Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2006   by Andrew Ross, Publisher and Edito

Listen Up

There is a joke that I sometimes tell when I have someone cornered at an event.

“A jobber is meeting with his accountant who brings his attention to his problematic profitability,” the joke goes. “‘I’m particularly concerned about your receivables,’ says the accountant. ‘They’re way long and looking like they’re not ever going to come in. You know, you just can’t afford to carry these guys.'”

Says the jobber: “I know what you mean. These guys never pay. I’d cut them off, but I can’t afford to lose the customer.”

I’m sure that if someone else were to tell it, it would probably even elicit a laugh or two. The thing is, though, it’s not really a joke. While the specific words put the joke firmly into the realm of the apocryphal, it is based on real conversations that I have had with people in this and other industries (which is only to say that the aftermarket doesn’t have the monopoly on ridiculous decisions).

But yes, I still think it’s a funny joke when applied to this industry because it cuts to the core of so many issues: the way you relate to your customers; where the power is in a business relationship; the management skills of the service provider; the account management skills of the salesperson; your profitability; and last but not least, fear of loss.

All are key motivators in any business relationship. If you dealt only with top-notch business managers who understood their market, and their contact person at your company had a perfect understanding of their needs and desires, and that was all guaranteed to retain that customer’s business, life would be wonderful.

Of course, I’d be down one joke on an already very short list, but there’s probably very little danger of that in this case.

Which brings me to the point. It is my belief that for the aftermarket to move forward on so many nagging profitability issues, it is going to require more than a few mirthful icebreakers.

A troubling trend that I have noticed over the past while is that far too many of you, yes you, are quick to judge how others are running their businesses, and equally quick to start telling them how they should do things differently. Nobody is blameless here. Over the past few years I have sat and listened to at least as many presentations as anyone, and more than a few “breakout sessions” at the bar afterward.

While the perspectives have changed depending on an individual’s position in the supply chain, the basic sentiment has remained the same: my problem is that the other guy ought to run his business better. I am taking pains in writing this to separate the idle griping to which we are all prone from the real criticism that is so prevalent. Nor am I suggesting that we can’t learn from those who have studied the issues.

But everybody, it seems, thinks they are experts in everybody else’s business. Nothing will drive a wedge between you and your customer faster than that attitude.

And if there is anything we need now more than ever it is some solidarity in this industry.

So, what I am proposing is that we, all of us, sit down together at tables across the country and start listening to each other. Talk about what you need for your business, not what you need from others. Resist the temptation to offer immediate suggestions when you hear a concern.

It’s actually harder than it sounds, since most of us focus so much of our energies on solving problems every day. Don’t try to save the day, or come to a resolution, at least not right away. Shut up and build an understanding instead.

Listening first and talking next is something that used to happen all the time. Somewhere along the way, that habit got lost. It’s time we picked it up again.


Along with a host of information to help your business, we profile the 2006 Jobber of the Year. Stay tuned . . .

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