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How equipment dealers are emerging from the pandemic

By |  July 12, 2021
Although some dealer-producer interactions have gone remote, the in-person element is still very much a part of the industry. In this instance, Road Machinery & Supplies territory manager Andrew Lee observes the startup of an Astec GT440 track mounted crushing plant at a jobsite in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Road Machinery & Supplies

Although some dealer-producer interactions have gone remote, the in-person element is still very much a part of the industry. In this instance, Road Machinery & Supplies territory manager Andrew Lee observes the startup of an Astec GT440 track mounted crushing plant at a jobsite in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Road Machinery & Supplies

The days of driving to a plant, walking into an office and paying a customer an impromptu visit were temporarily gone.

The pandemic spurred tremendous change in how dealers connected with aggregate producers. Not everyone dealt with the change well, but the sheer length of the pandemic forced dealers to adjust longtime approaches in the name of safety and health.

Count Mike Murphy, owner of Aggregate Crusher Specialists, among the numerous dealers affected.

“There were set drop-off points,” says Murphy, whose company – depending on the product line – covers Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and New Mexico. “There were no office visitations. If you did get to see somebody, it was with a mask on and at six feet apart.”

As strange as that approach seemed in the early days of the pandemic, it allowed business to continue across the nation for dealers.

“We were thankful to be an essential business serving essential businesses,” says Andy Schwandt, vice president of sales and marketing at Road Machinery & Supplies, which serves the Upper Midwest. “From a business perspective, there were challenges with people working remotely.”

Road Machinery & Supplies’ territory managers, for one, had to change the way they interacted with customers.

“That was by setting up [Microsoft] Teams meetings or going to the drive-thru at McDonald’s and two people having lunch in their trucks next to each other,” Schwandt says.

Such encounters would have been considered unusual before the pandemic, but these became normal for dealers as 2020 wore on. If anything, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic reinforced just how valuable connectivity is in the dealer-producer relationship.

“Being a dealer, it is 100 percent a relationship business – period,” says Matt Dibble, a member of the sales team at Dibble Equipment, which covers the Mid-Atlantic. “That goes for your relationships with customers and manufacturers. That is the essence of what we do.”

Onset of video conferencing

Social distancing may be a thing of the past, but certain behaviors spurred on during the pandemic will remain. Photo: General Equipment & Supplies

Social distancing may be a thing of the past, but certain behaviors spurred on during the pandemic will remain. Photo: General Equipment & Supplies

Still, dealers found ways to adapt in 2020 to keep those relationships going. The introduction of video conferencing represented a significant adjustment for many dealers, with some saying video conferencing will retain a place in the coming years as they interact with customers and manufacturers.

“People are going to be more open to it,” Dibble says. “People know how to do it now. Everybody has Zoom or Teams, and they’ve done countless video calls. It’s something that’s convenient and something that is going to stick around.”

Video conferencing won’t replace some in-person meetings, Dibble says, but there will nevertheless be a time and a place for them with dealers and their customers.

“We had a meeting with a producer up in northern New York,” Dibble says. “We had four guys together and one guy who was down south somewhere. We got on Teams and video conferenced him in. Pre-COVID, he would have been on a speaker phone in the middle of the table.”

How dealers and producers engage each other going forward might also depend on how much distance is between the two, as well as the magnitude of a meeting. By and large, though, most dealers are going to get in their truck or hop on a plane if a situation calls for it.

“If we’re working on a project with a customer, I don’t really see us saying let’s get on a Zoom call rather than go out to see him,” Dibble says. “Others might feel differently, but for us, all of our customers are within a three-and-a-half-hour drive. There’s definitely value in getting in front of people, spreading drawings and paperwork out on the table. There are things about that interaction that you can’t do over a video conference.”

Chris Harris, con/agg manager at Ohio Cat, agrees there’s value in video conferencing. But Harris says the video conferencing dynamic is noticeably different compared with an in-person visit.

