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.”

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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.