Ask the Right Questions to the Right People

Aug. 1, 2003
The most important question you can be asking as we continue, as an industry, to traverse hard times, is what does your customer want from you. And unless

The most important question you can be asking as we continue, as an industry, to traverse hard times, is what does your customer want from you. And unless you are asking the customer that question, then you may be asking the wrong person.

In other words, strategy or planning sessions that don't include customer input are likely to miss the point. Because the reality is, the way your customer perceives you is probably not the same as the way you perceive yourself.

The new owners and management of NationsRent (See cover story, page 22) clearly asked this question as it prepared to come out of bankruptcy. In fact, it asked that question long before as it crafted a strategy to convince investors that a newly structured company could be successful.

The old NationsRent was interested solely in rentals, but missed the fact that customers of rental businesses don't just come looking for rentals. If you take a look at your customers, you'll find they have a wide range of needs when it comes to equipment. Today, they might just need a rental — give me a skid-steer loader, I need it Friday morning at 8 o'clock for three days, so many horsepower, fine, see you later.

But that same customer may have many different requirements and those requirements vary from job to job. They may decide to buy a certain piece of equipment and they want a recent, used model. Another kind of equipment or tool they may decide to buy brand new. Are you just going to say “We don't sell those, go to our competitors down the street?” Why not get the sale as well. As for the concept that if they buy, then they won't rent anymore, that concept is long outdated. They may buy this week and rent next week, so why not get both?

How about their service business? Do you want to repair their equipment and tools as well? Some companies choose not to, but the point is that a full-service rental operation understands that equipment rental services includes variations on the central theme of rental and the more service you can offer those customers the better off you're likely to be.

NationsRent is basing its comeback on that principal and now has put in place management that believes in that kind of all-around service. But they made that decision based on customer feedback.

I have a pretty good sense that what I'm saying is true, but don't take it from me or from NationsRent. Go to your customers and see if that's the best way to service them. Send them surveys, take a group to dinner, ask them over for a barbecue and a discussion, but however you do it, get those lines of communication going.

As our article on service to contractors points out (see page 30), with contractors under greater pressure than ever to come in under budget on jobs, they are keeping track more than ever of how their providers perform. While those contractors understand that equipment breaks down from time to time, they are less likely to be forgiving. In fact, there is a good chance that they are somehow charting your company's performance. If it happens once, well, sure, don't worry about it, it's all part of the construction process, they might say. But if it happens a second time, don't think they forgot about the first time and don't think they aren't keeping records on how quickly your rental company rectifies the situation.

So keeping in mind that that customer is very carefully observing your company's performance, you'd better have strong communication. If there was a breakdown, you'd better check with the customer to make sure that you handled it properly. Show that you are concerned and ask how you can handle the situation better if it should occur again.

A recent research study I heard about pointed out that 90 percent of contractors in the United States have 20 or fewer employees. That means they are small, independent operations, much like the majority of rental companies. The fact that they are mostly small businesses, with small business concerns is an advantage to the smaller rental company. That means you share a similar culture and similar issues. That means you are essentially talking the same language.

Just make sure you are using that language and not leaving the communication to your competitor.