Communication key to distributor partnerships

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A panel discussion talks partners at Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week

LAS VEGAS, NV – Price plays a role in any business transaction, but strong relationships continue to be a differentiator when it comes to selling truck parts — even in an era of e-commerce.

“It’s changed the way communication happens, but it doesn’t change the type of communication,” says Carl Mesker, SAF Holland’s vice president – aftermarket. “What’s critically important is the relationship and the trust.”

It’s a point that was echoed by distributors and suppliers in a panel discussion during an opening session at Heavy Duty Aftermarket Week.

When questions turn to price, Mesker even begins to ask himself what he didn’t understand about the customer’s business. “Then it’s time to start asking questions.”

Sean Ryan, president of the Point Spring and Driveshaft Company, puts a lot of stock at the level of training a supplier like SAF Holland can provide. His business has 20 outside salespeople and just as many inside salespeople selling 200 different product lines at a time. They can answer the first two or three questions, but need a partner who can dig deeper after that.

“We’ve got to know these suppliers have the knowledge to back us up, and when we call they answer,” Ryan said. “We need our suppliers to service our customers.”

The right information can clearly make a difference. After a 1.5-hour presentation to Point Spring sales teams, during one of its quarterly sales meetings, the company saw a double-digit increase in sales of SAF Holland parts.

Granted, relationships take time to develop. It’s why Ryan stresses the importance of making as many contacts as possible. “This is an industry where people really do still matter,” he said.

“Everybody has a lower price in the market,” said Walt Sherbourne, Dayton Parts marketing vice president. “The thing you have to deliver is the value.” Price is a concern, but that should be the last part of the conversation, he said. “You can’t just go in there and expect to sell right away.”

“We can have any product, but if [a distributor] doesn’t have a need to sell it, or his customers in the marketplace don’t need it, you need to go somewhere else.”

Conversations with customers also need to reach beyond a single point of contact, Sherbourne said. “You really got to sit down and talk to the purchasing managers and the people behind the scenes who do the work.”

He is increasingly discouraged by the number of people who are simply distributing flyers and quoting prices.

“We’re driving the price of the parts to a level that there’s no profit in the business,” Sherbourne said of the broader industry. “Our customers are not going to win. They’re going to be dissatisfied with the products.”

“I’ve got to stand up to my customers and say, ‘This product is a good product,’” agreed Edward Neeley, president of the Truck Supply Company of South Carolina, referring to the importance of the trust.

“You’ve got to believe in the quality of the product you’re selling.”

The strongest relationships also include being there when things go wrong. Neeley wants to be confident that he can reach out at 2 am if a customer has trouble, and know the phone will be answered.

That is a differentiator in the world of e-commerce. “When [a customer is] sitting there and he’s down, he needs to have [the part] then,” Neeley said. “You’re not going to get that service from the Amazons of the world.”

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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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