“I’m an older guy,” Harris says. “It took me a little while to get used to video conferencing. I like to shake hands, talk about common friends and see how things are going. Sometimes, when you get on the computer and there are three or four people on there and everyone is in a hurry, you don’t feel you can have that personal time. It becomes more formal in the presentation.”

While Schwandt believes dealers will largely return to their pre-pandemic interactions with producers, he sees value in video conferencing when it comes to in-company meetings.

“We did an internal product training where we can have everybody in the company be part of it,” Schwandt says. “Normally, we would bring everybody in the group together, and it would be a more drawn-out process and take more time. Now, we can do shorter bursts of training over Teams.”

The cost savings and efficiencies gained from video conferencing are certainly attractive, Schwandt adds.

“For our sales training, we went from in-person to virtual and online,” he says. “There are a lot more benefits to have in-person versus virtual and online. There is Zoom fatigue that happens, but in order to cover a broad geography like we have in our company, being able to do that over Teams has benefits.”

Other pandemic impacts

Harris sees opportunities for video conferencing and other technologies that can remotely connect dealers and producers, as well.

“I’m not a guy who’s big on technology, but there’s a place for FaceTime to help fix a plant,” he says. “The same goes for the telematics we’re starting to put on plants, with people sitting there watching your production. Somebody can sit in an office on their phone and watch everything in a whole system run.”

The pandemic also presented an opportunity for Ohio Cat to ramp up its use of DocuSign, which offers time and cost savings to dealer companies.

“Prior to DocuSign, guys would drive out to a site,” Harris says. “You’d sit down and talk to a customer, get him to sign papers and drive them back to a home office or fax them somewhere. So I would say you went from hours to minutes there.”

One opportunity dealers and producers lost during the pandemic was factory tours. Harris especially missed being able to take customers on those, as he believes they provide customers with unique value.

“Dealers and end users like to come to factories to see their equipment being built,” he says. “I want to know it’s being built with quality, and end users love to see a guy putting a machine together because they get to see it in different forms.”

Manufacturers simply couldn’t let dealers and customers show up during the pandemic, but Harris expects factory tours to resume at the pace established prior to March 2020.

“Any time you can get a guy to a factory, you get a leg up on the competition,” he says.

Opportunities arise

Goodfellow Corporation COO Sy Harrison is pictured from his office in Lindon, Utah. Photo: P&Q Staff

Says Goodfellow Corporations Sy Harrison: “They’re trusting you to be a company of integrity without having to micromanage you because of either policy in their company or the way they do business.” Photo: P&Q Staff

While a 2020 reduction in face-to-face meetings could have strained relationships between dealers and producers, Goodfellow Corporation’s Sy Harrison says the pandemic actually created opportunities for dealers to build more trust with customers because of the constrained circumstances.

“People are trusting you to do what you say,” says Harrison, COO of Goodfellow Corporation, which serves producers in the West. “They’re trusting you to be a company of integrity without having to micromanage you because of either policy in their company or the way they do business.”

As an example, Harrison says the typical pre-pandemic procedure when a customer ordered a plant was to go through the details in person. That couldn’t always be the case in 2020 and into 2021, so dealers, at times, had to go above and beyond remotely to satisfy customer needs.

“I think it has strengthened a lot of those relationships,” Harrison says.

One thing that did not change through the pandemic – at least for Goodfellow – was how new business originated. That, Harrison says, largely still happened through face-to-face interaction.

The pandemic also created additional service opportunities for dealers because customers’ employee bases were strained. Some employees elected to retire early, Harris says, simply to avoid the headaches the pandemic produced. Those kinds of situations, however, presented dealers with opportunities.

“You are seeing a lot of service work done that we maybe haven’t done in the past because the new guys getting hired don’t have the training,” Harrison says.

Although the pandemic induced change on the dealer front, business feels as normal now for dealers as it has in 16 months.

“I honestly feel like it’s almost back to normal,” Dibble says. “It kind of went back to normal surprisingly quick.”

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry magazine. Yanik can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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