Fleet managers, it seems, are bombarded by sales contacts, whether by e-mail, regular mail, or telephone. The bigger the fleet, the more attention it attracts, attention that can sometimes be downright annoying. However, refusing to see a salesperson can have lasting consequences, and smart fleet managers know how to wring value out of sales contacts.

What Do Salespeople Do?

Understanding what salespeople do each week is a good start in knowing how to derive value from their efforts. In the fleet industry, sales efforts are generally confined to a combination of geography and market. Companies often define markets by fleet size and geographic territory and assign sales personnel accordingly:

■ Mid-market – fleets of fewer than 500 vehicles.

■ Large market – fleets of more than 500 vehicles.

While definitions vary, the smaller the fleet, the less a full-time fleet manager is on staff, and selling efforts and techniques vary depending upon who the effort targets.

Geography is the other broad category defining sales efforts. It can involve a single salesperson covering a large area, the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic for example, or a larger sales staff whose territories encompass only a state or two.

Good salespeople become involved in the industry via fleet organizations, such as NAFA, creating goodwill and familiarity with the market. Fleet managers generally know personally, or at least are familiar with, nearly every salesperson who contacts them.

Sales involves three basic steps:

■ Initial contact. A follow-up to a casual meeting at an industry function or a "cold call."

■ The sales process.From initial research or fact-finding to presentation and closing.

■ Follow-up. Decision-making takes time and salespeople make regular efforts to finalize the process.

Selling often involves extensive travel, since there is no substitute for face-to-face contact. Salespeople are usually required to submit activity reports, describing whom they’ve seen, potential business, and status of the sales process.



What Are They Selling?

Salespeople in the fleet industry sell a specific set of products and services, individually or bundled in a complete program. These products include:

■ Leasing.

■ Maintenance.

■ Accident management/subrogation.

■ Fleet administration (registration renewal, etc.).

■ Safety.

■ Fuel management.

■ Vehicles.

■ Used-vehicle sales services.

■ Upfitting.

Sales personnel usually schedule travel in one-week blocks, planning transportation and lodging in a specific area within the territory. For example, in covering the Northeast, a trip would include the Boston or New York area, usually involving scheduled meetings with fleets in the area, including follow-ups to previous proposal presentations.

Scheduling these trips usually occurs a week or more in advance. Meetings are held in the morning, at lunch, or in the afternoon, with the occasional breakfast or dinner meeting. Evenings are usually spent catching up on e-mail, reporting, and other administrative duties.



Understanding Sales’ Goals

Naturally, every salesperson’s goal is to sell, sign new customers, and expand and increase business with existing customers. However, sales calls have different purposes during the process, and this is where the fleet manager can actually take full benefit from such efforts.

What benefits do salespeople bring to fleet managers, particularly in the course of a normal day? Aren’t they simply just another interruption, a distraction from more important duties? Salespeople can be one of the most effective resources in completing those responsibilities, provided they aren’t treated as distractions, and the fleet manager and salesperson are prepared.

Can a fleet manager derive some benefit from sales activities? The answer is yes; provided the fleet manager and salesperson are well prepared and understand each other’s needs and goals.


Staying Informed

At the very least, there is value in knowing what is going on in the industry. The fleet business is a networking business. Salespeople get around. They talk to many fleet managers and are sources of a great amount of information. Few things are more embarrassing — and career-killing — than a senior manager discovering a new program is available or questioning the fleet manager on a strong rate proposal he or she has seen, and not getting an informed answer.

Fleet managers don’t like it when a salesperson "goes over their head" to upper management to win the company’s business or just to get in the door. However, salespeople get paid to sell their company’s products and services, and when it comes to paychecks, the fleet manager’s delicate sensibilities won’t matter. If a sales rep has tried calling or e-mailing a fleet manager and cannot get a response, the rep can hardly be blamed for giving the VP of finance or corporate treasurer a try.

Most fleet salespeople follow protocol and call the fleet manager first. But, if they have no success contacting the fleet department, they will make another attempt at a higher level. There is nothing wrong with this practice, in fleet or any other industry, and the sooner a reluctant fleet manager comes to terms with it, the sooner he or she can begin to take full advantage of the opportunities such visits bring.

Information is the lifeblood of fleet management success. Knowing what programs are available, what pricing is offered and by whom, and what peers are doing can only help a fleet manager answer the one question asked every year, "What are we doing to reduce fleet costs?"

It is easy to become comfortable with an existing vendor. Service is good and the relationship has been successful to date. But, there is great advantage in meeting representatives from competitors.



Knowledgeable and Experienced

Selling to the fleet industry requires a high level of knowledge and experience, and fleet managers can take advantage of that expertise. For example, a fleet manager has an idea that he or she believes will result in cost savings; however, implementing the idea presents challenges. Fleet sales representatives speak with dozens of fleet managers and generally, someone has already implemented the solution or something similar.

During conversation with a sales rep, the fleet manager can discover who has tried the idea, how challenges were met, and to some extent, its success. This information sharing can extend from programs to products and services with obvious benefits.

It is not unusual to see fleet salespeople coming directly from the "other side of the desk," with direct fleet management experience. A salesperson who works for a manufacturer or an accident management firm may also speak authoritatively or knowledgeably on fleet issues.

That kind of experience and expertise is readily available and extremely useful. Bouncing ideas off someone who may have an answer not only can confirm a good idea, but also reveal a bad one.

