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When a plumbing and heating manufacturer’s demonstration truck rolls up, the first thing most notice is its splashy graphics announcing the company’s visit. But what’s inside is a regular treasure trove that can help plumbing contractors install products and wholesalers sell more.
The benefits of these rolling sales displays and demos extends beyond the truck’s four wheels (and, sometimes, more than four) as the companies that operate them realize solid returns on their investments through satisfied and knowledgeable customers, new customers and increased sales.
For Mark Brodie, marketing director of Viega, which has operated a traveling demonstration truck, known as the Viega Roadshow for nearly 10 years, the ROI comes in the constant brand awareness as it makes its way around the country.
“It’s a great branding tool,” he says. “It is driving down the road with our name on the side of it, pulling up to wholesalers. It really demonstrates our brand and what we’re trying to build, from a brand affinity standpoint, with our contractors and wholesalers.”
With benefits like these, it’s no surprise the use of demonstration vehicles is a common sight within the PHCPpros community.
“This type of program is very effective; so much so, that it’s starting to become an industry norm,” states Andrew Tran, marketing manager at Noritz, which operated a two-month-long road tour in 2016 to promote its then-new tankless units that eased installation time when the contractor switched out a tank-type water heater.
Running a program like this isn’t an automatic win, however. Companies already in the game say they’ve been very intentional in their choices about everything from selecting trucks to equipping them.
Tackle the truck first
Lindsey Ford, manager of communication and events for Rheem, states as the company’s product lines began to expand so did its need for one-on-one, hands-on educational activities.
“The goal when creating Rheem’s High Efficiency Air & Water Road Show was to design a space that offers customers the best experiential environment available,” she says.
That experience begins with the right truck that provides enough room for the right products.
In Rheem’s case, it began with a custom-built, 53-foot trailer with sides that expand to triple its interior space. The trailer is moved around the country by an International Lonestar 500 tractor with custom Rheem red paint and branding.
Rheem’s trailer comes complete with a bank of windows on one side to let in plenty of natural light and eight 55-inch touchscreen displays to create a massive video wall for interactive presentations. It also has a floor that is modular, allowing it to be used as a showroom for Rheem and Ruud’s latest heating, cooling and water heating solutions or as a classroom for up to 60 people to learn about those products.
Although the Rheem rig is one of the largest mobile training vehicles on the road, these trucks come in all shapes and sizes.
Viega, for example, went with a Ford F-550 customized box truck, offering a specious 110 square feet of space inside. Currently, the company is looking at a new truck, which will be either a Chevy Super Duty or another Ford 550. However, the box of the new rig will have slides that nearly triple its size when parked.
The primary driver behind U.S. Boiler’s choice to operate its Ford Transit Connect cargo van for this purpose is that the vehicle handles like a passenger car.
“The vans are typically driven by members of our sales force,” says Mike Hook, marketing communications manager “As such, they may need to cover long distances or possibly fit them into tight spaces all while remaining in touch with their customers.”
Noritz chose to operate Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks retrofitted with a tankless water heater in the back to demonstrate installation techniques.
Meanwhile, Saniflo USA went somewhere in between most sizes we’ve seen, operating two box trucks, one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast. These trucks travel across the country, all year long, making an estimated 2,000 stops.
“We found that the size of the truck is really important,” says Regis Saragosti, North American CEO of SFA Saniflo.
One of the trucks has been used for about 10 years with a newer truck decked out in the past year.
“With the new truck, we decided to go a little bit bigger to allow more people to be inside at stops,” he adds.
While both rigs require electricity and water to demonstrate Saniflo’s macerating toilets, the new truck also holds a larger tank to store water.
“Thanks to the bigger tank, we can stay longer for a presentation,” Regis says, adding that the older truck will soon be replaced with a duplicate of the newer, larger truck.
Liberty Pumps, meanwhile, has taken a different route. The company has never used box trucks, but has instead relied on a fifth wheel trailer towed by a pickup and another trailer pulled by a Chevy Suburban.
Pat Medlen, Liberty’s Southeast regional sales manager, travels throughout that part of the country while Justin Emasie, Liberty’s field product and promotion specialist, travels the rest of the U.S.
The sides of both rigs can be opened to display the Liberty product.
“The display trailers are a great tool for contractors to see live demos and be able to touch a majority of our products,” says Chuck Schwabe, Liberty’s national sales manager.
