Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2005   by Andrew Ross, Publisher and Editor

Front-Line Faux Pas

Anybody who knows me knows that I have the greatest respect for those involved in running every aspect of a jobbing business. Sure, there are some times and some individuals who have made it tough to retain this attitude from time to time, but they are rare.

On the whole, I admire jobbers for their customer-focused attitude and their entrepreneurial spirit. Drivers young and old are usually worth their weight in gold as well, as they are in direct contact with customers more than anyone else in the jobber’s business.

Still, I don’t think there is any collection of individuals who fill me with more awe than counterpeople. Often derided by customers and sometimes by unwise managers, the top-notch counterperson remains one of the most valuable assets an auto parts operation can have.

It is always a source of great amusement to be within earshot of these frontline workers as they wend their way through catalogues and apply an encyclopaedic knowledge of some forgotten application to get the customer the part they need. Or when a DIY customer comes in asking for a small item for their ATV, and the part is in their hand practically before they have finished asking for it.

Those individuals who can manage their customers and their catalogues have a true talent.

Which is why what I heard in Chicago at the recent Aftermarket e-Forum was so discomforting. It was really no more than a comment made in passing by one jobber discussing getting garages hooked up for online ordering. It went virtually unnoticed by many in the room, but it rang in my head like a bell: “We found that the customers ordering online were buying the top of the line more often than when they talked to our counterpeople.”

Let me make the statement perfectly clear: According to one jobber on the panel, when customers ordered for themselves, they opted for higher-end products than when the customer picked up the phone and spoke to a counterperson.

This is not how this is supposed to work.

When I put this together with other comments I have heard over the years, and the shift in product mix that many jobbers tell me they have experienced, I cannot believe that is a unique situation to just one jobber.

At the risk of belabouring the point, it is hard to find any place to lay the blame other than strictly at the doorstep of the management at any jobber who has counterpeople who lead with low-end products or downsell the customer.

Think about how you communicate to your staff. Are you sending mixed signals? Do you push them to focus on the upsell, then urge them to sell, sell, sell as the month draws to a close? Do you compensate your counter staff in a way that gives them an incentive to take the quickest route rather than engaging the customer in a more full-service sales conversation? Does your staff understand the impact on profit when they do this?

When was the last time you took a counterperson aside and told him to slow down because he’s taking too many orders in a day?

While it is certainly admirable to work hard and be efficient, if a counterperson is simply taking orders and cycling through calls once every few seconds, he’s probably costing you a lot of profit. If the example of online ordering is anything to judge by, this is exactly what can happen.

It is up to you to take the lead and ensure that every person in your business has a responsibility to be profit-smart. Sometimes this is as simple as giving the customer what he wants.