Preparation is Key

Yes, a salesperson’s ultimate goal is to sell. The fleet manager’s ultimate goal is to control and reduce costs, and the two goals aren’t mutually exclusive.

Are some sales contacts indeed interruptions, distracting a fleet manager from productive work? Without question. Salespeople must report sales activities to their superiors — how many phone contacts they’ve made in a given period, how many meetings they’ve have, and how many they’re planning next week. A fleet manager would be naïve to think a sales rep call is simply to "fill out" an itinerary. If there’s nothing to be gained, the time spent is wasteful. This is where preparation is critical — not only for the fleet manager, but for the sales rep as well.

Fleet management is a niche industry, and the phrase "everyone knows everyone" is close to the truth. Sales reps, whether they cover a territory, a fleet-size market, or both, learn who the players are from the prospective customers they meet.

Staying in touch with business friends and acquaintances can be helpful to a career, so a call from one of them, even without a specific goal in mind, isn’t a bad idea. After all, most salespeople have received calls from fleet managers out of work or looking for a job, and they are usually happy to help (the reverse is undoubtedly true as well). But in general, proper planning will keep sales meetings short and help the fleet manager come away with something useful.

■ When a sales rep calls to set up a meeting, find the time. Few schedules are so full that 15-30 minutes cannot be found. Make certain both parties know the time limit is firm, and the "small talk" will be kept to a minimum.

■ Develop an agenda. Planning meetings isn’t just for formal presentations. Make certain the sales rep knows what you wish to discuss, or what questions you have in mind and request they come prepared with information and answers.

■ If a particular day is full, suggest another day and time. If your fleet is a new contact for the salesperson, the rep will make time to meet with you; doubly so if your fleet is large.

■ Prepare yourself. If you’re meeting with a lessor rep, jot down a few issues you may have with your current supplier and make sure the salesperson knows those issues will be discussed. This is particularly true if you’ve had serious problems with a supplier and are looking for help.

■ Although your company may have a policy requiring competitive bidding before committing to a new supplier, don’t be afraid to ask for pricing. Clarify for the representative that you cannot award business based upon the casual submission of a proposal, but if it is interesting enough, you can make the case internally that an RFP might save money. Most salespeople are happy to comply, even if they know they’ll be required to compete later.

■ Include your supervisor or other management in meetings. It will demonstrate to the sales reps you are a team, and help keep them from "going over your head." It will also make clear to your manager that you are on top of new developments and know what alternatives are available.

■ If you cannot find a few minutes during the day, offer to meet the salesperson for coffee early in the morning before work. The casual atmosphere and lack of distractions can make breakfast meetings doubly effective for both of you.

■ Go to lunch. You eat lunch, the salesperson eats lunch, and the time away from the office may be a good idea. And don’t worry that doing so will mean that you "owe" a sales rep anything. Suppliers know full well their reps have lunch meetings, and sales reps know it is simply the course of business and an expected expense.

■ Selling is a critical function in any business — both yours and your suppliers. Take what may have seemed a distraction and turn it to your advantage with proper planning. After all, you never know: that call from a salesperson may well end up saving you money.



Not all Salespeople Equal

A fleet manager can gain much in welcoming visits from salespeople and from personal networking to find an alternative supplier. Unfortunately, occasionally making time for a salesperson is nothing but a distraction, and if there is one resource a fleet manager cannot waste, it is time.

There are signals, subtle and otherwise, fleet managers can read to keep such distractions to a minimum:

■ "I just want to stop by to say hello." Not an uncommon opening to a call from a salesperson. But if, when pressed, the salesman elaborates no further, beware. Spending a half hour of a busy day talking about last night’s ball game or the salesman’s recent fishing trip is not a good use of time.

Answering, "Sure, I’ve got a few minutes on Tuesday; what is it you want to discuss?" can put a quick end to the call. If the salesman answers,"Well, we have an excellent new service in our safety program I’d like to tell you about," no problem. If the answer is, "Oh, nothing in particular, just want to catch up," you’ve got better things to do.

An honest response such as, "I really don’t have much time to just chat, is there anything new and exciting in your company you want to go over?" is a polite and acceptable way of finding out if the meeting might have value.

■ No need to be short or rude. Even the best salespeople occasionally just need to "fill a time slot" in an itinerary. Just be honest. Tell them you’d love to see them, but time is short and unless there is something specific to discuss, you’ll take a rain check. Salespeople know full well you’re busy, and the competition for your time and attention is fierce. Most will understand.

■ Unless the call is connected to an active RFP, no need for a full presentation, particularly during an initial meeting. It takes time and resources to sit through a 40-slide PowerPoint presentation. If doing their job right, salespeople, conduct at least one or two research meetings to determine if their product is a good fit. If the salesperson, insists on a conference room and screen when he or she first calls, you can be sure it will be a generic presentation. A salesperson who doesn’t research you and your company has no idea of your goals and needs.

■ Salespeople who denigrate the competition aren’t selling themselves and their company; they’re selling against the other guy. There aren’t many vendors in the fleet business, and none would be successful if they didn’t do a good job, in general. Good salespeople have a healthy respect, even fear, of the competition. Their job is to show why their product or service is better, not why the other guy is bad. A salesman who disparages competitors will likely waste your time.

■ Yes, even in 2008, some salespeople still like to pull prospective customers out of the office for a lunch that includes alcohol or to the local pub for happy hour after the workday. That kind of invitation is red flag; alcohol clouds proper judgment and should be avoided at all costs. ■