show" during Febru...

Jerry Springer’s name was bound to come to mind when the Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) announced that dealers and fleet maintenance managers would participate in a “talk show” during February’s annual meeting. The well-respected maintenance group has been known to raise pointed questions that can make suppliers squirm in their seats, after all.

But after identifying challenges ranging from purchase order procedures to the pricing of services, both sides did find some common ground in the way these issues can be addressed.

“It all comes down to communication,” observed moderator Darry W. Stuart of DWS Fleet Management. “The smaller you are, the more important that relationship is.”

Members of the panel candidly admitted that the biggest customers tend to be bumped to the front of the line. “If we see you a lot, we’re going to take care of you a lot,” said Daryl Gorup, Rush Enterprises’ senior vice-president, dealer operations. But regardless of the size of their businesses, several fleet representatives suggested that shops are taking advantage of customers who have vehicles that are stranded far from home. Jobs that would normally require six hours of labour suddenly require 12 hours of work.

“There is nothing wrong with profit,” said Michele Calbi, vice-president procurement and shop operations at Swift Transportation, “but there is a definite difference between good profit and bad profit, and bad profit costs trust. Determine from an ethical standpoint whether it’s good profit or bad profit and stop the bad profit,” she said to applause from maintenance managers in the audience.

Stuart went a step further, suggesting that fleets can leverage an important power in these situations.

“At the end of the day, you have the power of purchase,” he said. “The purchase order does not trigger automatic payment.”

“Before you just don’t pay it, the next day just call somebody at least once and say, ‘I’m just trying to be reasonable’,” countered Jim McCullough, president and dealer principal of General Truck Sales and Service in Memphis. “When we get to know each other and have open lines of communication and relationship building, it’s amazing that a lot of these problems get solved.”

Fleets and dealerships on the panel even admitted that there may be other explanations for longer repair times. The industry’s standard repair times (SRT) for warranty work will not always reflect real-world situations. In other cases, fleets will likely be able to complete the work more quickly in the confines of a captive shop.

“A fleet does have a distinct advantage over us because they are dealing with a consistent number of spec’s,” explained Jack Saum, CEO of Beltway Companies, which operates eight International dealerships in Maryland. Warranty matters may also require extra time because a dealership’s shop will need to follow a specific set of procedures outlined by the Original Equipment Manufacturer. Eaton, for example, requires photos to be taken in the event a rear end fails. Certain diagnostic trees will also need to be followed.

Still, Frank Nicholson at Transam Fleet is frustrated when his road assist department understands a warranty system’s computer screen better than the dealership’s personnel. And he balks at dealers or technicians who try to take on the role of a warranty administrator.

“Follow the procedures. Don’t follow what used to be,” he said, noting how he doesn’t want to hear a dismissive “we know it’s not covered” from the employees of a shop.

While fleets complained about the need for extended warranties to be honoured, the dealerships responded that they need fleets to press suppliers to ensure that everyone knows about the related coverage.

“Oftentimes, we don’t even know what extended warranty you do have,” observed Brad Faurve, president of the Velocity Vehicle Group in California. “Push the vendors to have visibility on what warranty is available.”

The key solution to all of these issues appeared to involve something as simple as the art of communication. It is why Marvin Psalmond, director of maintenance at Dean Foods, says his fleet personnel actively try to get to know the individual managers within a dealership. And it is why Calbi suggests that dealerships should take the time to understand their customers – from the equipment that is used to the operating hours.

It is also important to manage the way the information is delivered. It is better to share details during each step in the job so the data can be entered into fleet computer systems as it arrives, added Nicholson, noting how he will not release a purchase order until a job is reviewed.

“If you do an engine repair, how many job steps are in that?” he asked, referring to the data that needs to be entered at the fleet level. “You’re asking an awful lot of the road assist department (if it is all sent at once).”

It is the type of dialogue that could help to address the way jobs are prioritized within a dealership. Some of the dealers on the panel discussed “triage” systems that help to prioritize and expedite repairs as quickly as possible. Others talked about the priority that they give to loaded equipment.

Dealerships may also need to reconsider how they “qualify” the drivers, Calbi said. One may have an empty trailer, while another needs to meet the standards of a courier such as FedEx or UPS that requires 99% of loads to be on time.

“Being late is just not part of the equation,” she said, noting how lanes will be lost if the on-time commitment is sacrificed. “Ask the driver, ‘Do you have a hot load, is it empty, do you have a sensitive or high-value load?’ That may need to be parked in a certain area.”

“A lot of times the trucks get lost in the shift change if you’re 24/7 so you have to check our processes and ensure that doesn’t happen,” she added.

“I take it a step further. We need a contact even beyond the driver because his sense of urgency may be different from the fleet’s,” says George Pavin, president of the Kriete Group, a Mack dealer in Wisconsin.

Again, an open line of communication was seen as crucial to the solution.

“If it’s going to sit for four days, tell us that. I may decide to take it to another dealer, but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad dealer,” added Doug White, vice-president of maintenance at Dunbar Armored. “I may call you a name on the phone (but) I can’t make that decision if I don’t know the truth.”

The timing of such discussions may even be better than ever.

“We are very hungry for work,” Faurve says of the current economic environment. “You’re going to find some very willing participants in that conversation.”

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