Think of fleet accounts as small farms. Schools, hospitals and municipalities care for grounds that can stretch for acres and their equipment purchases are driven by pride and budget. The difference is fleet managers have to report to a supervisor and, ultimately, a board for the money they spend and how the grounds look.

Figure out how to help fleet managers balance those priorities to earn their business.

Securing Accounts

Dealers follow different strategies to secure and maintain fleet accounts. Larry Schlender is a salesperson with Mid-State Equipment of Janesville, Wis. His fleet accounts include the local school district and the department of public works for a nearby city. Schlender joined the sales team in 2004 and began working with these accounts right away. Mid-State is a John Deere dealership that also offers Stihl, Wacker-Neuson and Scag.

Bill Bruce, B&B Engine Repair, Santa Cruz, Calif., says word-of-mouth recommendations, reliability and flexibility help him win fleet accounts.

The school district had just purchased several wide area mowers for grounds maintenance of two high schools, three middle schools and 12 elementary schools. Schlender went to work making sure the district was happy with those equipment purchases.

“I check on them periodically and visit them every 6 weeks or so, just to see how things are going. You start to see that the machines are getting to the point where you say to the customer, ‘This machine is getting to be a few years old and has so many hours, but is still attractive for resale.’ I also point out that they want to avoid being ‘nickled and dimed to death’ with parts replacement expense,” Schlender says. “I start working with them about putting a request into next year’s budget, showing the price with a government discount and the trade-in value. It shows the ‘powers that be’ that for ‘X number’ of dollars they can renew their fleet and not worry about parts expenditures.”


Schlender says he often schedules short appointments, 15 minutes or so, to meet with the superintendent of buildings and grounds, but he’s also talking to operators in the field.

“If I’m driving to an account and I see their trucks out, I’ll stop and talk to one of the workers to see how things are going. If they have an issue, I try to take care of it right away. Sometimes it’s a warranty item and they’ve been accepting the problem because they’re trying to get the job done. This way I’m being proactive and if I can keep the fleet going, it makes the superintendent shine.”

Schlender says the budgeting process for his customers has changed over the years and requires him to work years ahead on equipment sales. “Since about 2008, it’s been a matter of thinking 2 or 3 years ahead. Before that you’d get a call on June 1 and they’d ask if I could bring something over by the end of the month. We use to call that ‘mad money’ and that doesn’t happen anymore.”

Schlender’s relationship building skills recently paid off. Last spring, the school district traded in the machines they bought in 2004 and purchased five 11-foot finish mowers and a wide area mower.

Making It Easy

Bill Bruce, chief executive officer of B&B Engine Repair, Santa Cruz, Calif., has found success without using an outside sales team. B&B carries Stihl, DR brush mowers, Bearcat chippers and Honda mowers, generators and pumps.

“We don’t do any outside sales. We’ve talked about going out and seeing about the customers we may not be getting, but haven’t had to do that,” says Bruce. Their location is one reason for that. They live in a small community and don’t have competition for the smaller equipment they sell. However, Bruce believes it’s word-of-mouth recommendations that have helped them win business from two local school districts, three area municipalities as well as the local office of the Bureau of Land Management. The main products they sell to these accounts include chain saws, line and hedge trimmers, generators and blowers.

“We bend over backward to meet their needs. We say, ‘What do you need? How do you need to be billed? What works for you?’ ” Bruce says. “We’re winning accounts and keeping accounts because we make it easy for them and we do what they need. For example, we don’t say ‘This is our billing practice.’ ”

Bruce says the drought has affected landscaping and grounds maintenance to the point that some schools are installing synthetic grass around buildings. However, demand is still strong for the power tools they sell. He says the government discounts from Stihl help make the purchase price more attractive and their service-focused philosophy is based on when Bruce was a customer himself.

About 20 years ago, Bruce had worked for a lumber company doing repairs of heavy equipment. He would send the saws that needed repairs to the local service shop. That service shop closed when the owner retired.

Dealer Takeaways

• Support the service technicians and grounds crew as well as the department's fleet manager.

• Be ready to prove that your equipment is the best return on investment and can maximize "up time" for the department.

• Be flexible, such as how you invoice or when you meet with fleet managers or their crews.

• Find a niche, such as unique financing arrangements.

“We tried all the other shops in town, but didn’t get good service and I tried to find parts online. I thought that if I couldn’t find anybody, others weren’t either, so that’s how we started,” Bruce says. “You always have to look at your business from the customer’s point of view.”

Solving Problems

Identifying a fleet manager’s problem areas can lead to sales success. For instance, Schlender points out how he works with the fleet manager for a nearby municipality. Newer machines reduce repair costs and equipment downtime — and contribute to safe operation.

“The manager believes that if you stay new, costs come down. You don’t have wasted hours because of downtime and if you’re running old equipment and it breaks down, you have the chance of the operator getting hurt.”

Randy Topping, Chattanooga Tractor, Chattanooga, Tenn., offers a special leasing arrangements to area high schools. He says the program’s main goal is to support the local community.

The city purchases a wide range of landscaping equipment from Schlender and Mid-State, including hand-held equipment, lawn tractors, zero-turn mowers, front-mount mowers and utility tractors.

Steve Price, owner of Price Small Engines, Opelika, Ala., knows that for fleet managers “up time” is important. Price carries Grasshopper, Walker, Toro, Echo, Shindaiwa and Red Max. His fleet accounts include Auburn Univ. and several local cities.

