Markets Analysis: Votech

Tech schools and traditional repair shops share a lot of similar traits, which should make you feel more comfortable as a salesperson. Granted, the differences that separate the trained from the trainee are significant, especially when you examine the financial resources at their respective disposals. However, they do share one critical common interest - they both needs your tools and equipment to accomplish their mission.

With government figures showing over 10,000 students annually enrolled in some form of automotive repair training program at technical colleges and vocational programs around the country, this market can be a lucrative one for distributors who are willing to invest the time and energy.

Especially when you consider the following:

  • Cornwell's top mobile dealer, Matt Scharping of Arlington, MN posted six-figure sales from a single school in the nearby town of Eden Prairie.
  • Mac Tools posted 10 dealers who sold over $110,000 to vocational schools in 2005. Dave Musil of Crete, NE led the way with over $400,000 in sales to tech school instructors and students.
  • Bob Levy, general manager of Don Kennett, Inc., a MA-based PBE jobber, does business with 10 such schools. Although his collections and sales are lower, he sees the value not in today's sales, but in tomorrow's customers.

These and other distributors around the country have begun to tap into the promise offered by votech programs. They represent a dynamic opportunity to diversify your customer base in the present, while planting a seed for future growth.

Worth The Wait

While students share the same zeal and needs as the professional technicians you sell to, the place they're at in their careers requires a slightly different approach. Levy states that, generally speaking, schools can be slow payers, due to the bureaucracy involved with anything the school buys themselves. Also, cash-strapped students typically don't have a lot of money to spend on tools. "Our main objective is to get in front of the students as they hone their craft and prepare to enter the workforce," Levy says.

Despite some of the financial challenges votech can present, both Levy and Scharping say their sales in this sector have been on the rise. For Scharping, who says votech sales are growing at a very fast pace, it's been a matter of persistence. "It seems that the longer I call on that school, the more they recognize not just the value of the products I sell, but also the service that comes with them," he says.

Another issue to prepare for when working with this customer base is the way in which budget fluctuations can impact sales. When the accountants decide to sharpen the pencil a bit, it can impact school sales, although student purchases will remain steady. Remember, your customer base is really two-fold. There are the instructors and school house, as well as the individual students.

An important part of servicing these, or any customer base, is obviously getting in front of them. To this end, most tech schools will hold a tool fair at the beginning of the school year. Developing relationships with the school, and primarily its instructors, can go a long way in getting new students steered towards your display at these shows.

So, first of all inquire about these show dates at the start of the school year, and then work with the instructors to ensure your offerings match what the students will need. This means covering the basics, as well as a number of specialty tools for heavy-duty and diesel training programs. And don't forget to stress the service advantages in buying from you.

The Role Of Educator

After-sale service is important to any customer, but it takes on a whole new significance with the votech market. Remember, unlike the professionals you call on that are in the trade to make a profit, schools and students are in the business of learning. This can make your role as a consultant even more important.

Levy explains. "We try to give the instructors whatever they need in terms of training support. We like to conduct seminars on new products, providing usage tips and showing students how a product can help them. Schools don't always have the resources to adapt to industry changes as quickly as shops do. So both the instructors and students appreciate it when we can show them what's coming down the pike."

They also appreciate it when you work with them to make tools, equipment and other supplies more affordable. Money is often tight for a vocational program, not to mention the students participating in it. Chances are, some of your suppliers have programs designed for the votech market, enabling you to extend special pricing and payment plans that can help win business.

An example is SK Hand Tool's recently revamped Vocational Program. Matco Tools also supports their mobile dealers with a special Votech program. While discounting isn't recommended, some distributors will offer price breaks on certain items when full payments are made.

One of the reasons Scharping has had success with the votech market is because he treats students the same as he would any customer. "Every student is invited to have a truck account, and if they do, they pay the same prices any professional technician would. I give students all the respect of a normal technician. It's then up to them to keep that respect," he states." I look at it like part of their training is understanding how to work with a tool man."

Patience and respect can have lucrative consequences.

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