Superintendents’ ability to select and use their maintenance equipment effectively often hinges on their relationships with local dealers and distributors that
serve as manufacturers’ go-betweens for sales and service.
By Betsy Gilliland, Contributing Editor
SUMMING IT UP
- Strong relationships with local equipment dealers and distributors help superintendents build trust with national manufacturers and brands.
- To make plans and properly maintain their golf courses, superintendents expect honest assessments from dealers and distributors —even if they need to tell them news they would rather not hear.
- The use of demo equipment is vital to the success of a transaction, because it lets superintendents see how machinery will work on their terrain under different weather conditions.
The golf course maintenance equipment business is a competitive enterprise, and superintendents are well aware of the choices they have when it comes to outfitting their properties. But when selecting their maintenance equipment, they depend on much more than recognizable brand names. They also rely on building mutually beneficial relationships with the local dealers and distributors that serve as the manufacturers’ go-betweens for sales and services.
“If you don’t have a good local guy, you have no trust with the company,” says Certified Golf Course Superintendent Adam Bagwell, Director of Grounds at Crane Creek Country Club in Boise, Idaho.
Bagwell touches base with his equipment dealers and distributors at least three times a week. The need for communication can be prompted by a variety of reasons, from purchasing a new piece of equipment to troubleshooting an issue, or just wanting to check in.
Of course, dealer representatives can initiate the contact as well. “The best ones are in contact at least twice a month,” says Jon Lobenstine, who oversees nine golf courses as Director of Agronomy for the Montgomery County (Md.) Revenue Authority.
Lobenstine says he makes the first call to his distributors, particularly if there’s a problem, about half the time. He typically communicates by phone call, but text messages work well for follow-up. However, he adds, “Sales representatives—the good ones—are very proactive about keeping in touch.”
Lobenstine, who is also Facebook “friends” with some distributors, believes superintendents and dealers both reap rewards from developing good business rapport. And it’s important to keep communication lines open even if bad news needs to be relayed, he says.
For example, if there will be a delay in delivering equipment, he wants to know about it. “Don’t sugarcoat anything for me. Please tell me what’s going on,” he says. “Good or bad, we’ve got to have the information, so we can make our operations continue to go smoothly.”
At Piney Branch Golf Club in Hampstead, Md., General Manager and Golf Course Superintendent Scott Wunder touches base with his distributors, depending on the amount of their equipment that he carries, about every other month.
“If it’s a routine checkup, they’ll pop in and say ‘Hi,’” he notes. “If we’re looking at next year’s equipment, I’ll call a meeting and we’ll sit down and see what they can offer.”
With his dual responsibilities, Wunder prefers to communicate by text or e-mail. “I can answer a question when I get around to it,” he explains.
Good relationships with local dealer/distributors are key for establishing trust with equipment manufacturers, says Adam Bagwell, CGCS, Director of Grounds at Crane Creek CC (standing at left, with Assistant Superintendent David Atkins).
He tries to have a game plan in place so he can plan for the coming week or month, and honest communication is vital, he says. “Honesty is a big thing with me. Give me an honest answer, whether it’s something I want to hear or don’t want to hear,” says Wunder.
The View from the Other Side
Veteran dealer/distributors have learned to shape their communications efforts around individual customers’ needs and preferences. Brian Pardoe, Sales Manager at Turf Equipment & Supply Company in Jessup, Md., says his sales representatives ask superintendents about the best time to call on them the first time they meet. If they have a question or concern, he adds, “We get back to them the same day.”
Pardoe tries to stay on top of their needs, soliciting their feedback and asking them how his company is doing. He also says the Golf Industry Show is a good way to introduce prototypes and new technology to superintendents. “It’s a good opportunity for our customers to come by and visit us,” he notes.
Brandon Bonham, Owner of RMT Equipment, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City, says communications usually depend on the size, location and budget of the golf course, and the amount of their equipment at a property.
“We see golf courses once a month, two times a year and everything in between,” he says. “If a golf course is trying to make an equipment decision, then we see them several times a month. It just depends on their needs. Ultimately, we like to meet a superintendent face-to-face.”
