AUBURNDALE, FL . Mike Arnold will tell you that the relationship between dealers and fleets today is being driven by the level of detail and the speed of information shared between the two parties. And this new dictum applies whether that information regards truck specs, part orders, or vehicle maintenance and repair needs.
“For starters, our first contact with the customer is taking place by email and/or data transfer, before they even walk in the door – if they ever walk in the door,” Arnold, vp & gm for the Nextran Truck Centers of Auburndale and Tampa, FL, told Fleet Owner.
Nextran is a network of 12 full-service medium- and heavy-truck dealerships covering Florida, Georgia and Alabama and is one of the largest distributors of Mack and Volvo trucks in the U.S.
Arnold said new- vehicle specs are a great example of this new communications trend. Not only do customers want dealers to give them more options so they can more precisely tailor their trucks to specific applications, they want “real-world” performance data to back up specs suggested to them by the dealer, he explained.
That demand, in turn, means dealers and their OEMs are working much more closely to craft “virtual trucks” customers can examine before they make a purchasing decision.
“Today we’re making a full presentation about trucks tailored to meet their specific needs just to kick off the decision-making process,” Arnold said. “Customers don’t want to just buy a truck; they want to be totally informed about what that truck can do for their operation. They want verifiable information on how trucks with specs they are looking at perform in the field. And they are doing their own research at the same time [they are talking to us.]”
With most of its network based in Florida – eight out of its 12 dealerships are located in the Sunshine State – Nextran continues to cope with the brought to trucking brought on by the economic recession and its sluggish recovery that has put more pressure on the information-based relationship it has with customers today.
For example, as Florida’s residential construction business took a tremendous dive in the recession, Nextran watched sales of dump trucks, concrete mixers and the like plummet. And many of its customers in its other principle niches – distribution and agriculture – began changing their truck specs as business needs shifted and carriers consolidated.
“Fleets that used to buy a lot of long-haul sleeper tractors started buying smaller sleepers and daycabs,” Arnold said. “Customers also continue to diversify and go through periods of what we call ‘extreme focus,’ whereby they try to lighten tractor weights to maximize payloads, or go to more fuel-efficient specs. Thus we have to go and create new options for them they did not look at in the past.”
These intense information demands are also spilling over into the parts-and-service side of the dealer’s business, he noted. That in turn is forcing the dealership to explore new technologies to help keep up.
“Right now, we’re pilot-testing the use of iPads by our technicians,” Arnold noted. “Here’s a device that lets the tech pull up the entire maintenance history of the truck, take photos of a component that needs fixing, check parts availability, and communicate with the customer – all without having to leave their work area.”
Such bringing together of what used to be disparate stacks of information has even driven changes in the design of the dealer’s floor plan. Arnold said that Nextran’s Auburndale location, built 10 years ago, deliberately placed its service, parts, and warranty departments together in close proximity to foster more information and idea sharing among what used to be considered completely separate pieces of the dealer’s business.
“We need to share more information internally – among our own departments and with our OEMs – so we deliver better service to the customer,” he said.
For example, Arnold is currently experimenting with an electronic “status board” that will be shared between his various departments. It will display the trucks coming in for service, the customers they belong to, where they are in the repair process, and will include a running clock as to when work on those vehicles should be completed.
Eventually, Arnold expects to display the status board in the dealership’s customer lounge so drivers will bee constantly kept informed as to where their vehicle is in the repair process. “Again, it all comes back to making sure the customer has all the information they want about their truck – from specs to repair status – at their fingertips,” he pointed out.