Auto Service World
Feature   December 1, 2012   by Steve Pawlett

Going Beyond Customer Expectations: 2012 Jobber News Counterperson of the Year

Vicky Forrester of Parry Automotive, Orillia, Ont.

Vicky Forrester epitomizes everything a jobber could want in a counterperson in today’s demanding marketplace. She is highly personable, possesses strong computer search skills, and has a never-quit attitude that serves her well, both at work and in her personal life.

With just seven years in the automotive industry working for Parry Automotive in Orillia, Forrester has made a strong impression on both her co-workers and her customers. Coming from the food service industry, where over the course of ten years she worked her way up to assistant manager of a Pizza Hut, she came equipped with strong people skills and very little automotive knowledge.

But it was when she gave birth to her son Jaxson, who is now eight years old, that she realized the demanding hours of the food service industry were no longer suitable for a new mom.

“That’s when my dad told me about the opening at Parry Automotive. They were looking for a dispatcher so I applied, because I was looking for something with more regular hours,” explains Forrester.

Wayne Forrester, Vicky’s dad, is the parts operations manager for Parry Automotive. Described as a walking encyclopaedia of automotive parts, Wayne joined Parry Automotive back in 1979, which, coincidently, was the year his daughter Vicky was born.

After a year in dispatch, an opening came up on the counter when counterperson Emily Oakley went on maternity leave. “The first minute I began working on the front counter, I knew it was the thing I liked to do,” says Forrester.

“Over that year I got to know the customers a lot more and just develop a rapport with so many of them. It would have been tough to go back to dispatch. I think some of my customers would have had a tough time as well – they would have still asked for me, and it would have been more chaotic if that happened,” she laughs.

Fortunately, she never looked back, as an opportunity came up that allowed her to remain on the front counter.

Forrester exudes a quiet confidence and an eager, can-do attitude with every customer encounter. “I think it’s the same in any industry: if you are good with customers and able to help them, it’s very rewarding,” smiles Forrester.

“She’s caught on quicker than most and she has a fantastic personality that just brightens your day,” says Joe Trombly of Joe Trombly Automotive Services in Orillia.

“I’ve been in this trade for over 30 years and I have dealt with a lot of parts people over those years. Vicky is one of the best. She has this innate ability to quickly solve a problem. For example, if I get a part that is wrong, she will immediately be on the case and will go up or down a [model] year and find the right one. I have had experiences with other parts suppliers that just keep sending over the wrong parts. They just don’t put in the due diligence that Vicky does,” adds Trombly.

“I told her dad, whom I have known for years, that she is just awesome. She has that ‘Forrester knack’ for figuring things out and solving the problem quickly, saving me a whole lot of time,” says Trombly.

The Forrester family runs deep at Parry Automotive. In addition to Wayne and his daughter Vicky, Al Forrester, Vicky’s uncle, has worked in the machine shop for over 20 years and is the resident expert on troubleshooting both marine and automotive engines. Vicky’s cousin Jason Beers has been with the company for 11 years and works as an accounts assistant, and her aunt, Laurie Picavet, is the delivery department supervisor. In addition, her grandfather just retired as a parts delivery driver at the age of 85 – and her step-grandfather still works as a parts delivery driver.

“Vicky has proven to be an extremely valuable member of our team over the years. She is a consistent top performer and has earned a loyal following of automotive service providers in the industry that have come to rely on her for fulfilling their parts procurement needs,” explains Steve Van Kessel, co-owner of Parry Automotive with his sister Susan Peacock.

“She’s very thorough and she usually gets the right part the first time. If there is a problem getting a part, she can solve it quickly without guidance, which is a big plus when you’re having one of those days. Vicky always goes that extra mile and that’s what counts in this business,” says Rob Attridge of Elite Technical Assistance.

“My customers want their vehicles back as soon as possible, so speed and efficiency are key and my parts person plays an integral role. It’s nice to know I can always count on Vicky to come through. The last thing you want to hear is ‘I don’t have the part,’ and she’s never told me that,” adds Attridge. “Every time I call, I ask for Vicky.”

