Have we seen the death of the traveling salesman?

Jan. 1, 2020
Have you heard the one about the traveling salesman? Jokes like that used to be pretty common, but so did salespeople who spent their time on the road.

Have you heard the one about the traveling salesman? Jokes like that used to be pretty common, but so did salespeople who spent their time on the road.

In the days before mass advertising campaigns and coast-to-coast electronic media, a good salesperson was the only way a manufacturer or retailer could get the word out. Times have changed, and not only do we have radio and TV, but the Internet is making great inroads into the way we buy things, auto parts included.

The benefits are obvious to both consumers and suppliers. The technician customer can tell what's in stock, determine pricing and arrange delivery with a few clicks of a mouse. Counterpeople are then freed up from handling price and availability calls and are able to concentrate on other tasks, such as processing orders. What's missing from this scenario, however, is the personal attention. Since this is as much a business of personality as it is of technical and service concerns, the all-important human aspect, if it is to be maintained, has to be increasingly shouldered by an outside sales force.

I've dealt with a lot of salespeople over the years, both as a co-worker and as a customer when I worked on the OEM side. It's interesting that some of the best ones had little or no real technical knowledge as far as the inner workings of an automobile, but they had excellent product knowledge and even better people skills.

Expecting to get a smart reply back, I made a joking comment to our current outside salesperson that he's nothing more than an order taker who gets to ride around all day. Instead he agreed with me: he is just an order taker. But before he got to that point, he had to be able to sell himself. And now, in addition to selling himself, he's selling me and every other employee in the company when he visits customers.

Aside from the delivery driver, the salesperson might be the only one from your store to have any face-to-face contact with some customers. It's puzzling when I learn from factory reps that they plan to downsize their sales force and expand territories or refer any problems to a national call center. The need for personalized service doesn't end at the counter; it goes on up the chain to the top.

It wasn't all that long ago that every corner service station stocked items like spark plugs, breaker points and filters, and in a lot of cases an outside salesperson from the local jobber store was responsible for maintaining that inventory. The cost and depth of inventory needed have taken their toll on stocking dealers so that what was once the salesperson's bread and butter is now spread pretty thin. Couple this with an abundance of parts dealers offering hot-shot delivery, and you might think the era of the traveling salesperson is dead; in reality, he's just pushing a slightly different product.

In the days of the old corner service station, often times the image that they projected was that of the oil dealer. Since most oil dealers now sell more candy bars and milk than auto service, the service provider not only had to find a new shop, but also create their own image.

This is now being done in partnership with parts suppliers, and the person who can get in there and sell themselves on behalf of your company will undoubtedly sell a lot more than any website or order taker can.

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