My job is to evaluate equipment rental companies, whether for sale or to just improve their operations. When digging deeper into the operations of the company, I always ask the owner or manager, “Why do your customers deal with you vs. the competition?” It’s a simple, yet complex, question. The answer I usually get is, “our service is better,” “our people are better,” “our equipment is more reliable” or some variation thereof.
The simple fact is that most rental companies are capable of providing the basic service and equipment to get the job done. Rental equipment, such as a skid steer or a pressure washer, has become a commodity. Other than price, what can differentiate your rental business vs. that of the competition?
Most rental store owners and managers are a rugged breed; the equipment rental business is a business of dirt, grease and diesel. At the end of the day, the job is done, you get the equipment in the customer’s hands, and you go on to the next order. If you really want to know why customers come back or, alternatively, why they go elsewhere, you need to go beyond the basics of providing equipment and examine the image of your rental business and its perception within your marketplace.
One of the most glaring shortcomings I see in many rental businesses is the poor image projected to their customers, often beginning at the curb. Image is a hard thing for most rental company owners to understand. Image is the sum of a number of small things that add up to create a perception. Perception operates on an emotional level far from the tangible delivery and serviceability of rental equipment. Many owners may believe that their image is limited to how their equipment looks and runs and maybe the appearance of their facility. Yes, it is that, but also much more. Let’s look at a couple of hypotheticals based on real-life examples.
An out-of-town customer is working at a local university and needs a track skid steer for a week for site cleanup work. He takes out his smartphone and runs a Google search for skid-steer loaders with the city name where he is working. He notes two local rental companies — Company A and Company B — offering track skid steers. Although the customer doesn’t know this, Company A and Company B both offer three-year-old skid-steer loaders for rent. Both companies have loaders that are mechanically sound and capable of doing the job.
He goes to Company A’s website. The website appears crisp and professional with a picture of the company’s facility surrounded by an impressive stock of equipment. He notices a tab in the upper corner offering text communications. First, he wants to see the products offered and to see if they have the right skid steer. He clicks on the link for the machine he needs and gets a full description complete with daily, weekly and monthly pricing. He’s impressed with what he sees and is ready to order the machine. He chooses the text option and asks about availability via text. He gets an immediate response and over the course of a few texts, has the rental and delivery set up for the next day. Company A offers the option of setting up an account or paying by credit card. Within a few minutes, he receives a text confirmation of his order and a link to pay by credit card as well as a credit app. He forwards the credit app link to his accounting office.
The next morning, he receives a text from Company A with an approximate delivery time. On schedule, Company A delivers the machine to the job site on their roll-back truck. The truck is a late model, and is clean and painted bright red with the company logo, name and phone number decaled on the side. The company slogan, “We Deliver the Best,” and its website address are both prominently featured on the truck.
The loader is clean, all decals are intact, and the paint is not new but generally is good. The seats are without tears and all control knobs and levers are in place. The driver is well-groomed, in a clean uniform with the company’s name and his name, “Bob,” embroidered on the front. Bob has a tablet in hand and asks to speak with the foreman. Bob introduces himself to the foreman, asks where he wants the machine and asks if there are any questions regarding the machine operation and maintenance. Bob has the foreman electronically sign the delivery ticket on the tablet. The driver then clicks a link and sends the rental ticket including time and date stamped, pre-rental pictures and condition report, and operating and maintenance instructions to the foreman’s smartphone.
What if he had gone to local Company B’s website? Company B has a dated picture of their not exactly impressive facility on their website and some stock pictures of equipment including skid steers. There are only three tabs offered: About Us, Rental Equipment and Contact Info. He chooses the Rental Equipment tab where there are more stock photos and a listing of the equipment offered. He tries to click on skid steers and realizes it is not a clickable link. He scrolls down and sees a phone number with the message to call for pricing and availability. The foreman calls the number, the phone is answered promptly and states he is needing a track skid steer for a one-week rental. He is placed on a brief hold, then is told the machine is available for delivery tomorrow. He is given the option of setting up an account or paying by credit card. The only way for Company B to deliver the credit app is via fax or email. It’s getting late in the day and the foreman pays via credit card so that there is no delay in delivery. Company B is unable to commit to an exact delivery time and states “it will be there in the morning,” which is OK with the foreman.