“When I first started on the counter, they sent me to work with a technician for a few weeks to gain industry knowledge. At that time I didn’t even know what a tie rod was,” laughs Forrester.

“This experience was so helpful to me. I always joke now that it would be helpful to have a complete car taken apart in our showroom, because there are so many customers that come in and ask, ‘Can you come out and look at this part and tell me what it is?’ It will be pouring rain and I say yes, of course, and out I go,’” says Forrester.

“In addition to the training benefits, Vicky has developed a strong bond with the staff at the garages that will last a lifetime because of her personality and her willingness to learn,” adds Van Kessel.

“Vicky is my main counterperson at Parry Automotive. She always goes out of her way to make sure I get the right parts the first time. If it’s a unique, hard-to-find part, she takes on the challenge and digs and digs until all possibilities are exhausted, and you can tell she enjoys the challenge because she is so pleased when she finds the part,” says Neal Jolly of Jolly Automotive Services.

Parry Automotive also sells a great deal of marine parts, due to its location on the Trent Severn Waterway. “I am not as knowledgeable in this area so I often turn to [fellow counterperson] Chris Mallon who is very knowledgeable on marine. What’s nice here is that because there are five of us on the counter, chances are very good that one of us will have heard of the part the customer is looking for. It’s not just about computers and catalogues. It’s also years of building up personal knowledge that we share with our customers,” says Forrester.

“With the diversity of our team, they all have their unique knowledge base. In Vicky’s case, she has become versed in health and safety and we focus on that with our customer base. She has really revved up her knowledge in this area and she passes this information along to our customers, because they are facing the same issues and concerns with the Ministry of Labour. It provides good sales opportunities and improves rapport as she provides a kind of consulting service to those clients who want to utilize her expertise in this area,” adds Van Kessel.

Even though she still has several catalogues filed under her desk for quick reference, Forrester says she has seen a great deal of change in the six years that she has worked as a counterperson. “I will use the catalogues occasionally as a resource tool, for pictures and sometimes listings in the computer are not the same so you can go to your hard copy for reference. But now we have online catalogues. I always have several Internet windows open at the same time – and luckily, I am good at multitasking because I can be flipping back and forth between a lot of screens. While the technology does give us easier access to more information, it also means we do a much higher volume of work in less time,” explains Forrester.

Dealing with difficult-to-find parts or just customers who happen to be difficult, is where Forrester’s people skills really shine. “First off, there is nothing I can’t handle. But with some customers I find the information isn’t always there. The first time you talk to them it’s a ’95, and the next time it’s a 2005. They don’t always give you the right information, but the customer is always right so I just say, ‘Sorry, I must have looked that up under the wrong year, let me try again, or let’s see what looks different about that part if it didn’t fit right the first time,’” explains Forrester.

“When a customer calls me with something I don’t know, I will ask them what it does, where it is located on the vehicle, because depending what they tell me, it could be something totally different than what my computer calls it or the dealer calls it. I ask those questions so when I pick up the phone and call the dealer I can tell them, then we can cross-reference it back. I like to get the VIN, if not on the first call definitely on the second call. It’s a matter of doing the legwork for them. We do our best to have them get the part through us,” she adds.

“Vicky always goes that extra mile for the customer,” adds Susan Peacock, co-owner of Parry Automotive. “I think a really important factor too is how she handles herself and carries everything through. Working with and for family, they are all so professional with each other, you could write a textbook on how they treat each other with respect. With her father being her manager and working with other members of her family, it is a testament to her character as well,” adds Van Kessel.

“Vicky handles all my day-to-day parts ordering. I find her knowledgeable, efficient, and always pleasant to deal with. She always goes beyond my expectations. I think of her like an employee of mine because she works so hard for me every day,” says Mike Madill of Extreme Automotive Services.

“She has always been eager to learn. She likes to do everything herself,” says Vicky’s uncle, Al Forrester.

“She will come back here in the machine shop and ask me how to do something, then she will do it herself. She is a quick learner and has said she would love to work in the shop sometime. And when a customer asks for something really odd, she will dig right in and go to any lengths to find the part they are looking for. Not many would put that kind of effort into something like that,” he adds.

