The Vendor Action Checklist
In this past year of supply chain challenges and shortages, did your vendor relationship help you weather the storm or add headaches?
A streamlined inventory plan requires healthy, long-term relationships with suppliers. When that area of the business runs smoothly, operators are able to focus more on their people and processes in the shop.
Even when products arrive as scheduled, they’re no good to shops if they’re perpetually sitting on the shelf. Technicians need to have the knowledge required to sell the products’ usefulness to customers. That information, as well as periodic updates, come through healthy vendor relationships.
As the industry looks toward an improved supply chain environment, take this time to examine what makes a great vendor relationship and what operators should keep in mind when working with suppliers.
Operators need to be proactive with their vendors—they need to take action. Use this action guide as a way to guide you toward improving and maintaining this crucial part of the business.
GET all the information you can.
The company manufacturing or selling products is going to be the best source of information to pass onto customers. This is important for all products, but it’s especially so for engine oil sales. Specs change, vehicle needs differ from year to year, and a good vendor can help operators stay on top of those changes.
Jack Breman is an oil industry veteran and works in business development for Jackson Oil and Solvents, an Indiana-based distributor of oil and equipment. He says that good vendors will be proactive with helpful information, especially in lesser-known product areas like diesel oil.
“If a vendor rep is sharp, he should be able to say, “By the way, do you have this oil? Do you have the FA-4 product? Do you need the CK product?” Breman says. “And they have to know the difference between a 5W-40 Mercedes spec and a 5W-40 heavy duty diesel spec. There’s a difference.”
For operators who have a wide variety of oil options, vendors can help parse the differences between a 5W-40 from one manufacturer and the same from another. Those differences might help the customer move up to a premium oil choice.
“What is the product you’re using, and any updates that happen,” Breman says. “Supply product data sheets with the specs on them.”
An operator needs to be clear about the variety of vehicles they serve and the services they offer in order to get the right information for all customers. Even if you have one customer that requires a special product, it pays to study up and be prepared for that situation.
SEEK ongoing training opportunities.
Vendors that offer continuing support and training go above and beyond for operators. It helps to maintain the long-term relationship and boost sales—both for the operator and the vendor.
That’s how Amber Kossak, CEO of Solid Start, sees it. The company manufactures and sells True Brand products and provides both online and in-person training opportunities for clients. Kossak says that a good vendor should help to set up operators to succeed in sales, because the best case is to have a mutually beneficial relationship.
“We have a saying: We sell through you, not to you,” she says.
To achieve that mutual benefit, Kossak has a team of experts who train clients on the products and how to sell them. There is an online component that can be accessed anytime, but it’s the in-person sessions that really make impacts, she says.
“We’re providing group training, store training, and hands-on work,” Kossak says. “That is where it starts to sink in and they start to have their a-ha moments.”
Depending on the client’s needs, they aim to hold quarterly training sessions. Kossak says that they might have a string of monthly visits with others. It all depends on what’s necessary to succeed with the products.
The benefit here goes beyond just information sharing. In-person training helps techs to get comfortable with products and the sales pitch. That puts the customer at ease when it’s time to sell the service.
ENSURE access to vendor partners.
Operators should choose vendors who are going to be responsive and accessible, especially during challenging times.
When building that vendor relationship, it’s OK to ask questions about access. Who can a manager reach out to if there’s a supply emergency? How often will vendors be checking in?
“A good sales rep allows these people to have their phone numbers and emails so they can be reached fairly quickly when there’s a problem,” Breman says.
Another good question to ask of vendors is what kind of information is readily available in a pinch. Breman says that clients often call with urgent information needs about a new product or a service that’s in progress.
“All of our vendors have access to their computer systems,” he says. “If someone needed a product data sheet on, let's say, transmission fluid, I can get that to them in a minute and be able to email it to them.”
This is also important for equipment vendors. Repair and maintenance needs could be urgent, and your shop managers should know who to call and how to get the ball rolling in case of an emergency equipment breakdown.
Those perks, like phone number access or guaranteed service times, might not be as immediate as a product information sheet or training session. But your sales might depend on those intangibles all the same.
“The intangibles have a tangible value,” Breman says.
TEACH each other.
It’s important to view your vendor relationship as a two-way street. Many salespeople have probably told you over the years that when the operator succeeds, the vendor succeeds. There’s a lot of truth to that if both parties put in the effort to learn from one another.
Kossak knows this from the vendor perspective.
“You have to listen to them,” she says. “It’s not a one size fits all, so you have to adjust and create a value that adapts to them as the customer. It all depends on the customer, and it depends on how they see things, how they like things. And if you’re listening, you can adapt.”
This is especially true at the beginning of a working relationship with a vendor. Don’t be afraid to tell them about your operation, your supply needs, and what changes you’d like to see. If there’s going to be a big change in your business, like an acquisition or change in service, talk with your vendors ahead of time and make a game plan for the transition.
Especially for vendors with many clients, it helps to streamline communications if the operator is clear upfront about their needs.
“A vendor can learn a lot from a fast lube owner,” Breman says.
This is also true to help vendor representatives do their jobs. It’s helpful for them to hear from operators, learn about customer trends, and see how services are performed in real-life situations. Those shop situations are testing grounds for best practices in selling products and services.
“It’s always nice to see when they do a transmission flush or a differential flush to watch that system,” Breman says. “How it works, and pay attention to the details so that you have that knowledge in your back pocket.”