A piece of advice: Why aftermarket suppliers should consider advisory councils

Lucas Deal

April 16, 2017

The following comes from the April 2017 issue of Truck Parts & Service. To read a digital version of the magazine, please click the image below. 

Business People Offering Advice

Any business worth its salt knows the value of strong customer relationships. The more a business knows about its customers and their operations, the better it can develop products and services to help them.

Trucking OEMs, suppliers and buying groups are regularly searching for and cultivating opportunities to build relation-ships with their supply chain partners and customers. One tactic that’s proven to be especially helpful for some are advisory councils.

Advisory councils bring a select group of customers or supply chain partners together with a supplier to discuss the nuts and bolts of their operation. These councils, which typically meet in person once or twice a year, are designed to create open dialogue between both parties as a method of strengthening the business and personal relationships for all involved.

For those in the trucking industry using them, advisory councils are an invaluable resource.

“We love ours. It has been great for us for a long time,” says Bendix Regional Vice President of Aftermarket Sales Jerry Conroy. “Any time you can bring customers together and get their input on your business and their own, that’s a good thing.”

It’s all right there in the title. Advisory councils give businesses advice on how to make their partnerships better, says Aaron Bickford, senior director, brake and wheel end at Meritor.

Bickford says Meritor operated a single distributor advisory council for many years before splitting the group into two separate entities (based on product categories) in 2013. Featuring eight to 10 distributors per group, Bickford says Meritor encourages its DAC members to come to meetings prepared to speak.

He says the company is always looking for ways to optimize its aftermarket channel, and there’s no better way to uncover areas for improvement than speaking to distributors.

“It’s about finding areas for mutual opportunity or mutual advancement,” Bickford says. “Whatever the challenge is, and whether it is impacting us or the en-tire industry, we want to use our shared resources to determine how do we, as a team, take that [challenge] on and make ourselves stronger together.”

Additionally, most dealers and distributors relish the opportunity to work with a supplier.

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Building an advisory council

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“I enjoy the challenge of problem solving and coming up with new ideas to improve our processes. When I was asked to run for the seat, I thought I would have the opportunity to make a difference,” says Jo Frost, parts manager at Edmonton Kenworth and chairperson of the Kenworth Parts Council.

Bendix structures its DAC meetings around that engagement, scheduling open discussion periods so distributors can present issues they may be having and allow both sides time to brainstorm solutions. Not every solution is immediately implementable, but Conroy says several have been executed in short order.

Councils also can provide a direct link between end users and their manufacturers—either through fleet councils or dealers and distributors speaking on behalf of their clientele.

Phillips Industries’ fleet council features a cross section of customers of varying fleet size, equipment use and duty cycle. The variety has proved valuable, says President Rob Phillips, because it allows Phillips’ fleet council meetings to address an entire spectrum of customer experiences.

“We recognize we don’t have all of the answers. It is important for us to reach out to those people who are thought leaders in the industry and try to get those fleets on our council,” he says.

Will Bruser, president at Truckworx Kenworth and chairman of the Kenworth dealer council, says he appreciates the opportunity to have an open dialogue with his OEM on behalf of his customer base.

“Kenworth’s business decisions have a huge impact on all my customers’ businesses,” he says. “I want to be able to communicate concerns that Kenworth may not have otherwise considered and offer a different perspective.”

That perspective is key. Dealer, distributors and customers in the fi eld can occasionally foresee an issue in a new product or program rollout a supplier overlooked.

“Just last year we brought a few concepts to the table, a couple tweaks we were thinking about making, and they did not resonate with our council at all. We scrapped them,” says Conroy. “No sense trying to make the market do something the way we thought if they already know a better way.”

Conversely, council meetings also can illuminate dealers, distributors and customers to a manufacturer’s decision making and speed up acceptance of something new.

Says Bruser, “We are able to under-stand the factors that motivate Kenworth’s decisions from a manufacturer perspective. Once we have a mutual understanding, we are able to work together on solutions that are a win/win/win for Kenworth, the dealers, and our customers.”

New product development is another area enhanced by an advisory council.

Bickford says Meritor loves bringing its new product ideas and prototypes to its DAC because its members are forth-right in their assessment of them. If a product isn’t needed or won’t sell they say so, immediately, and provide Meritor’s engineers their thoughts on why.

Bickford says this has allowed Meritor to make vital changes to products to ensure they hit the aftermarket in their ideal form.Phillips has had the same experience with his fleet council. He’s also had council members suggest products that didn’t exist, which Phillips would later develop and introduce to the market.

“We’re good on the product engineer-ing and development side, but the idea generation almost always comes from fleets telling us they have a problem with something,” he says.

Advisory councils also offer member-specific advantages. Because most companies build their councils with participants from different regions and/or with different business traits, competition isn’t a major issue. Members are encouraged to share experiences and anecdotes regarding their business that may be helpful or harmful to other members.

Suppliers say these honest discussions are incredibly useful because they immediately benefit everyone in the room, and provide information the supplier can use to develop general guidance that can be used channel wide.

“At the end of the day that’s what we’re trying to get out of it. A great discussion with honest input and feedback,” says Bickford.

“Having candid discussions with the decision makers within our business and their businesses on the things we are doing in the marketplace is incredibly useful,” adds Conroy. “There is nothing better than hearing from principals themselves, and we value their perspective on our business and the industry.”

Councils can work the other way as well.

Based on the recommendation of members, Don Reimondo says HDA Truck Pride created its own supplier advisory council earlier this decade. Reimondo says the council allows the buying group to present its key objectives and goals to its suppliers while also receiving the same information from the other side.

To say it has been well received would be an understatement.

“It has worked out famously for us,” he says. “We bring in four to six key suppliers and spend two days talking strategy. These people are connected to where the industry is growing and their comments are invaluable.”

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