By Diane M. Calabrese / Published June 2016
Follow the Fleet (1936) starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as the pair sang and danced their way to the resolution of problems ranging from mistaken identities to ship restoration. In any case, the title of the film provides good advice to members of our industry.
Fleet, from the Old English for float, now applies to any collection of vehicles. Here, we use it to refer to trucks, and the sheer size of the economic footprint of the trucking industry means that following the fleet can be a revenue-wise strategy for both distributors and contract cleaners.
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics at the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reports more than 10 million trucks traversed U.S. highways in 2013. Approximately 80 percent of them were single-unit, six-tire or more. The remainder were tractor-trailer (or semi) configurations. In 2013, trucks accounted for more than four percent of highway vehicles.
The majority of fleet owners have a small number of trucks. According to statistics at TruckInfo.net, 97 percent of owners operate fewer than 20 trucks. (Established in 1995, TruckInfo.net is an online portal for the truck industry. It provides truck-related information of all kinds.)
Understand fleet owners in order to sell to them, advise the experts who talk with us. Fleet owners constitute a truly no-nonsense group of customers. A truck that’s being cleaned is a truck that is not generating income. Fleet owners seek out products that work well and get the job done in the shortest time possible. They seek out the same when buying services for cleaning from contractors.
The bottom line for fleet owners can be easily summed up, says Dennis L. Black, president of McHenry Pressure Cleaning Systems Inc. in Frederick, MD. “They want clean trucks at a reasonable expense ratio.” Take the needs of fleet owners seriously to engage with the sector. “Meeting the challenges of servicing their needs and maintaining their business” is very interesting, says Black.
“Fleet owners make up a large portion of our business,” explains Black. “They make a large part of our soap and detergent sales. We have developed service, support, and equipment programs to gain and maintain their business.”
To forge a relationship with a fleet owner, get it right. “They can be good, long-term customers,” says Black. “Usually service is important to them, so a distributor with good service and support can provide a good solution to their needs.”
Fleet owners get noticed, so be prepared for competition. “They are usually large targets to other salesmen and chemical companies, so they are normally bombarded by people who want their business,” explains Black.
Working with fleet owners and winning them to a regular service schedule means emphasizing the gains to be made by regular washing. “We sell them on a couple of things,” explains Mike Woolley, owner of Aqua Fleet Solutions in Kelowna, BC, Canada. “They will have a clean billboard, a lighter truck—in many cases mud will be several hundred pounds—and happier drivers, as well as maintaining the longevity of their fleet.”
A clean vehicle represents a company well, so that’s another significant point to stress. Consider the routine washing as a part of advertising.
“Some fleet owners will not have money in their maintenance budget, so I suggest they put it toward their advertising one,” says Woolley. “That pretty well ends the excuses once they realize that they have spent all the money on trucks and signage…” Present washing as part of protecting the investment in trucks and signage.
Woolley’s company specializes in fleet washing and industrial cleaning solutions. Before launching his business, he gained exceptional experience with what works and what works well by cleaning transport vehicles in a family business.
Part of the challenge in selling to fleet owners is getting across the initial hurdle of “competing with what they are used to…dirty trucks,” says Woolley. There is also the challenge of getting across the economic sense built into scheduled washing.
Some potential customers may experience “sticker shock,” explains Woolley, yet that’s because they have not figured in the costs of not scheduling regular washes. “They don’t realize they are paying their drivers more by the time drivers get paid to wait at a truck wash lineup.”
Even waiting in line adds costs in addition to labor. Fuel is expended and there is some associated wear and tear on idling vehicles, explains Woolley.
The effort made to recruit fleet owners as customers brings rewards. “Once set up, it’s a reliable source of income,” says Woolley. “These customers are repeat clients that you typically see weekly or biweekly.”
There are also intangible rewards to selling to fleet owners. “I love how they get hooked on the service and how it affects their appearance to the general public,” says Woolley. “I’ve heard that drivers have more respect for their equipment when they are proud of how it looks.”
Get familiar with the who’s who of fleet ownership before venturing into the niche. Businesses own the majority of fleets, of course. DOT statistics put the number of businesses with fleets at more than 2.1 million in 2013.
Government (local, state, and federal) came in second to businesses in 2013 with 1.6 million fleet owners. Then, there are police, taxi, rental trucks (not including vans and SUVs), and more, accounting for more than one-half million fleets. Add all the foregoing together, and the estimate is still low because owners of small mixed fleets (cars and trucks) are not included. (Mixed fleets present an opportunity, too.)
The weight, size, and configuration of trucks in fleets varies by region and state. Some parts of the nation never see triple trailers, but where permitted, the triples are useful to fleet owners who want to separate loads and move from road to rail. Get acquainted with a fleet owner’s strategy and fleet composition before approaching them regarding sales.
“Not all fleet owners are in the same industry,” explains Michael Hinder-liter, president of Steamaway Inc. in Fort Worth, TX. “There are rental fleets, leased fleets, owners that are in a different state, and entities that own the fleet. It is not as simple as running a DOT list for large fleet ownership and then sending out a mailing.”
Knowing who to target as a prospective customer may also be less than direct. “Many times it is not the fleet owner that makes the decision,” says Hinderliter. “Finding that person who makes the buying decision is the most challenging part of trying to sell to fleets.”
Hinderliter’s experience with fleet washing began in 1985. He contributed an entry for the Power Washer’s Guidebook on fleet washing, which makes a valuable companion piece to revisit in conjunction with this article. Also, see his 2015 article via www.cleanertimes.com/magazine/articles/fleettruck-washing-every-job-is-different.
“We find that selling a service to fleets requires a quality and consistency,” says Hinderliter. “Many fleets have been around a while and have dealt with the inconsistency that exists when working with a service provider. Typically, they start off strong with quality, but they eventually fail to provide consistent quality or they fail to consistently show up to perform the service.”
Like his industry colleagues Black and Woolley, Hinderliter points to the forthrightness that fleet owners want. “They don’t care for hype,” he explains. “They look for down-to-earth, honest, can-do companies to perform the service. They understand that hiccups can happen. Being straightforward and honest about the issue and how it will be resolved is the best approach.”
We derive our header from an entry in the Transportation Research and Development Strategic Plan, an outgrowth of the FAST [Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, Pub. L. 114-94, December 4, 2015], which can be read via www.rita.dot.gov/rdt/sites/rita.dot.gov.rdt/files/rdt_strategic_plan_2013.pdf.
Trucks are among the vehicles encompassed by the plan, of course. Keep in mind when selling services to fleet owners that they will be looking increasingly for methods of fleet washing that meet the sustainability mandates of regulators.
Selling “green” and water-saving methods of fleet cleaning will become an ever-greater priority when selling to fleet owners. Dealers that have products and contractors that have services that offer an especially environmentally friendly approach should highlight them to prospective customers.
Removing fuel residue from vehicles before it can accumulate, only to be washed to the ground by a heavy rain, is one way for fleet owners to do their part to maintain clean water. Thus, the ability that professional fleet washing contractors have to collect and properly dispose of wastewater becomes a selling point.
The owners of small fleets that deploy employees to do washing in-house will not be able to continue doing so unless they meet requirements for wastewater collection. Being able to provide a complete wash system, including wastewater collection, to a small fleet owner will boost sales prospects for dealers aiming to serve fleet owners.
Fleet owners will be under more scrutiny as the environmental components of the FAST Act unfold. Dealers and contractors that sell to the fleet industry can gain an advantage by helping customers be ready for close examination from regulators.
Do follow the fleet.