WHOLESALE: Quick turnaround's the key
We live in a society of instant gratification, and that attitude is highly visible in the automotive repair industry — people want their cars back ASAP so they can return to their busy lifestyle. As part of the supply chain, wholesalers also feel that pressure.
"If you don't have it in stock, you don't sell it — unless it's a brand new part," laments Bob Roth, store manager for Smothers Auto Parts and Performance Accessories in Santa Rosa, Calif. "They want things right away. It's a challenge, because you need to keep some parts on hand that are 30 years old and some that are only for today's cars."
John Hernan, marketing and customer service manager for Madison, Wis.-based PBE Jobbers Warehouse, agrees. "The No. 1 thing I notice is taking care of the customer's needs in a timely fashion. But a lot of companies in the industry are too understaffed to take care of people quickly," he adds.
Hernan believes that a well-trained staff is the key to efficient parts delivery. Even better, morale stays high and turnover stays low, he says. Despite having four offices covering 22 states, PBE has had virtually no turnover.
"We try to bring people from the bottom up," he explains. "Everyone has worked every job here."
Roth says customers appreciate both a knowledgeable and honest approach, one that makes them feel like their needs are being met.
"Listening, knowledge and honesty are all equally important, I think," he continues. "However, knowledge alone only gets you so far. Customers don't want to feel like they're being preached to, so you have to listen to what they say.
"You also need to be honest: Don't sell them what they don't want."
Another customer service function that ranks high on wholesalers' lists is anticipating customer needs.
Abbey Zap, co-owner of Greyhound Performance Parts, Boca Raton, Fla., notes that in 18 years, her company has gone from primarily selling mufflers and catalytic converters (under its previous name, Greyhound Auto Parts) to more recently narrowing its focus on performance parts.
"We sell to performance, repair and muffler shops, and the performance industry seems to be taking over the traditional muffler shop services," she explains, adding that much of her business is done online these days. "They do repairs, brakes — many more things than just mufflers because cars are coming out with higher quality and longer warranties."
Zap also says that building rapport with customers is important. A pleasant demeanor ensures repeat business, and makes the job less stressful for both parties.
"You should enjoy working with them and they should enjoy working with you," she concludes. "Not every phone call should be boring!"
RETAIL: Be knowledgeable, hospitable
On the retail side, savvy stores realize that the average walk-in customer is frazzled and wants an immediate end to his or her vehicle's performance problem. If you anticipate customers' needs and make them feel as if you've assisted in resolving their problems, you're more likely to get their repeat business.
"It's about relationship and loyalty," says Michelle Galzin, parts counter sales associate for Action Auto Parts, Providence, R.I. "We try to be friendly and helpful as soon as you walk through the door. If we have a bad day, we don't show it; if they have a bad day, we want to help them out."
Ralph Oard, a parts specialist with Vintage Auto Parts/Streamline Hot Rod in Denver, agrees that a friendly attitude goes far — regardless of whether the customer has to fix a vehicle immediately or is just browsing for accessories.
"The most important thing is to listen to them," he adds. "Then we can find out exactly what they're going after."
John Rodgers, a sales associate at Compton Auto Parts in Martinsville, Va., says it's important to be knowledgeable and willing to go the extra mile for customers.
"One common example for us is having someone walk in and say, 'I just got a new battery and it's bad,'" he continues. "Rather than just sell them a new battery, we go get our charging system and test it in the parking lot, because a lot of times it ends up being a bad alternator."
Galzin points out that being an independent store competing for business with some large brand names on the same road has made building a loyal following that much more important.
"We try to reward loyalty," she says. "We give them calendars, pens and discount coupons."
Adds Galzin: "We give them 5 percent off if they join our mailing list. Basically, we try to make them want to come back."
Rodgers says another way to keep the customer relationship strong is to have what they need.
"Inventory management is so important. If we are out of something or don't carry an item, we ring it up in our system as a lost sale. Then we review those lost sales every couple of weeks," he explains. "If we see that we're missing out on something regularly, we know it's time to stock it."
One recent example was an unusual class of car battery.
"We kept a min/max of 1/1, and we sold that one unit in the morning," Rodgers recalls. "For some reason, we had three other customers walk in and want it that very day. So we missed three sales on it."
Needless to say, Rodgers adds, his store quickly replenished the product.