By noon the next day, there is no sign of the loader. The foreman calls Company B as to the equipment delivery status. He is again placed on a brief hold and is told, “it will be there shortly.” At 12:30 p.m., while the foreman is at lunch, Company B shows up to deliver the loader. Company B has a nine-year old, white one-ton truck pulling an equipment trailer that is sometimes rented to customers. The delivery truck once had the company name on the door but most of the lettering has come off over time. If you look closely, you can still see the outline of the letters. The trailer was once black but is now mostly the color of the underlying steel. Welding repairs are obvious all over the metal on the trailer and several of the boards of the trailer’s decking are split and in need of replacement. The loader is in desperate need of paint and the bucket has some concrete splattered on it from three rentals ago. Most of the decals identifying the manufacturer and model are still visible but some decals with safety and operating information have been partially torn off and are not completely legible. There are several rips in the loader’s seat with the underlying foam visible. The driver, “Bill,” gets out of the truck and asks the first worker he sees where he wants the machine. The driver has a two-part carbon form printed on a dot matrix printer. Bill asks the employee to sign the paper, tears off a copy and hands it to the worker. Bill tells the worker to “have a nice day” and leaves without discussing or leaving any information on machine operation or maintenance. The worker leaves the delivery ticket on the foreman’s desk in the job trailer. As the foreman arrives back from lunch, he passes the delivery truck and trailer leaving the job site and briefly wonders what the raggedy rig was doing on his job site.
Which company presents a better image to its customer? Which company has a higher customer satisfaction rating? Company A successfully built its image, effectively pre-selling its product and service to its customer and leaving with a positive impression for future business. Think about the same scenario with your walk-in customers. What image does your facility and your counter people portray? Are reservations and contracts ready to go when the customer walks in? What sort of instructions on operating the equipment on safety and on maintenance are given and how is it presented to the customer?
None of these actions were huge or costly; most were just paying attention to the small details. Yes, appearance is part of the image — the delivery vehicle, the website, the loader itself, the driver, etc. — but your operating procedures, customer communications and other intangibles also are an integral part of your image. Woven together, Company A was able to project an image that will inspire confidence and loyalty among its customers. By a number of small actions or inactions, Company B’s image is suffering and most likely its owners and manager don’t even realize it.
To improve your image, focus on things that are frontline and most often seen by your customers, such as the facility, rental equipment, delivery vehicles, employees, website and customer communications. Here are some specific ways to improve your image:
Provide electronic communications. In 2021, customers want more electronic than personal interactions, usually via a smartphone or tablet. Embrace this concept and embrace open electronic communications with customers. As in the example of Company A, make it easy to text or email reservations, delivery alerts, signed rental contracts, and operating and maintenance instructions. While some of the technology utilized by Company A may not currently be available to your company, stay on top of technology, and be aware of and implement these enhancements as they become available. To the extent possible, have your rental software and your website work together to provide the customer with the most seamless customer experience possible, even if you have to use third-party apps or consultants to get it done.
Keep things clean. Though most rental stores have some awareness of their importance, appearance and housekeeping often are overlooked. It should be a daily ritual, not a once a week, monthly or quarterly cleanup. This applies to your facility, both inside and out, and your vehicles. As an owner or manager, your employees will do what you do. Walk the yard and pick up trash. Do random checks of the inside of your vehicles and make the vehicle driver clean up any trash or debris left inside. I once visited a rental store with housekeeping issues throughout. The owner’s office was a disaster with papers literally piled up several feet high in every available space. It was predictable that the shop, showroom and yard also were a mess.
Make sure vehicles look professional. Your delivery vehicles often are the first thing that a customer sees. Make sure your trucks and trailers are professional looking and convey that your company is concerned with maintaining top-notch equipment. If you don’t maintain your own vehicles, why should a customer maintain your rental equipment? This also extends to your other company vehicles, especially sales vehicles.
Make sure your equipment looks good. An operator will treat the equipment the way it looks. Regularly paint or touch-up your equipment. Make appearance items such as seats, glass, decals and knobs part of your rental ready inspection checklist. Every rental company has equipment that is more than five years old, but make sure your appearance standards remain high for the older equipment. Your customer tends to take things at face value. If it looks good, it will likely run well, and they will treat it with respect.
Train your employees. Counter people and drivers are the frontline contacts with your customers and set the tone for the image the company is projecting. Make grooming and appearance a priority for all employees. One rental store owner I know preaches to his employees, “Look good, feel good, do good.” All counter people, salespeople, mechanics and drivers should start the day with clean and consistent dress. Have training classes specific to telephone etiquette and customer interactions.
Image is an intangible that often is overlooked by rental store owners. Image builds confidence not only with customers but with employees, bankers, insurance providers and, if you ever want to sell your business, with potential acquirers as well. Providing your employees with a safe, clean, pleasant place to work puts them in a position to provide a high level of customer service that will create loyalty with customers and employees alike.
Gary Stansberry is president of The Stansberry Firm, Boerne, Texas, and specializes in business sales, fair market business valuations, operational consulting and positioning businesses to increase their value. He can be reached at 210-797-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit thestansberryfirm.com.