A foot in the (back) door

Jan. 1, 2020
If you want to get ahead with your customers, slip in through the back door.
By Bob Sullivan


I grew up very close to the automotive aftermarket business. My father sold auto parts and other related automotive products for two decades in the 1960s and 1970s for Standard Parts in Canton, Ohio on the corner of High Avenue and West Tuscarawas. Then he decided he wanted to control his own destiny, and run his own shop. That’s when he joined two other friends with similar interests and set up Triple-S Auto Parts in Canton. He ran the the business for 17 years and retired in 1984.

I would occasionally help him by delivering parts to his customers or just help out in the store when I could. With all the many products he sold, I didn’t learn about specific ones like spark plugs, points, alternators or car mats, but I did learn a lot about customers, and took mental notes on how my dad, Bob Sr., handled them.

He said that to get customers and keep them –– and get in the front door — you, ironically, needed to go in the back door. He had one large customer, Kempthorn Motors that had 77 employees, and used the same strategy.

“I would always park in the back,” he said. “Then, I’d go in, and talk to the tire guy. Then I’d talk to the truck guy, then the parts manager. By the time I got to the sales manager up front, I’d have 10 or so new friends.”

But his approach of getting to know the customer didn’t stop there. It was always personal and face-to-face — the way he and his customers liked it. He built trust.

“In all my years in the business, I never had a sales manager who never wanted to see me again,” he said. “Because they realized that I knew what the guys in the back needed — an extra tool, some more supplies, and so forth. Eventually, the sales manager would always ask me, ‘What do those guys need back there?’”

But the key to his success with this method was simple: follow up.

“You make damn sure that you go back and see them next week — the same day, the same time — and keep it up as long as they were the customer,” he said.

Customers today are no different than they were 30 or 40 years ago. They have the same interests. They want service. They want it now. They want it for a fair price and they want consistency to be the common thread throughout the entire time you are their supplier. And one of the most important issues with customers, as dad knew, is trust.

“If you earned their trust you would never have a problem with them at all,” he said.

Trust is still a vital issue in dealing with customers. Yet, while customers basically have the same needs, the approach to handling them has changed dramatically. A handful of good customers was enough to sustain a good business in the 1960s and 1970s, but today, volume drives the most successful ones.

In 2004, my dad couldn’t possibly visit each of his customers, personally, every week at the same time, serve them and continue to grow his business.

But there are several high tech tools that can help a retailer or distributor meet the challenge of growing their customer base, and just as importantly, keeping their best customers.

Over the course of the next several months, we will investigate trends in dealing with customers — in the era of CRM (Customer Relationship Management) — and the new tools and techniques used to find new ones and keep the best ones.

We will find out what is replacing many of the face-to-face supplier-customer relationships that were so prevalent and successful just a couple of decades ago.

Bob Sullivan has been a CRM consultant for more than 15 years, and presently retains a client list that includes mid-market and Fortune 1000 companies. For more information on Bob and his company, InfoGrow, visit their website, www.InfoGrowCorp.com.

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