Sitting in a sun-drenched conference room overlooking Volvo Trucks North America's (VTNA) corporate campus one recent Carolina fall morning, it struck me that we, a half-dozen journalists drawn from the major publications serving U.S. and Canadian fleet operators, were gathered there not to be informed about trucks or engines or anything else mechanical for that matter. Nor were we there to learn about an information-technology solution.

But we were there to hear about a product, one that resulted to be sure from lots of applied brainpower. VTNA invited us in to walk us through in exacting detail what they call an “initiative” but what is to my mind essentially a new service product — one that I am betting will help draw existing customers in closer, capture new business and, in general, enhance their product differentiation to help further build their brand.

And that's crucial in a marketplace that has become more than just competitive, thanks to our nation's deepening economic slowdown and of course the headline-grabbing meltdown of the global financial market.

Certainly, we are again in a period in which everyone in trucking — from vehicle manufacturers to fleet owners — are pretty much stuck paddling up the same inglorious creek without the proverbial paddle. Given the rough waters, lessons learned from any one player can potentially benefit everyone in the game.

Getting back to Greensboro, the media had been summoned for what amounted to a deep-dive into VTNA's Fuelwatch, a forward-thinking customer-outreach initiative centered on enabling fleets to increase their fuel efficiency on a case-by-case basis as an avenue to improving profitability while cutting carbon emissions to attain that green effect that's also so important today.

The initiative, which was rolled out before the media back in August, is multifaceted to say the least. It is distinct enough from what I at least know to be available from other OEMs that VTNA no doubt wanted to ensure members of the fourth estate had the whole thing down cold, the better to explain it to you, dear reader.

Short and sweet as I can make it, Fuelwatch will arm customer-support personnel on both the corporate and dealer side with access to expertise based on sophisticated analyses of warranty data. This will allow counseling customers — starting from the point of sale — on how to improve fleet fuel efficiency by paying close attention to spec'ing, maintenance and driver training. Some of the services will be provided gratis and the more involved portions via a consultancy fee to VTNA.

My purpose here is not to delve into the nitty-gritty of this potentially game-changing initiative. Rather, it is to point to Fuelwatch as emblematic of the kind of creative product solution that fleet customers should expect to see from truck OEMs and other suppliers that want to stand out from the crowd and win their business.

By the same token, fleet owners should also take away as food for thought the idea that they, too, should be seeking every way they can to differentiate their product — trucking services — from the competition.

What really makes Fuelwatch stand out is that it resulted from individuals realizing there was a wealth of data — warranty claim information — waiting to be mined and then analyzed by in-house experts who could in turn empower representatives in the field to provide highly informed counseling directly to customers.

Pretty neat stuff if you ask me. And proof if there ever was that what builds brand equity and differentiates one product from another is not the sheetmetal of a truck or the logo of a motor carrier (or of a magazine for that matter) but the caliber of the people — the group of individuals — striving behind the scenes to make their company's nameplate into solid gold.