When it comes to steering, chassis, and driveline parts, components change is a constant factor as original equipment manufacturers continue to move towards lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles. This steady flow of design changes not only means more SKUs; it also offers a constant flow of new opportunities for parts sales. The other key component of this equation is sales skills; ensuring that your relationships with service provider customers are such that they see you as their first-call jobber is vital to your success. With economic indicators pointing to a steady upswing in aftermarket sales, there is no better time to re-evaluate your current sales strategies. Identify the ones that are working well and look for ways to make them even better. And, more importantly, identify any strategies that just aren’t working for you. “If you take the jobber stores in Canada and you look at the best ones and weakest ones, you will find there is always a big gap between the relationships with their clients. The best stores have great relationships with their clients where the guys actually have solid conversations with the shops that they are selling to. It’s interesting that the weakest ones are just there to take an order and that’s it. They don’t engage in a conversation, and they don’t even know anything about the shop they are talking to,” explains Bob Greenwood, president and CEO of the Automotive Aftermarket E-Learning Centre. “When the outside field people have communication with the counter staff and share key information on what a particular shop is doing, then the counter staff mention that when the guy calls in, it’s like, ‘Oh, you know something about me?’ The relationship can really get solidified. That’s really one angle that has to be worked on. And the jobber owners who don’t allow the communication between the field staff and the counter staff to take place are making a big mistake,” adds Greenwood. “People buy from people,” adds Kevin Fleury, sales and marketing director for Transbec. “In today’s fast-moving world, we sometimes forget that the person on the other end of the line or over the counter is not just a walking dollar sign; he is a human being. Yes, a human being that is a potential customer, but still a person that will appreciate it if you ask him how his kid’s soccer game went or how his wife’s new job is going. The counterperson is able to ask these questions while looking up a part and the client will walk away with the feeling that he is not just dealing with another parts store, but with a friend. We fail to sometimes realize that such a small question has the potential to pay off with huge results.” For any business to be successful, it’s strongly recommended that you don’t try to be all things to all people. To understand the needs of your buyers, you must first do an analysis of your particular market. Identify the needs, and identify the limits as well. Once you understand your local business base of service providers, consumers, industrial, commercial and seasonal business, you can then apply that data to your particular aftermarket sweet spot. Successful shops hire counterpeople who really understand that their function is to help advise, so that when a shop calls for a particular part for a job, that counterperson also realizes they may very well need other ancillary components to complete that particular job and they will not hesitate to make that recommendation. “It seems that in many cases jobber owners are just hiring people at the cheapest rate, just to get somebody behind the phone. They try and get the cheapest staff because they look at staff as a cost rather than an investment. The jobber store owner should look at it as an investment because the right people will give you a great return,” says Greenwood. “I have always said to our clients, competency pays. You hire competent people and they will make a company money. Hire weak people, uncommitted people, untrained people, un-accountable people, and you have a huge cost,” he adds. “Then the jobber says, ‘Yeah, well, where are they? I can’t find them.’ “Perhaps the culture of your particular business isn’t up to what it should be, because people talk about good businesses, so why aren’t they applying to yours? Why aren’t the best people in the industry applying to your store? It’s a question that has to be addressed and honestly answered,” he advises. “If you go back and look at the best jobber stores out there, you will see the owners are committed not only to their own staff but they are also committed to the marketplace. They constantly strive to be the very best that they can be. And they take pride in what they do,” Greenwood concludes. Says Mac McGovern, director of marketing and sales for KYB, “You can always count on that customer that comes in and asks for the cheapest part to do the job. That should immediately send up a red flag, and your first question to them should be, ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’ “If the counterperson doesn’t understand the technology and if they don’t take the time to learn about how a system works, and isn’t getting in front of the customer and explaining that this shock, strut, brake shoe, or this rotor is part of the crash avoidance system and unknowingly sells a part that isn’t in a performance and quality range that supports the vehicle’s onboard technology, isn’t that counterperson doing a disservice to the customer?” adds McGovern. “Counter staff need to be doing something to get into that stream of decision-making and make sure they are offering the customer choices and options they may not have considered.” “Looking ahead to 2014, for the ones that get it, it’s going to be a great year. But the ones that are struggling because they are behind, it’s catching up with them and it’s going to be a tough year,” predicts Greenwood. “But you look at what a parts supplier does in the marketplace, and look at how they are helping their own customers move their business forward. If they are just out there to sell them as much as they can without even worrying about getting paid, which is another issue, they are going to fail. “When I look at the best suppliers across the country and what they commit to, to develop their customer base, it is amazing. They make the investment because they know they are going to get the return on it. But when you get into competitive marketplaces like the Greater Toronto Area, which is probably the most competitive price market in Canada, everybody is scrambling based on price. Nobody is taking the lead. No company is willing to make the investment to try and educate shop customers to a higher level of doing business. “Many will argue that the repair shops aren’t interested, but I submit to them, if the shops aren’t interested, is it because they don’t trust what you are saying? “Jobbers should walk into a repair shop and ask, ‘How is business?’ rather than ask, ‘Are you busy?’” advises Greenwood. “Repair shop owners don’t want to be busy; they want to be steady. You don’t make money being busy. The jobber wants them busy, because he perceives them buying more parts. So the two sides are working against each other. They don’t understand each other’s business.” “I believe the next generation of jobbers are really going to work on selecting which repair shops they choose to work with. They want to ensure they are first call at that shop and, if you do the math, a typical shop can purchase between $12,000 and $15,000 a month in parts. If I have 80% first call, that’s $12,000 a month paid in full by the 10th of the month following, because they are dealing with better shops. So say you accumulate 25 shops like that, you no longer need a database of 150 or 200 shops, because you now have $300,000 per month coming in and it’s paid on time. “I think the next generation is going to look at developing their business in this direction. Over the next 10 years they will be developing quality shop relationships. “The opportunities are huge for the select few who get it. Because a good shop really wants a strong relationship with their number-one supplier. A good business relationship is about trust; it’s not about price. It’s about the value you bring to the table with quality service. You can’t win on price on every item, and the repair shops know that. Over the course of the year the value you bring to the table far outweighs any price differential,” says Greenwood. A key step to ensure you exceed your customers’ expectations each and every time is to build product knowledge by working closely with your suppliers. Always utilize Point-of-Sale material provided by suppliers. Talk to your reps about upcoming training seminars/webinars and other product knowledge-building clinics. Utilize the free online training programs that many of your suppliers now provide. For instance, Moog offers a number of tools that help demonstrate the differences between Moog components and lower-quality alternatives. One of the most popular tools is their Ball Joint Technology Demonstrator, which shows how the Moog gusher bearing design provides continuous lubrication of the bearing surface for longer life and smoother articulation. Federal-Mogul’s new moogproblemsolver.com website also includes an array of videos and technical features that demonstrate why Moog components are the best choice for today’s vehicles. “We offer the industry’s most comprehensive and accessible technical and sales training programs through the Federal-Mogul Technical Education Centre,” adds Boyle. As a service parts professional, your key role is to determine what the customer really needs and pair those needs with the right product, whether it’s an OE replacement part or an aftermarket upgrade, each and every time. It’s a well-known fact that many aftermarket parts include enhancements that address many of the shortcomings of OE parts that may have caused the part failure in the first place. The phrase, “Better than OE” should be commonplace with counter staff. Having confidence in the products you sell will come across to your customer. If you believe in what you have to offer, the customer will sense your sincerity and be inclined to have the confidence too. One of the reasons why customers are holding on to their cars longer is that the vehicles themselves are far more sophisticated and reliable. And that fact alone makes the choice of a replacement component extremely important in a number of product categories, including steering and suspension parts. Most customers are looking to restore their vehicle to “like-new” steering response and handling performance, and this can only come through highly engineered, premium technologies from leading manufacturers. Advise service provider customers to always ask their customer, “What do you expect from this repair? Do you want restore your car’s steering and handling to OE or better? Do you want a part that will help prevent the same type of problem you experienced with the existing component? Do you want a component that will last longer and help protect your safety?” In each of those cases, the customer will most likely answer “Yes.” This is a key approach that can help them understand why a higher-quality part from a trusted brand is the best choice for them. If the customer does plan to keep the vehicle long-term, premium parts should be strongly recommended for all the right reasons, including exceptional performance, durability, ease of installation, and the fact that it is backed by a solid warranty. With OEs continually introducing large volumes of new parts into the aftermarket on a monthly basis, it’s critical to customer sales to keep parts up to date and have the best components on hand. Having strong business relationships with reputable suppliers is a key component of your success. Ask yourself which manufacturer is investing the most in the future of your business, and your installer customers’ businesses, through effective training, marketing, and point-of-sale materials. Do they help you understand the engineering and manufacturing differences that make their parts perform better and last longer? Do they develop innovative, problem-solving designs that improve on the original part designs so the repair will result in increased durability, easier installation, and enhanced vehicle performance? And will they stand behind the quality of their products to help protect you and your customers? The answers you get to these questions will separate the quality-focused manufacturer from the suppliers who only want to sell to you based on the lowest possible price. When juggling phone-in orders and walk-in customers, it’s not always possible for counter staff to engage every customer in a lengthy conversation to gain insight into the customer’s needs and build the sale, but it really only takes a few seconds to ask about the vehicle’s condition. Strong sales skills and product knowledge are what lead to customer satisfaction, and that is the bridge you want to build, because it leads to increased revenue and profitability. At all costs, avoid the price game. When price becomes the focus of your marketing message, you are no longer unique. Your competition can easily mark down their prices and there goes your advantage and profits. As the Jobber News Third Annual Shop Survey revealed, the top four factors when selecting a first-call jobber are: parts availability; a superior working relationship with the jobber; qualified, reliable counter staff; and, fast, efficient delivery service. Price was a distant fifth. Many customers don’t understand that there really are differences between the lower- and higher-priced parts. It’s your responsibility to take the extra minute or two and explain that the lower-cost part might not come with a warranty and might be manufactured from inferior materials that could compromise the part’s durability and their driving safety. Be sure you know the two or three leading advantages of the higher-quality part, such as premium materials, problem-solving design, and comprehensive warranty coverage. Then ask them whether saving $10 or $15 really outweighs those advantages. In a majority of cases, the customer will make the right decision and will gain respect for your store’s value-added approach to customer service. As a service parts professional, you need to own your customers before the competition does. Each customer that walks into your establishment wants to feel special, to know they are well served and not overcharged. By building strong relationships with your customers, you improve loyalty, repeat business, and of course, your bottom line.