Ethanol: A customer service challenge

By Jeff Sheets

In 1990, who would have thought what the Clean Air Act would bring to the outdoor power equipment industry? The Energy Policy Act of 2005 pushed the envelope even further by mandating that renewable fuel be included in all gasoline. Since then, billions of dollars have been spent by consumers to repair or replace outdoor power equipment, and it has changed the industry forever. Ethanol is a double-edged sword for an OPE dealership. It can be a great financial boost to service departments because of its damaging effects on equipment, but it can create a customer service nightmare because customers question whether their equipment is defective due to problems that can crop up in less than a year. So, how do you effectively communicate the effects of ethanol to your customers, and how do you avoid problems associated with it in the sales process? How do you communicate to those who have extensive repairs because of ethanol’s effects? The following is the three Es of the Ethanol Customer Service Challenge.



Doug Nord#1 Educate: Dealers should consider customer education about ethanol, and its potential problems, as their first priority because it helps you build a solid relationship with your customers. I asked Doug Nord from Nord Outdoor Power in Bloomington, Ill., to share some tips about how he deals with the impact ethanol has on his business and customers. He said, “Write the word ‘Education’ 1,200 times for purchasers of equipment, and those who need it repaired, for your article.” He continued, “We just don’t talk about the problems associated with ethanol. We provide educational handouts when we sell equipment, referring them to manufacturers’ websites.” Reinforcing education from the sales counter to the service department should be your goal. We need to make sure that customers know that the octane ratings go down as the time in the gas can increases. Most manufacturers will tell you that gas that sits either in the equipment or in a gas can for 45-60 days or more is losing its effectiveness and can be a problem in both starting and damaging the equipment. The longer it stays in without being used, the more likely damage will result.

As an owner, it is your responsibility to make sure every employee is knowledgeable about this issue through training and then shares that knowledge with customers. If the knowledge is only held by owners or managers, then the rest of the team is at a disadvantage to provide excellent customer service. When you’re reviewing your monthly numbers, make a habit to look at your training plan for your employees. Are you training your team throughout the year so they feel empowered to knowledgably serve customers? It doesn’t have to take a great deal of time to inform employees of new developments so your business can have one message and one voice, allowing you to build trust and loyalty with your customers.



Jim Cardinale#2 Engage: Partner with manufacturers to work toward eradicating the problem. “A national manufacturer asked to test our alcohol content in our gasoline because of the problems with certain parts of their equipment being damaged all across the country,” said Doug Nord. “They found it was comprised of 17-percent ethanol, when it was supposed to be 10 percent. Manufacturers want to help us dealers have the current information.”

Knowing what is really going on is the first step toward winning the battle. Jim Cardinale, the owner of Georgetown Small Engines in Georgetown, S.C., concurs. He incorporates business practices to help his customers see the advantages of paying attention to this issue. He partners with his manufacturer, and he regularly tests his gasoline that he purchases for customer equipment to make sure the octane rating is 90 or above. “I know that checking the octane rating on the gas I use and what is in my customers’ equipment is important because Husqvarna recommends I do.”

Consider other ways to bring awareness to this issue by engaging with your local community. Provide education by writing a column for your local newspaper, share tips on a local radio show, or speak at community functions to help inform people outside your customer base of the effects of ethanol on small engines. If you are doing these kinds of outreaches, you will be perceived as an expert who is looking out for the public good (which you are), and that only enhances your reputation as a dealer.

Engage your local large box stores to make sure that they are informing their customers because eventually those customers will be your repair customers, and without proper education, you will be dealing with people who think they have inferior equipment rather than gasoline that does not have enough of an octane rating to allow it to start. Jim Cardinale said, “The ethanol problem has been going on for over 10 years in my area of the country, but we still find consumers who know nothing about it.” We can’t give up because someone out there needs the information. We need to always be engaging our customers.”

#3 Excellence: A dealer stands in the gap between manufacturers and customers. We need to be that voice that they can trust. Our actions need to be above board and not cause us to be a part of the problem. Doug Nord thinks this starts with the gas they put in their customers’ equipment. He said, “We have gone to using engineered gasoline for our handheld equipment in our shop and treated fuel in our mowers and larger items.” This is what our customers expect, and we need to make sure we make them aware we do it, so they will follow our lead. I like the thought that we do what is right, not what is inexpensive. Our customers will thank us for it.” Jim Cardinale said that his customers are onboard. “What helps is that our customers become the best salespeople for what we are recommending. They will chime in when we are talking about the ethanol issue at the counter and be that confirming voice that the customer needs to do what we are recommending. Helping people understand what the problem is and the necessary steps of prevention allows them to educate their neighbors and friends. Watching them help you at the dealership is one thing, but hearing they are talking to others is a satisfying reward.”

So ask yourself, “What could I be doing better?” I would love to write the word “Education” 1,200 times as Doug Nord suggested earlier, but that wouldn’t get us closer to knowing what to do. In the rush of a busy dealership, sometimes it is easy to forget some of the things that make us the best in our industry. We forget we have the opportunity to impact people’s lives in a positive way each day. How can you improve your service team and customer education? Have you partnered with a manufacturer, or do you monitor gasoline yourself to get a clear reading on the quality of gasoline you’re providing for your customers? Do you consistently share that cheapest and best don’t usually keep each other company? So, are you providing the best? Your goal is to be the best possible dealer, not the cheapest one. Doug Nord used the following analogy: “We should think of ourselves as doctors trying to do the best that we can in the long run for whatever equipment we sell or service. We should not behave like a surgeon who only looks at fixing what is in front of them because we do ourselves and our customers a disservice.” Let’s look at this problem that has been created as an opportunity to really grow and treat our customers better. Zig Ziglar might have said it best: “Statistics suggest that when customers complain, business owners and managers ought to get excited about it. The complaining customer represents a huge opportunity for more business.” Let’s embrace the challenge, and do our best to take advantage of this opportunity.

1504_OPE_FS_Profit Center Series-Part III-Service2_author-Jeff Sheets-webJeff Sheets is the founder and owner of OPE Consulting Services. For the past eight years, Sheets has worked extensively with hundreds of outdoor power equipment dealers to address all of their needs from marketing and inventory management to designing layouts of new facilities and helping rescue businesses that are in trouble, and more. He has a vast amount of experience of bringing “best practices” to OPE dealerships. For more information, he may be contacted at or (816) 260-5430. You can also follow him on Twitter @opeconsult and connect with him on LinkedIn.


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