Forgotten Stops: Going Back To School
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Forgotten Stops: Going Back To School

By Andrea Stricker, Guest Writer

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I swear I can’t go to any store, read any paper or watch television without being bombarded with back to school ads. Companies are targeting parents and students heavily: new clothes and supplies to get students through the upcoming school year.

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It’s wise to take a cue from these master marketers. Have you thought about the students who will be enrolling in vocational training this fall? Thousands of students will be entering Automotive, Auto Body, Aviation, Diesel and other training programs across the country, and will require supplies you won’t find advertised in any newspaper flyer or on television. Chances are there is at least one, if not multiple, vocational training facilities in your area. These include community colleges, universities, apprenticeship training facilities, job rehabilitation centers and vocational high schools.

Just like automotive technicians in the field today are required to supply their own tools and some equipment and supplies, the same goes for most students enrolled in training programs. The successful sales approach at the local college or training facility is a little different than selling tools and equipment at the dealership down the road. But with some simple tips, you’ll not only have a new avenue to grow your current sales numbers, you will also have the chance to develop a larger customer base for years to come.

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When selling to students in training programs, timing is everything — and the time is now! Right now students are either getting ready to start classes for the fall semester or classes have just begun. They are getting their orientation packets or meeting with instructors for the first time, and are receiving lists of the required tools and equipment needed to start the training program.

Every program that requires students to purchase tools has a list! These usually consist of hand tools, pneumatic tools, meters, paint supplies, safety equipment and so on. The required tool lists are in many ways your golden ticket to vocational sales. The students have to get all this stuff somewhere — it might as well be from you. In my experience, I have never come across an instructor who is not willing to share their list with a tool distributor who can offer his students a great product at a fair price.

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There are also many programs offered at local colleges that require tools and equipment. The most prevalent include: Automotive, Aviation, Auto Body, Diesel/Heavy Equipment, HVAC, Industrial Maintenance, Construction and Marine. The first step in vocational sales is to seek out the facilities in your area and find out what programs they offer. Talk with the instructors to determine their needs. Keep in mind that by winning over the instructors, your chances of winning over their students greatly increases.

The List
Find out if they have a list of tools they require students to purchase. If it’s a public school, they probably do. If it’s a private school, they usually include a set of tools in the tuition costs, which is selected in a bid process. Does the instructor allow tool and equipment salespeople to visit during classes? If not, find out if they’ll allow you to schedule an appointment after hours. Then, make the time to prepare for the student tool event.
It’s very common for colleges to hold “Tool Days” to help students find the products needed for training.  Many times these are held in conjunction with student registration or orientation. Instructors, most commonly those from the automotive programs, will invite tool and equipment vendors to set up tables in the shop in order to make product presentations and present quotes to students and sometimes their parents, as well.

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This is where the required tool lists become very important. I recommend you have a package put together for the students in order to have the most success at one of these events. In addition to individually priced items, give them one price that covers all the products on their list. The easier you make the purchasing process, the more sales you are likely to get. Tool and equipment pricing at the vocational level is very competitive, so be sure to check with manufacturers, as special discounts to students may be available. Some manufacturers have special vocational programs and can assist you with putting together a quote from the program’s required tool list, and may even help you set up a display for the show.

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Financing Options
Another issue that frequently arises is financing. If you don’t have a financing option currently available to students, check with your supplier or the manufacturers to see if they have options available to you and/or the students. Students with financial aid or grant money can also use these funds to pay for necessary tools. Those without financial aid may be eligible for supplemental student loans that are deferred for repayment until after graduation.

You may want to bring this up to students who are still not sure how to cover this large expenditure. Regardless, this is probably the first time these students are being exposed to tool and equipment vendors and this purchasing experience will have a huge impact on all future purchases. This may be the biggest purchasing decision these students are making thus far in their lives, as they may spend anywhere from $1,000 to $8,000, and sometimes even more.

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If the school in your area doesn’t hold a Tool Day, still get their tool list and put a quote together. Just ask the instructor if he can set aside a time for you to meet with the classes and give a presentation to students. This is a great chance for you to get to know some of the students and, more importantly, for them to know you. If this isn’t possible, make enough copies of the quote for the instructor to pass out during class or post a few copies on the program’s bulletin board near the shop. It’s wise to get whatever product catalogs or distributor flyers you can into each instructor’s hands and extras for him to share with the students — the more exposure the better.

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There are some schools that don’t require students to purchase tools, but this doesn’t mean that the opportunity for a sale is lost. Private colleges usually include a basic tool set in the tuition cost. They select the set through the bidding process. Sometimes the bid is good for multiple years and sometimes it’s just for a year. Request to be put on their bid list so when the time comes, you can make your best attempt to get the business.

Since these sets are usually very basic, the students will still need to purchase additional tools and equipment throughout the year. Don’t hesitate to check back frequently, especially as graduation time draws closer. These students will lose any manufacturer’s vocational student discount benefits at or shortly after graduation. In this scenario, it may be wise to ask the instructors for a little class time, so once again, the students will know who you are.

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You’ll find that some schools, especially vocational high schools, provide all the tools students will need to participate in the program. This is either by having small tool sets designated to one or a small group of students, or by running a tool room where students can check out the tools or equipment needed at the time. In this case, you may not find the immediate opportunity to sell multiple sets in one swoop, but eventually, these students will need to get their own stock if they’re serious about entering the job market.

While you help the schools keep their tool room up-to-date and the toolboxes full, keep reminding the students that when they are ready to get their own tools, you can help them out. Always keep a handful of “giveaways” to share — magnets or stickers with your name and contact information.

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If you’re interested in selling to students and schools but aren’t sure where the schools in your area are located, there are some great online resources to help you. I highly recommend visiting the website for the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation or NATEF — www.natef.org. NATEF is a non-profit organization whose mission is to evaluate technician training programs against standards developed by the automotive industry and recommend qualifying programs for certification by ASE, the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. Automotive, auto body, diesel and alternative fuel programs that have made it through the NATEF-certification process are listed on the organization’s website and can be filtered by program and by state.  
Another site I found to be helpful is the National Center for Educational Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov. Here you can search both high schools and colleges and through an advance search, it can be narrowed down by areas of study. For example, if you want to focus on HVAC programs, you can find all the schools that offer HVAC training in your state or within a certain radius of your zip code.
 
As you start making regular stops at vocational schools, keep in mind that you are dealing with young people. Most of them are new to the idea of buying tools and equipment. They will ask a lot of questions and will need some guidance as to the products they need to complete certain tasks. This is a chance for you to help guide and mentor tomorrow’s technicians and even show them how to be good customers. If anything, I hope you find the same satisfaction I find in working with today’s youth and having an impact on a career I can only hope they find fulfilling for many years to come. 

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Andrea Stricker is the vocational program coordinator for S•K Hand Tool Corporation.

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