“We pride ourselves on staying on top of any parts and service issues and keeping downtime to a minimum. They can’t wait and they’ll chase parts or equipment from somebody else,” he says. When downtime is inevitable, they offer loaner equipment.

Price is also ready to work in the facility’s shop to save time and regularly visits with whoever is doing the maintenance for the facility.

“The shop at the city of Auburn may be servicing everything from lawn mowers to trash trucks to police cars. They do the routine service, but I sometimes go to their shop if they have a major breakdown,” Price says.

Selling the Dealership

Parts support can also be a hot button for fleet managers and that’s where the combination of the dealership and the brand brings strength.

“I’m selling Mid-State. I think that’s more important than the equipment. There’s really no bad equipment on the market. After 2008, any equipment manufacturer that was able to hang in this market had something that was worth representing. How the dealership handles the ‘after sale’ experience is what really separates us from the competition and I have the enviable position of selling equipment that the public knows they can get parts,” Schlender says. “I have John Deere to sell. Mid-State to sell and myself to sell. When I have those three things, I’ll be the winner.”

Fleet accounts are heavy users of hand-held equipment. Be ready to make quick repairs so the crew can stay on schedule.

Schlender equates parts availability with cost savings when showing how his equipment compares with a competitor. “I do a ‘dare to compare.’ I’ll take whatever machine they are looking at and figure the purchase price, hours between service intervals, maintenance costs in terms of filter and oil and the ‘wear items’ and show the cost of ownership,” he says. He then compares it with his equipment, showing how much less they’ll pay on maintenance and the better trade-in value.

Ditch the Sales Pitch

Schlender says those who handle fleet accounts don’t want to deal with someone who is only selling. “You need to be a listener. You need to be a mentor and you need to be a partner.”

Steve Price, Price Small Engines, Opelika, Ala., works closely with his manufacturer representative to secure accounts and then focuses on his expertise and service.

One way Schlender does that is by being available whenever they need him. “When I sell a piece of equipment, I always deliver it. Sometimes, that means showing up at 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. and doing a walk-around and showing the ‘ins and outs’ for daily maintenance before the crews head out for the day.”

Price, of Price Small Engines, has a similar approach. He leaves the sales pitch to his manufacturer’s representative and he focuses on being an information source and service partner. For instance, Grasshopper secured the contract with the state of Alabama and Price works closely with his Grasshopper representative, Jeff Hammock, to provide local support.

“Grasshopper believes the machine is not sold until it’s retailed to the customer and they work the sale with us. Most distributors sell to the dealer,” Price says. He relies on Grasshopper and Hammock to help provide demo equipment, especially some equipment that he may not have in inventory. His job is then to help the customer decipher the options.

“Municipalities have a hard time figuring out the specs of machines. Anybody can throw out a low bid and the machine doesn’t meet their specifications. Sometimes, they don’t figure that out until after the purchase,” Price says. “We make the buying process easier.”

Price isn’t concerned about losing the work when the contract is put back up for bid. “I hear on a regular basis, ‘Nothing holds up like a Grasshopper.’ It took us a long time to get to this point, 10 years, but now our customers are familiar with the machines. They know how durable they are and we make sure they are taken care of with parts.”

The Grasshopper accounts have led to sales of hand-held equipment, such as trimmers, blowers and edgers.

Find a Niche

Chattanooga Tractor’s fleet accounts include 12 area high schools thanks to a special school arrangement that Randy Topping, president, started about 20 years ago. Chattanooga Tractor is based in Chattanooga, Tenn., and carries New Holland, Mahindra, Takeuchi and Kobelco equipment.

Larry Schlender, Mid-State Equipment, Janesville, Wis., frequently visits fleet managers as well as the crews to support equipment needs and identify sales opportunities.

These school districts can get capital acquisitions to put in new fields, but they don’t have the money to maintain them, so the volunteers in the booster clubs have to do it and they’re bringing in their own mowers,” Topping says. Topping says he grew up playing football with the people who are now coaches or leading the booster clubs and they came to him with their dilemma. His solution: Offer the booster clubs an annual 15% lease on a new tractor with a belly mount, rear mower or a front-end loader. He recommends a 25-35 horsepower tractor. That size works well for the fields and is also a popular size in his area. He makes sure the operators are familiar with the machines, especially with weight limits when using the front-end loader.

Topping explains the many benefits for the athletic programs. “They get a nice durable tractor with a low impact mower and they don’t have to purchase specialized turf equipment. They can keep the tractor for a year or turn it in at any point or apply the lease payment to the purchase price. They have a comfort zone regarding repairs because of the warranty and they have a predictable expense. If we have to do service calls, I donate that time, but they do pay for parts.”

Here’s his outlook on the benefits for his dealership. “When they turn in the equipment after a 3-year lease, they’ll have anywhere from 300-500 hours on it. Now, I have a unit in used inventory that I’ve collected 45% of the price. I’m not suggesting this is an all-out profit center. It’s a breakeven or better in a good market with cheap money and I can generate some sales from it and get visibility. But, if helping out the kids has no value for you, then this is not a deal for you.”

Topping says it’s a good arrangement, but he’s not actively expanding it. “I’ve got a lot of capital tied up, but hopefully, it’s generating residual sales.”

Setting Personal Standards

Schlender from Mid-State shares the personal commitment of Topping and the other dealers in terms of building a reputation as being a good partner. He breaks down his approach into these four goals:

1. Set high standards.
2. Work in a timely manner.
3. Work efficiently.
4. Do it with joy.

“When you apply those four tenets, you show that you’re the real deal, that you’re a partner,” Schlender says.

Originally published in 2014