Life-cycle costs gain importance in vans as they do in buildings.

Claus-Christoph Tritt, general manager of commercial vehicles for Mercedes-Benz USA and vice president of sales operations for Daimler Vans USA

Plumbing & Mechanical earlier this year interviewedClaus-Christoph Tritt, general manager of commercial vehicles forMercedes-Benz USAand vice president of sales operations forDaimler Vans USA. He oversees sales and marketing of commercial vehicles in the United States for both Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner, including Sprinter vans. Tritt has worked for Mercedes-Benz since 1990 in Germany and the United States in positions related to commercial vehicles and fleet sales. He resides in New Jersey.

PM:If a plumbing contractor pulls up to a job in a Mercedes-Benz truck, a customer once might have thought the plumber would charge luxury prices. Is that mindset changing?

CT:The two years since we’ve reintroduced the Sprinter under the Mercedes-Benz USA leadership has proven that mindset is changing. The Mercedes brand increased sales from 2010 to 2011 by 173%. The symbol of luxury in the commercial segment is not necessarily something bad. Luxury in a commercial environment is defined in a different way. It’s reliability, fuel economy, life-cycle costs and having the best tool for the job. Luxury in this segment is the total package.

You also can look at the vehicle as a business card for the person driving it. It tells the customer: “You can rely on my work. You can perceive my work as having the same quality standards as the vehicle I drive.” There’s nothing wrong with having a good image with your service truck. If it makes a person more comfortable, however, the vehicle still is available under the Freightliner brand.

PM:How different is the Sprinter today from when it was introduced to the U.S. market?

CT:We’ve made really substantial changes. When you look back to 2001, we took a European delivery van concept and adapted it, more or less, to U.S. emissions and safety requirements. But from a basic engineering standpoint, nothing was built in the truck with the United States in mind.

We introduced the new truck in 2007. That truck was built with the U.S. in mind with different axles and equipment and non-European tire sizes. The motor is designed specifically for the United States and Canada. The truck has improved air conditioning because Europeans don’t like it cold and we do like it cold. Also, Europeans don’t use cup holders. But many things we kept the same. The stuff we got right, right out of the gate such as the stand-up height and versatility, is the same. The philosophy behind the truck, old or new model, didn’t change.

PM:Do you see changes in the type of fuel that service vehicles will use in the future?

CT:Our commercial strategy clearly is to optimize the internal combustion engine, and we have a diesel fuel strategy. We can look at different technologies such as hybrids, fuel cells and electric drive, but first you have to look at the application. We can do many things that make sense in their respective environment.

My personal opinion, long-term, is that when the technology is ready, nothing will be better for downtown metropolitan areas than an electric truck. If your business involves reaching customers in suburban areas, the future lies with optimized conventional power-train vehicles. If you already have a good combustion engine, a hybrid doesn’t give you any cost advantages. On the car side, that’s a totally different story.

PM:Do more Americans buy trucks based on cost of ownership vs. sticker price than they did a decade ago?

CT:You have to look at independence from foreign oil and the sensitivity of consumers toward the current economic environment. Those factors are changing the mindset of consumers over time. The truck market will continue to change dramatically in the years to come. You’re seeing life-cycle costs becoming important in vehicles just as they are in building construction. It’s already started with light commercial vehicles. You see more diesel-fuel vehicles in this country and a big push toward making internal combustion engines more fuel efficient and reliable, which is a good solution in many ways.

First cost might sell you one van but total cost of ownership will sell you the second, third and fourth. A high-volume strategy is all about repeat business and customer retention. That’s how we’ve gone to market traditionally. It’s our clear intention to follow through on this strategy.

PM:What trends do you see coming next for service vehicles?

CT:Other truck companies are bringing similar trucks to the U.S. market. The secret of staying ahead of your competition is you have got to stay close to your market, close to your customers and close to what their demands are. You can do little things and big things. Sometimes the little things have a bigger impact. There’s always room for improvement.

PM:What’s your outlook for the U.S. economy and construction industry?

CT:I think most people are more optimistic than they were a year ago. However, some people are still holding back on making that big investment. At the same time, they’re realizing that old equipment is getting very expensive to maintain. That should help sales of new trucks.

The growth we’ve had in market share despite the economy is a compliment to our overall organization. When I read blogs by Sprinter customers, I see service is very important to them. Our focus at the point of sale and point of service is on our customers so they can do their jobs.

PM:If you had one message to give to contractors, what would it be?

CT:If someone wants to have a reliable tool for his business, he definitely should have a closer look at us. I’m talking not only from the product side but also from the process side. You can have the best product in the world, but if the process and people behind it aren’t right, you can forget about the product. Try us out.

PM:What differentiates the Sprinter from other service vehicles?

CT:First, it’s not one truck. Our lineup is 19 different models. We’ve got two wheel bases, two roof heights and three body lengths. We’ve got cargo vans, messenger vans and a minibus. You can find something for every application. If a guy needs to go heavier on payload, he can upgrade to 11,000 lb. or he can stay under 10,000 lb. if DOT regulations are important to him.

And you can work inside the truck. If you have to do prep work, you can put your work bench in the truck. A 6-4 guy can easily stand up and that’s a huge advantage. You’re not crouched over in the back of your van. Especially with plumbing or mechanical jobs, you’re taking the workshop to the jobsite in a safe and reliable manner. That’s the true advantage of the truck because that’s what these guys do.