Years ago, I shared an idea I thought could help equipment dealers profit off “guys like me.” Disgusted with the attitude of the sole equipment dealer in my suburban Milwaukee town of 41,000, I had little choice but to go to an independent mobile service guy for my trusty Dixon ZTR. Over 9 years, Russ steadily showed up in his well-outfitted mobile service truck, was quick with his service and fair with his pricing. And on several occasions, he found parts the dealers told me I was S.O.L. on. 

I know he extended the life of my Dixon for years before my sons and I finally had to give it its last rights, take it out back and shoot it.

At the time, Russ was in the process of signing up 8 more franchises here in Wisconsin, and I thought his business model could sense in our area of suburban sprawl. With a minor adjustment of the dial, it might offer a win-win idea for smart dealers on which to hitch their wagon.

While I couldn’t find the article or blog I’d written for Rural Lifestyle Dealer, I recall encouraging mower and OPE dealers to make formal arrangements with such independents like him who were already calling on suburban professionals. Via a cost- and revenue-share arrangement, dealers could eliminate the on-the-road time with their already-swamped techs by subcontracting those onsite calls. And when the housecalling tech knew that it was time to “put down” a unit, a guy connected to a dealership could immediately cite each of the used units for sale, as well as the prices and programs surrounding new inventory.

That was before things went south this spring for me and my trusted repairman, Russ.

My son reported some difficulty with my Ariens ZTR at the end of mowing season last fall (I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was at the time — I was still in a wheelchair and my son called Russ at my recommendation). 

You figure when your tech picks up your unit on November 6, 2023, that it’ll be ready by April 2024, right?

Starting in January, I averaged a call into Russ every 3 weeks or so. “No problem, no problem,” I’d be told by he or his wife, Janet. As the calendar moved into late winter, I was told on each call the unit was always about “one week away” from its delivery.

By March, I was told that his assistant mechanic had a knee replacement, but not to worry, it’d be done and delivered that same weekend. A couple of weeks later, he blamed my son for not taking his calls while on military drill, although he’d have found me in his database for 9 years.

Then, when Russ finally looked at it late March (4 months after he picked it up), he said he ran into major problems. Then in April, I was told it needed 3 parts and none were available from any of his sources. He wanted to give up. That is, after he collected on soaking me for many hours in diagnosing (or misdiagnosing) the problems.

At one of our less-cordial conversations about his inability to find parts, I told him he was wrong and that I knew Dan Ariens personally. His reply, which made me wonder if he’d worked some in the above-mentioned arrogant dealer’s company: “I suggest you call him.”

I didn’t bother Dan (as secretary of the Green Bay Packers, I wanted him fully engaged with the Packers GM as “draft day” approached). 

Because I had a good idea on the blood pressure spike I’d experience from calling my hometown dealer, I called another Ariens dealer a few towns away, who listened to my problem, sympathized and within 5 minutes or so told me that had an online parts store where we could get those parts, and explained to me how one of them had been renumbered. But, he said, it was all there for online ordering. 

So I called Russ back and “walked him through” how to buy parts on an OEM’s online store. Ten days later, after 183 days of the ZTR in his possession, he brought his wife along on the Friday night dropoff, presumably to negotiate a peace talk. Again, I heard about how they can’t get anyone to show up for work to help, so it all fell on him. 

That ain’t my problem, but this labor issue may be the coffin nail for Russ’ business. Again, it occurred to me why this was another reason for dealers to capture this business of guys like me – the dealerships can afford well-paying positions with benefits.

The invoice (4% extra if I wanted to pay by credit card) was a mere $1,484 more than the November quote. I’d been prepared for the escalating charges because we’d discussed them, but what really fried me is he said, “You’ll need to get a tune up on this too.”

Whoa. “You held the unit for 6 months and returned it to me without a tune-up?”

Dealers, this is what you’re forcing us to do – and you’re leaving money on the table – because you don’t want the hassle of dealing with homeowners like me. Busy professionals like me often don’t have trailers nor the time to bring the units to you. We’ll pay you for fair delivery prices and even half-way decent customer service. And we’ll listen when you run the math to show repair costs that outweigh the value of an old and tired unit. I surely would have. 

Ag dealers know well how to keep their farm customers going during planting. But some of us like me can also get pretty torqued up about our lawns as proms, graduations, vacations and spring business traveling set in. The wives expect the lawns to be presentable.

And as for the one servicing dealer in my town? I’ve got some free advice for Bill. 

First, I can say the sentiment I’ve shared isn’t much different than many of the weekend warriors I know. Second, if the ownership team is going to write a big check to advertise your dealership’s phone number in front of 80,000 at the University of Wisconsin football stadium, don’t man the phone with a tech who is terse, rude and dismissive and uses phrases like, “Not even going to look at it.” I’ve had only one pleasant encounter at your store over the last 15 years, and I was last month pricing a new unit when it looked like things were “hitting the fan” with my mower. 

As a guy who’s covered equipment dealerships for 20 years, I know when an unsuspecting salesman is slinging B.S. in my direction to control a sale.

Sour grapes, maybe. But if I, as a reasonably tolerant guy who makes a living off the equipment industry, can get this red-faced, what do you think the “average Joe” feels, and what he talks to neighbors about over the fences this spring? 

Think about it – what could you do to go after this business? I guarantee frustrated customers are out there for the taking, and it’ll be less about the price than a good service experience – which anyone can offer — if they merely give it a try.