‘We Live or Die by Our Service’
"We live or die by our service.” Sherry Evens, President of Evens Time in Indianapolis, IN, summarized the conversations Parking Today had with three dealer/distributors for this issue. There was complete agreement from Norm Hogg, Vice President of Southern Time Equipment in Wilson, NC, and Keith Hay, President of Traffic and Safety Control Systems in Wixom, MI.
Asked about the economy, they also were in agreement. “Times are good, business is good,” said Hay. “We’ve just come off the best two years we have ever had. Sales are off a tad, but there is a lot of business happening out there, and we plan to get our share.”
Evens agreed. “Recession? Show us the recession. We are looking for three more people. We are so busy we can’t see straight.”
“Times are good, business is good. Profit isn’t quite as good, but volume is better,” noted Hogg. “Competition is tougher – the variety of products on the market are more than they used to be, so we have to be more aware of our competitors.”
Parking installing and service companies are called either dealers or distributors. The names appear to be used interchangeably, although the three we interviewed seemed to bristle slightly at being called dealers.
“I like the term ‘value-added reseller’ better than a dealer, but different manufacturers use different terms, said Hogg. Parking system integrator may be the best term. “At one time, a distributor had a region and sold to a dealer, who then installed. Today, we buy direct from the manufacturer, add a lot of value, and then install and maintain the equipment.”
“We are a solution provider that researches what the problem is and finds the products and combines them for the best solution for the end user,” said Hay. “Ours is a consultive sale,” added Evens. “We understand the parking operation from a physical standpoint and how the equipment is to facilitate the operation, and then we educate our customers as to how the equipment can best be put to use.”
The three commented that their business is unique. It’s a niche market that touches a lot of other markets, including the computer market and the information technology market, plus they have to deal not only with electronic and electromechanical devices, but also are in the construction and electrical business, pouring islands and pulling wire. It makes it difficult to hire people.
These three and the dozens like them across the country are entrepreneurs. They run small businesses and have the ups and downs all businesses do. Although all three are healthy companies now, at times it wasn’t all rosy.
“Did I think we wouldn’t make it? Many times,” Hogg said. “There were times that we knew we were vulnerable to our competition, but they didn’t know it,” he said. “We’d have a good year, a bad year, then two good years.
“We are spread through the Carolinas. Five offices – at any time three are doing well and it allows us to stay in the other two markets. If I was a real businessman, some years I would probably close an office. But I see the future of their markets, and they often do better the next year.
“Quit? I have been in the parking business for over thirty years and I don’t know of anything else I would care to do. At times we were probably close to going out of business but something on the Horizon, a large project, a major contract or the bank helped us make ends meet”
“What pulled us through the tough times?” said Evens. “Well … faith – in God, and faith that by providing honest and ethical services and practices your customers will stand behind you. Oh, and you pay your staff first and yourself last. You must constantly keep your optimism. Many successful companies fail when their owner loses heart.”
Hay has been head of his organization for only about four years. He took over a successful business and has had a good run. “We have a great customer base, take good care of them and we can count on them year to year. We run our business pretty well, and don’t get extended too far.”
As for manufacturers that “go direct,” the three used almost exactly the same words:
It’s a bad thing. After a few years, everyone, both manufacturers and end users, are going to get tired of the situation. Sometimes people go direct to manufacturer to get a better price, but they can’t offer the support. Every installation is custom; manufacturers aren’t geared for that. And the ultimate sufferer is the end user – everyone loses money, the three said.
The manufacturer loses because they have to “lowball” a price. The companies that end up supporting the equipment lose because they weren’t involved in the sale, they said. And in the end, the end user loses because they simply don’t have the support and have to put up with what is oftentimes years of problems that a good local reseller could have handled for them. We cushion that blow, the three said.
Hay was specific: “I don’t think manufacturers can provide the level of support that distributors can. We marry different suppliers to fit the needs of an end user. The manufacturers will try to sell the products they make, whether or not they fit the customers exact needs.”
“We have staying power,” said Evens. “We are there after the manufacturer has moved on. We support the customers. Our reputation is on the line. Plus, what we supply is vital. What is involved is the ‘middle ground’ between the manufacturer and the end user, ensuring (that) equipment ordered is correct. We fill an entire department that the manufacturers would have to have. We are consultant, salesperson, service and support. Plus, we are integrators. And we know the local landscape.”
Manufacturers don’t have the culture to support their products, the three said. They look at the numbers – an office is not profitable, they might close that office. But we look at the relationships we have with the customers. And we’re here; we’re the boots on the ground. We know what is needed to be done to make the product work and to make the customer happy, they said.
“Let’s face it,” added Hogg. “At times we have all installed equipment that’s less than perfect. However, if you are there every day working with the end user to make it work, you can save the deal, and your reputation. Plus, you give the customer what they need – support. There have been times that we have replaced equipment at our expense that simply didn’t work to the customer’s satisfaction. Our 30-year reputation and our customer relationships are what makes us successful.”
Hay was a bit more pragmatic. “Let’s face it: It’s a ‘battle of accounts’ out there. If we are going to get and keep accounts, we have to keep our customers happy and keep them coming back. It’s service. We keep them happy by providing topnotch service. We support them 120%.”
Most of the three companies focus on just one product line, but each seems to have an exception. In most cases, it’s because the equipment they represent doesn’t fit the needs of the customer and they look to alternatives to make the systems work the way the end user wants.
What’s more important, sales or service? They seem to speak with one voice:
“You can’t live on service alone, but if you don’t have the best, you won’t succeed.”
John Van Horn is the editor of Parking Today. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.