“No, but the Forresters do,” adds Peacock.

Handling the full spectrum of customer personalities and ensuring the outcome is always positive can take a warehouse-full of people skills that few have at their disposal. Vicky Forrester is definitely a member of this elite group.

“Four years ago, there were a lot of customers who intimidated me. Today, they are my best customers. It just took a little time to figure out the best way to approach them. For instance, some customers want you to yell at them, while others you have to handle with kid gloves and be very careful what you say. The last thing you want to do is offend them. And then you have the fun customers who like to joke around,” explains Forrester.

“Vicky’s people skills are incredible. She definitely knows how to talk to people and she is great with really difficult customers. I watch her at work and think how amazing she is when handling a particularly difficult customer,” says accounts manager Tiffany McEachern.

In addition to handling the daily challenges of her job with aplomb, Vicky Forrester also faced a challenging health issue earlier this year.

She was diagnosed with a form of lung cancer early in 2012, but due to her tenacity and dedication, she insisted on coming to work while going through many weeks of extensive chemotherapy.

“They were able to catch it before it hit my lungs, but I had to go for both chemo and radiation treatments. The chemo was first. Every three weeks I had to go in and take a week off to recuperate, and Susan and Steve let me come back into work so I would come back in between treatments,” explains Forrester.

“I couldn’t believe how dedicated she was coming in here every day. She made everybody very comfortable. You know, you don’t always know how someone is feeling, but Vicky would come and be very open about it and very positive,” adds Peacock.

The day she went with her dad to find out the diagnosis, she came right back to work without skipping a beat. “The truth be told, I could have used the day off after that news, but Vicky was determined not to let it interfere with her job – or her baseball,” says Wayne Forrester, smiling.

“Working helped me stay focused on my job and my family, rather than sitting at home feeling sorry for myself,” Vicky continues. “It really helps to keep your life normal rather than being turned upside down.”

“Vicky continued to come in and work as if nothing was different. The inspiration and motivation that she provided her co-workers cannot be explained in words. She is a shining example of strength and courage while asking nothing in return,” adds Van Kessel.

Vicky has also participated in numerous Cancer Charity events in the Orillia area and successfully raised both donations and awareness to help beat this terrible disease.

After nearly a year of treatments, Forrester has been cancer-free for three months. “My son has been my rock through all of this. It teaches you to be strong when you have someone to be strong for,” adds Forrester.

Looking to the future of the parts business, Forrester feels confident in her skillset, but has some reservations about the future.

“I’m strong on multitasking, so computer-wise I have strong knowledge and skills, but as technology progresses in cars, I can’t help but wonder how much need there will be down the road. There are so many new vehicles coming out that they say won’t need as many parts and they won’t need them as often. That aspect is a little worrisome from my perspective,” says Forrester.

“That’s one of the reasons why our focus has been on diversification here as well,” adds Van Kessel. “There is always a need for stuff and we have the infrastructure to sell stuff.”

Parry Automotive is a diversified jobber selling automotive, marine, agriculture, and industrial components. “Twenty years ago people were having the exact same conversations about progress in vehicles, but we have yet to see flying cars. For example, spark plugs last several years now, but when you do sell them it’s no longer $2 a plug; it’s a $14 item. So it’s relative to the natural growth and evolution of the market,” adds Peacock.

“Access to knowledge through the computer and the Internet is phenomenal. When you can’t find the part in the catalogue or electronic catalogue, you’re looking at websites to find the part or you are Googling to find the information you need. The Internet gives us so much access to information to learn from and gain more product knowledge than ever before,” explains Forrester.

Not that many years ago, counter staff relied on years of experience and manufacturer-sponsored courses to keep up to date on new products. Today, all this knowledge is at their fingertips. With the proliferation in part numbers and the speed at which customers expect to have their parts in hand, the skillset of a counterperson has changed. Customer service is now at the top of the list, followed closely by strong computer multitasking skills – those, and a never-quit attitude to hunt down and secure that obscure part. Vicky Forrester is a shining example of this new breed.

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