Two customer types — the ‘want to’ or the ‘has to’

Jan. 1, 2020
Working behind a parts counter will bring you in contact with all kinds of people, from the DIYer to the professional.

Working behind a parts counter will bring you in contact with all kinds of people, from the DIYer to the professional. Because of this, it’s often the counterman’s job to determine what the customer really needs and to provide guidance on how to fill those needs. Because every customer and every sale is different, you need to listen carefully and avoid jumping to quick conclusions. There is one judgment, however, that can be made right from the very start.

I’ve come to believe there are only two absolute categories of customers, and everyone who walks through my door will fit into one or the other. The first category is people who want to be in the store, either to keep their vehicle in good working order or perhaps to modify it to better suit their needs. The second category is people who have to be in the store because their vehicle is broken and they have to spend money just to regain what they had.

The automobile is an indispensable part of our lives, so it’s not surprising when people feel that anything interfering with their motoring experience is more than just a mere annoyance. The automotive service and parts industry is, for lack of a nicer term, one that lives off the misfortune of others. If their car breaks down or is involved in a collision, the average person will need some form of professional help, either from a qualified technician or a knowledgeable parts person. The customer who wants to be in your store knows that cars break down, but proper care and preventive maintenance will minimize the cost and inconvenience. The customer who has to be in your store is much more likely to be the type that either pays little attention to the vehicle until it’s too late, or is just too plain cheap to fix it until, of course, it stops. When this happens, the “has to” customer often looks for someone else to blame for the inconvenience and expense of having to fix their vehicle. And they also appear to have a problem with trust.

It seems like no matter how hard the automotive service industry tries to police itself and polish its image, there will always be people who just don’t trust us. There are certainly some shady operators out there, but we’re not all that way. (TV investigative reporting “stings” usually catch many of those guys anyway.) We also have to deal with attitudes produced by urban legends such as the guy who invented the 100 mpg carburetor and sold the patents to a big oil company, which then locked it away so they could sell more gas. Some think the entire automotive industry is in on the scam. The parts stores are not immune from this attitude either; everyone knows we buy for pennies and sell for dollars, that’s why we’re all rich.

I probably don’t get any more than my share of these “has to” customers, and I’ll bet some of my installer customers can tell stories that would make me cringe, but it doesn’t make the “has to” any easier to deal with. Part of this attitude is driven by market competition, like when the customer reads your competitor’s sales flier, and in print almost too small to see, the words “as low as” appear next to those $6.99 brake pads. Just once I’d like to tell one of these guys that they really can save a lot of money by making their own brakes out of old cardboard and white glue, but that’s just not good salesmanship. I can only imagine that somewhere back in the 1800s one of his ancestors went around town complaining about that crook, the village blacksmith and wagon maker, after his horse went lame and the wheels fell off his carriage.

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

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