Dealers take their cues from superintendents as well. “Every personality is different,” notes Bonham. “Some superintendents want to get to know us personally. Others are more business-oriented and want to have a strictly business relationship.”
Jon Lobenstine (near left), who oversees nine golf courses as Director of Agronomy for the Montgomery County (Md.) Revenue Authority, often demos equipment from different manufacturers on one of his sites at the same time. “[Equipment] might look good on a video, but we need to see how it performs on our topography,” he explains.
Distributors have a three-pronged role in customer relationships, Bonham says—to help them save money, alleviate a worry, or eliminate a problem from their operations.
“As a dealer, we don’t actually produce anything that we sell; our role is service-oriented,” he explains. “We need to provide backup and support for products and familiarize customers with equipment and its features. We have to understand each golf course’s needs, and match equipment to those needs.”
Bonham also communicates with his customers by blast e-mails, through local golf course superintendent associations, and at trade shows, service schools and other events.
While it depends on the size of the purchase, which can range from a large package to a single piece of equipment, Bonham estimates that a manufacturer will work with his company on one-third of their transactions. “We make tandem sales calls, but from the service standpoint, our responsibility as dealers is to take care of our customers,” he notes.
Pardoe, a former club manager himself, knows that course maintenance is a demanding field where customers have high expectations of their vendors and equipment. In the mid-Atlantic region, he notes, superintendents have to deal with a wide range of weather conditions, from heavy rain and snow to high temperatures and humidity, so they need assurance that their equipment can perform under all of these conditions.
“Customers are looking for a solution,” he notes. “We need to have good conversations about their issues, and need to provide two or three [possible] answers.”
Signed, Sealed and Delivered
Bagwell credits his strong relationship with RMT with helping him smoothly seal a deal to convert to a three-year lease cycle, which will go into effect in 2013, for Crane Creek’s golf course maintenance equipment.
In fact, he set up a meeting between the equipment manufacturer’s representatives and others involved with the decision at Crane Creek without revealing why the meeting was being called. “I just asked them to be there, but didn’t tell them why,” he recalls. He believes his relationship with Bonham, who also knows Crane Creek’s general manager, golf pro and Greens Committee chairman, was a factor in working out the lease agreement with minimal hassles. “The deal wouldn’t have gotten done without a strong relationship,” Bagwell states.
Now, Bagwell thinks Crane Creek will increase its buying power through a complete swap-out arrangement for its equipment. “This way we can have everything new, rather than just a few new pieces each year,” he explains.
He also expects to trim his budget and improve overall course conditions with the new lease agreement, and will be able to reduce the number of mechanics on staff, because the equipment will require only preventive maintenance.
For Montgomery County’s operation, Lobenstine uses a variety of techniques—including, he admits, good old-fashioned haggling—to get the best deal possible on his equipment.
“Since we are a government agency, we qualify for national account pricing with some companies, through the National Intergovernmental Purchasing Alliance,” he explains. In addition, he tries to package purchases together to maximize any discounts. “The more equipment you buy, the more of a price break you can get,” Lobenstine reveals. However, he adds, “If you don’t have a good relationship with your equipment distributors, you’re not going to buy anything from them.”
At Piney Branch GC, Wunder says he has never had to rely on backup from his equipment dealers to plead his case to the club’s Board of Directors. “They’ve always given me enough information where I can sell it myself,” he explains.
Seeing is Believing
One of the most effective ways for superintendents to help sell other decision-makers at their clubs on the value of new equipment is through on-site “demos”—and here, too, local dealers and distributors can play critical roles.
“About 35 percent of our sales require a demonstration before a sale,” notes RMT’s Bonham. “With the other 65 percent, superintendents are already familiar with the equipment, or they have seen it operate somewhere else.”
With dual roles as General Manager and Golf Course
Superintendent at Piney Branch GC, Scott Wunder looks for straight-shooting assistance from his equipment dealers and distributors. “Honesty is a big thing with me,” he says. “Give me an honest answer, whether it’s something I want to hear or don’t want to hear.”