The trailers also double as training tools for outside salespeople, counter personnel and other key sales influencers, Schwabe adds.
Finally, the trailers can also be used to make engineer calls and provide demos at municipalities.
Pick the products
While the looks of the truck’s exterior certainly helps market the company’s brand, it’s what’s inside that helps sell the company’s products.
Hook explains that U.S. Boiler has used display vehicles for more than 15 years, making it one of the longest standing programs in the industry. Previous versions included cast-iron boilers (both gas and oil), indirect tanks and cast-iron radiation.
“The combined weight of those kind of products necessitated a larger truck-based display vehicle,” he says. “While cast-iron products remain part of our overall portfolio, our company has greatly expanded and refined our condensing boiler line, generating a large interest in these newer products. We determined the best way to highlight this segment of our product line was to have a new condensing boiler-specific display vehicle.”
The goal with Viega’s Roadshow is to provide a quick education about its products and services. The truck is, thus, equipped with each of the company’s product lines, all of which are brought to life through an interactive component.
“We put a sample of every product line we have on the truck, from our ProPress systems to copper and stainless-steel fittings, in different sizes on various applications,” Brodie says. “The crux of the program is the ability to bring a showroom-type setting to wholesalers, plumbing contractors and engineering firms. So, we set up the inside with product installations and pseudo real-life applications. Visitors can see how our products work, and how they play with other products in the industry.”
The Viega vehicle also has a cutaway in the floor to showcase the company’s radiant heating systems.
“Visitors can see how the piping runs in the floor and into the track system,” he says. “It’s really great way to familiarize people with our products.”
Noritz used its pickups to showcase its EZTR units that allow installers to reuse the same water supply, vent and gas line that were previously hooked to tank-type water heaters.
“We felt it was too hard to get the new installation process across, just from a plumber going to a wholesaler and visiting the counter,” Tran says. “It’s something you have to demonstrate. Plumbers tend to be creatures of habit.”
The demo gave visitors a chance to try the installation process themselves and ask questions.
“It’s a lot better to be able to educate them on a new product on the spot, then to introduce it and leave them figure it out,” he says.
Saniflo’s Saragosti agrees that seeing a product in action is a key advantage.
“It is a very important tool for a very simple reason,” he says. “When you try to explain to a contractor that we have a toilet that can be installed above a concrete floor and that this product is going to take care of the complete bathroom and run through a discharge of ¾ inches, the guy will be looking at you as if you’re coming from another planet.”
Only when the trade can see the product firsthand can the Saniflo toilets be truly understood.
“Seeing the product working is one of the best sales tools we have.” Saragosti says.
Set the schedule
When a single truck, or possibly two or three, is used to meet with customers across the country, it’s essential that companies be careful as they set the schedule.
Every rep needs a chance to have the truck in their territories, according to Saragosti.
“We pass our trucks from one rep to another,” he explains, noting these reps meet with an estimated 60,000 contractors in a year’s time.
Viega’s truck is on the road 40 weeks a year in the United Sates, and the company is careful to plan its route in a way that makes sense from an efficiency standpoint.
The first consideration is weather.
“We don’t take the truck to Minneapolis in February, for example,” Brodie says. “We start the year off in the South, then work our way up the Eastern seaboard so we’re in the Northeast in mid- to late-summer, then the truck heads to the Midwest and Upper Plains, and ends up in California by year’s end,” he says.
Viega also plans the routes around trade shows and other events, to ensure it can be in the area when those things are going on.
“It’s not a perfect system,” Brodie says. “With only one vehicle, there are opportunities we must pass on. We try to build a logical route and cut down on the amount of driving to increase the time it’s actually on location being used.”
U.S. Boiler’s Hook states scheduling is a combination of needs balanced with logistics.
“The sales force has become very adept at using them to their fullest,” he adds. “They typically line up a series of appearances well in advance. We coordinate between the stops and bridge the gaps when needed, but our sales force is very good about keeping them moving along.”
No effort is complete, however, without promotion. Most operators of these programs send out flyers and social media advertising to drive awareness about each stop.
For example, Saniflo’s reps set up their contractor days and training themselves, then rely on social media advertising and flyers and other marketing efforts to promote them.
“We let our Facebook community know the van is going to be in this or that territory on these dates,” Saragosti says. “We also use these ads to inform the customer about why they may want to see the product in action.” l
Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in Waukesha, Wisconsin.