Our job is part psychology, part 'parts'

Jan. 1, 2020
Mike Gordon realizes his permanent residence behind a parts counter is more than a strictly technical one.

When I first took up permanent residence behind a parts counter, I considered my job to be a strictly technical one. I come from a family of mechanics, both automotive and aviation, and the knowledge I gained from that exposure certainly helped in my new career. Knowing what I was being asked for, what the part did and what else might be required gave me the confidence to jump in with both feet and feel like I was on top of my job.

Looking back, I can say that it helped that it was in the era of cars built without a whole lot of modern electronic sophistication, just a few rudimentary emission controls and a carburetor. I also spent some time at an American Motors/Jeep dealership and I believe that too was an extreme advantage to my current position.

At that time, most dealerships were not as dependent on parts and service departments for their economic survival as they are today. I was part of a two-man parts department that did 80 percent of its business with a seven-man service department. Under these conditions, I had lots of time to hone my mechanical skills and cataloging knowledge without the added distraction of learning a lot of customer service skills.

Most of my working day was spent dealing with the same in-house technician customers. If I needed more vehicle information to find a part, I just walked over to the service bay and got it. All that changed once I got away from a captive clientele and had to not only find the correct part, but also sell it and follow through on the sale if any problems arose. It meant maintaining my customer base by keeping the customer happy. A reader responding to an earlier column told me that in addition to the technical and managerial aspects of our jobs, we also have to act as friends, psychologists and character judges as well. I’ve never thought of it in those terms but he is absolutely correct. In addition to obtaining the right part, I sometimes get subjected to the customers’ tales of woe regarding everything from how hard his job is to how little money he makes on parts markup to aspects of his personal life that I never wanted to know. It’s tempting to try and brush these things aside in the rush of a normal business day. The phones are ringing, there are other orders to attend to, and some “time thief” wants to bend your ear with stories you don’t want to hear. But as much as you don’t need the distractions, they are a part of the job and you can’t ignore them.

I’m not saying that all of the stories I hear are mindless gossip or complaints just for the sake of complaining either. You have to learn to sort out what’s real and what’s not. I guess that’s the psychologist and character judge part of the job.

What brought this all to mind was an airline flight I recently took. What should have been a 48-minute flight stretched into three and a half hours while we sat on the taxiway waiting for the weather to clear so we could take off. The aircraft was filled with tired tourists, about eight couples traveling with small children and several businessmen who had somewhere they had to be. The flight attendants did an excellent job of keeping everybody calm, even if not exactly happy, by taking the time to listen to anyone who wanted to ask a question, complain or just plain talk.

After we were airborne, I spoke to one attendant and complimented her on the way the delay was handled. She thanked me and said she had started her day at 4 a.m. in Dallas, had worked three flights already, and was supposed to go off duty by 4:30 p.m., but the delay added three more hours to an already long shift.

Thinking about that has made me wonder if maybe I didn’t get off to a wrong start in this business.

Mike Gordon, a 20-year counter sales veteran, works the counter at Sanel Auto Parts, Concord, N.H.

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