Before Crane Creek settled on its new equipment package, the property demo’ed equipment from three major manufacturers. They kept some pieces two or three days, or even for a week, before making a decision. “We wanted to make sure it worked on our terrain,” Bagwell reports.
Lobenstine also stresses the importance of seeing demo equipment firsthand at the Montgomery County properties he oversees. Sometimes, in fact, his courses will have demos from different manufacturers on-site at the same time.
“[Equipment] might look good on a video, but we need to see how it performs on our topography,” he explains.
Turf Equipment & Supply frequently leaves demo equipment at properties so superintendents, assistant superintendents, equipment managers, and crew members can try it out, Pardoe says. Having equipment on the property for several days also lets it be tested under various weather conditions, he notes.
“Customers want to see it, touch it, use it, and make sure it’s a fit for their property. We like letting them play with it,” Pardoe says.
Superintendents also use demo opportunities to test different heights of cuts with mowers, or experiment with sprayer calibrations. “If I’m looking to purchase a piece, I want to try it myself on the golf course at the right time of year,” notes Wunder. “Most of the equipment we’re buying is not cheap. I want to let the crew try it out and see firsthand if the piece will hold up for our needs.”
At Crane Creek, the value of equipment demos has even extended to a mutually beneficial relationship with distributors and manufacturers, through which the club becomes a proving ground for prototype equipment as it’s being developed.
“I like to be on the cutting edge, ” notes Bagwell. “We have a severe course with a lot of slopes, and we offer a good test track for equipment, too. [When we’re sent] equipment to test, we’ll track performance and repair costs, and keep accurate records on what each piece of equipment would cost to own.”
On the Cutting Edge
Education and training seminars also give dealers an opportunity to be an extension of the manufacturers they represent while strengthening relationships with their customers. “Our customers want to be educated,” Pardoe says. “Our sessions are taught by their peers, and they are service-oriented.”
Because spraying chemicals is costly and an environmentally sensitive operation, Wunder wants to make sure his staff is properly trained to use equipment for applications that are as fine-tuned and accurate as possible. “Training is a great thing, especially when it comes to sprayers, because they can get complicated at times,” he notes.
When Montgomery County bought new sprayers in July, its distributor had training sessions for the superintendents, assistant superintendents, and mechanics at seven of the county’s nine facilities.
The need to explore different financial products for maintenance equipment is growing in the golf industry, according to Brandon Bonham, Owner of RMT Equipment, which is headquartered in Salt Lake City. As a distributor, Bonham needs to understand how a golf course operates. While some golf courses always pay cash for equipment, for instance, others benefit from a buyout lease.
“At a high-end golf course with high expectations about playing conditions, there are certain products and equipment that can provide that end product,” Bonham explains.
However, he also performs equipment evaluations for cost-conscious properties that still have high course-condition expectations.
Depending on the usage of the equipment, Bonham determines its life expectancy and total cost of ownership. He then compares those factors with financial options. Each piece of equipment has acquisition, operational, maintenance, and repair costs.
“The repair and maintenance costs are broken down into labor and parts, but most golf courses don’t necessarily track the labor involved,” reports Bonham. “If you can lower the maintenance and repair costs, then you can impact the total cost of ownership significantly.”
Distributors will also offer training sessions during the winter and off-season, when maintenance staffs are not as busy. And Lobenstine has found dealers to be knowledgeable about the latest technology, such as helpful phone apps, that can also make it faster and easier to get needed service or assistance.
The true test of how strong any relationship really is, of course, is when something goes wrong. When any of Lobenstine’s courses has equipment problems, a mechanic will first contact the distributor’s service technician. “They’ll research the problem if they don’t have an answer,” he reports.
Dealers are also expected to be ready to send a technician to a course for on-site diagnostics, or to have a sales representative pick equipment up for service. They must be known for delivering parts in a timely manner as well.
While sales and service are essential to maintaining strong relationships, dealers and superintendents also build rapport with simple gestures. Distributors often donate to golf course superintendents’ national and local associations, and superintendents reciprocate the good will by inviting them to staff parties and other events at the club.
“We treat them with a ton of respect,” notes Bagwell. “A simple ‘thank you’ goes a long way.”