Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2008   by Andrew Ross

The Inside Story on Inside Sales

What it takes to be a Great Counterperson

There is no doubt that the world the counterperson works in is changing. But some constants remain: getting customers the parts they need quickly remains paramount.

And in a world obsessed with the Internet, where online ordering has provided a welcome relief for businesses strapped for experienced counterpeople, the telephone– 130 years old and still going strong–remains a vital connection to customers.

In fact, it might be argued that with so much of the standard ordering possible without having to speak to anyone, each phone call is now more critical than ever; a customer is calling because he needs you to do more than simply take an order.

It is certainly far from the case that customers are all online at every wholesaler and distributor, but enough of it goes on that it can be a tough transition from handling rapid-fire orders to engaging in some real fact-finding, working with the customer to solve individual supply needs.

It requires a bit of a change in mindset, but it’s as much about getting back to basics as it is about new-age thinking.

When a counterperson is expected to generate a multitude of invoices every day, it is easy to understand how some can fall into bad habits. Those bad habits can cost money, to be sure, but the real cost is in poor customer service.

One of the key reasons that even experienced counterpeople may provide less than complete customer service relates to the type of training they have received.

Those who have had meaningful, formal training in the duties and functions required of them are in the distinct minority. While many attend training sessions each year, the nature of this training–which often focuses on a specific product line of one manufacturer–can leave them wanting when it comes to such basic tasks as good telephone skills.

A truly effective inside salesperson needs an understanding of effective sales and communications skills as well as efficiency in locating the right parts. Think of product knowledge as the power supply, and communication skills as the conduit.

As an example, think about the most experienced counterperson you know. The Expert, as we’ll call him, probably knows as much about the products, specifications, and applications as any technician. But likely what makes him a great asset to the company and the technician is how he is able to provide the right amount of input for the given situation, with the right mix of friendliness and professionalism.

It is likely the case that our Expert has a loyal group of clients who ask for him by name–probably overloading him with calls from time to time.

Watch how he handles the on-hold situation.

When a customer calls, does he say, “Hold please,” and then hit the dreaded orange hold button? Or does he say, “ABC Auto Parts, Bob speaking, can I put you on hold?”

The benefit of the former is that “Bob” can get back to the original customer, but the problem is that the next caller has been summarily shuffled down the order. “Bob” doesn’t know if the caller has an extended order to place, a simple order to review, an inquiry regarding a delivery, is an upset customer, or, frankly, if it’s his mother calling to wish him a happy birthday. (Hey, it happens.)

So, here’s how a phone call should go, and an idea of about how much time it takes.

“Hello, thanks for calling ABC Auto Parts, Bob speaking. How can I help you?” (Five seconds.)

“Hi Bob, it’s Sam at Aardvark Automotive. I have a question about this order you sent.” (Five seconds).

“Sure Sam, I wonder if I can put you on hold for a second. I have a customer on the other line, or can I call you back?” (Five seconds.)

So far, he has invested 15 seconds in the call, but all the while Customer A, the one you’ve put on hold to answer this call, has been waiting. Those 15 seconds can seem like a minute; 30 seconds are like a lifetime.

That’s why you ask if you can put Customer B, Sam, on hold or call him back. You could also suggest that someone else help him if they’re free.

The key here is to make it a mutual decision. Sam may not mind waiting for you. He may be sitting in his lunchroom or office, values your counsel, and does not want to speak to someone else. On the other hand, he may be in the middle of a crisis situation requiring immediate attention.

You have to use your judgement, but in a case like that you may even want to go back to Customer A, tell him you’ve got a crisis and promise to call him back–though it had better be a pretty big one, and Customer A very understanding, before you would do that.

No doubt it is a juggling act–and that’s just in answering the phone.

Once you’re into the call, it’s critical that you maintain the same methodical approach.

Ultimately, the goal of proper telephone communication is to understand what the customer wants and what will help him perform the job best, so that you can deliver it.


Bad habits can cost money, to be sure, but the real cost is in poor customer service.

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