Humanity's last stand

DRIVE UP to the gas pump. Insert your credit card. Push the appropriate buttons, lift the nozzle, squeeze the handle. Keep squeezing until the pump cuts off. Congratulations. You have satisfied your vehicle's appetite for hydrocarbons — at least temporarily. Do you want a receipt? Push a button. If not, push a button. The pump doesn't smile, but it does say “Thank you.”

Down the road, at the oil-change franchise, a human being is down in a pit. Draining your oil. Removing your filter. Meanwhile, you sit in the customer waiting room, reading yesterday's newspaper. You can't see the mechanic in the pit, and he can't see you. Doesn't really matter as long as he gets the viscosity right and remembers to tighten the drain plug. He's a nice guy, but you have no way of knowing that. He even enjoys helping people. A few decades ago, he would have met you at the gas pump, said hello, checked your oil, and aired your tires. But he was born too late. Customers don't want to pay for that kind of stuff anymore — even to someone earning minimum wage. Better to eliminate service. After all, the station across the street has regular unleaded a penny cheaper.

The same trend can be seen in the way we buy hardware. Many local hardware stores still have at least one retired handyman who can tell you everything you want to know about whatever it is that you need and give you great advice on how to install it. But customers now have alternatives to these knowledgeable sales people. We can shun them and take our business to hardware warehouses. There we will find high-school students whose job it is to hang around Aisle 2 and tell you that the product you need is on Aisle 28. The more industrious of these employees will even point in the general direction of Aisle 28.

Personal service also is dwindling at the grocery store. In an industry that used to provide sackers to bag our purchases and carry them to our cars, we now fend for ourselves. Some grocery stores even allow customers to bag their own purchases after doing their own check-out.

The way you and I buy our personal goods and services has changed dramatically in recent years. Pricing pressures on retailers have been tremendous. As stores have scrambled to reduce their costs, a common solution has been to pass some of these costs on to the customer. Whether we are buying gasoline, groceries, or hardware, you and I have become part-time customer service representatives of the stores where we do business. When we are in those stores, we serve selected customers (ourselves), a job that until recently was something retailers viewed as their responsibility and simply a part of doing business.

The commercial truck and trailer business also has changed radically in recent years — driven in no small part by pricing pressures. Some of the same trends that are depersonalizing the way we buy personal use items at retail have been showing up in how and where truck accessories and equipment are bought. Commercial truck accessories such as toolboxes, for example, are now well-established products at mass merchandise chains. Other truck accessories that require little or no skills to install also are being sold through outlets outside the traditional channel of distribution for commercial truck equipment.

Chassis pools and ship-through programs are tailor-made for getting generic trucks, bodies, and equipment to the customer quickly and at reduced costs.

Manufacturers — whether chassis, body, or equipment — are looking for ways to by-pass those companies in the channel of distribution that may offer a service that can be pushed onto someone else in the chain or left undone if not considered valuable. But will commercial truck customers be expected to do some of the same self-serve that you and I do on the retail level? Empirical evidence suggests that there may be some of that if the product is viewed as a commodity and requires little if any technical service.

But in an economy where we so often buy from machines, customers hunger for service from their fellow human beings. In those industries that still employ people to provide a service, customers insist on it.

The strength of the commercial trailer and truck body business is its ability to understand customers' operations and produce the equipment that meets their needs. Ours are not the types of products that you buy on Aisle 28. In a national marketplace where the trend is to automate and impersonalize, the commercial truck and trailer market may very well be humanity's last stand.

If so, it is our responsibility to cherish the expertise our industry offers, to consistently improve upon it, and to constantly take it to customers who need it. The companies that focus on meeting needs instead of pushing products will continue to have the greatest potential for success. Buying in person can be a refreshing change from buying by button.

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