By Bill Adams
A career in fire apparatus sales is not complete until you’ve bumped heads with a bull-headed, know-it-all, don’t-question-my-authority apparatus purchasing committee (APC) member or fire chief. Its immaterial if the chief and committee is volunteer or career. Vendors are in an extremely precarious position when presenting their product, discreetly educating the uneducated, proposing a well laid-out and functional apparatus, and securing the order—all the while not offending the potential customer. Judicious and sensible vendors resist the temptation to disparage prospective purchasers when, in reality, some occasionally would like to reach across the table and figuratively slap some common sense into those sitting on the other side. A few examples follow.
- Many decades ago, one particular diesel engine well-known for liberally throwing oil was a gutless underpowered motor that was on the market for only a few years. It might have been good for running around the village making deliveries but hit the lights and Q and try to pull the steep hill at the end of town and you had a problem. Changing gear ratios didn’t help. I sold one to a town “on the flats” and it had no complaints. Actually, it was the second rig it purchased with the same motor. Another fire company two counties away with a very hilly terrain wanted an identical rig, and I mean identical. I tried to talk the committee out of the motor on numerous occasions. APC meetings went from lively to boisterous to contentious, with the chief finally saying that’s what they were going to buy and if I didn’t want to sell it to them, they’d buy it from someone else. I came to find out that the two chiefs worked together, with the latter always emulating the former. I eventually sold the rig and the troops HATED it. The chief was voted out. After a short period of time, they replaced the rig and never bought another from me. Sometimes it is better and smarter to just walk away.
- Years ago, fire truck salespeople would walk into an APC meeting with a yellow legal pad and a pen. Almost all purchasing specifications started out with a blank page, with every APC reinventing the wheel. That was the standard operating procedure of the day. Eventually, progressive manufacturers began offering semistandardized apparatus, assigning them production slots in their fabrication schedules. Many dealers sold rigs from those assigned slots. A large number of apparatus purchases today still begin with that blank piece of paper. Dealers often hear: We don’t want a rig like the other guy’s. We want one custom designed just for us. No problem—can do. Sometimes pride can be expensive. There should be a line item description titled “pride” with a price in each fire apparatus proposal.
- A rural and literally dirt poor fire company looking at a tanker on a commercial chassis was looking to save money on its purchase. In discussing the chassis portion, I said the fire company could purchase it themselves and take title to it, and the OEM would insure it while the body was being built. Or, the OEM could purchase it with the fire company paying for the complete apparatus at the time of delivery. But, the company wanted one bid price only—no split chassis and body costs, no options, no alternates. Keep it simple. Because they were squeezing pennies, we estimated the time it would take to build the body and told the company what the actual chassis cost would include the finance charges that are included in the bid price—the same as the lightbar, pump, and every other component part. The intent was to make them aware of a possible savings. They went ballistic. We were accused of ripping them off. They claimed another vendor said his company would eat the interest just to get their business. I said they weren’t eating anything. They’re burying the true cost in the single bid price they wanted. They wrote the other guy’s specs. I knew it would be fruitless to submit a proposal.
Being or having been an active firefighter is a tremendous asset when selling fire apparatus. However, it can also occasionally place vendors in a precarious position. They don’t want to be drawn into internal conflicts between APC members. Sometimes it is unavoidable, especially when the vendor is being purposely set up by a committee member. Some can see it coming. Others are just blindsided. And, it can happen inadvertently when vendors talk honestly and too much about general firematics and not the fire trucks they are selling.
If APC members ask questions not directly related to the vendor’s product, the vendor should be wary of possible ulterior motives. A nefarious committee member could take a vendor’s honest and forthright answer to a basic firematic question and twist it to justify a personal agenda. As an example, in a committee fighting internally over booster tank size, a member might ask a vendor his personal opinion on whether a 1,000-gallon tank is “better” than a 500-gallon tank. Keeping answers related to the effect on cost, wheelbase, hosebed heights, axle weight ratings, and related factors is a smart move as the answers will be generally applicable to all manufacturers. You’re not going to get yourself in hot water.
If the APC member pushes the envelope, asking the vendor’s personal opinion about fireground operations with the larger tank, the trap is set. Saying the purchaser will have twice as much firepower or that it’s a smart move or that a more efficient and quicker job could be done might alienate committee members who want the smaller tank. Vendors’ personal opinions and fireground experiences, whether good or bad, might be detrimental to a potential sale.
Unfortunately, vendors must emulate politicians running for reelection. Be honest and only answer what’s necessary to get the votes. Why? After you leave, an APC member might act like some in the media who can twist a story to justify their agenda. When asked a tough question, the smart politician might clear his throat or feign a cough and say “Excuse me.” It gives him time to think of the “proper” answer.
BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.