That's what Loop Road Auto Parts in Raleigh, N.C., has done for the past few years, sending out short surveys to local service centers to get input about their parts supply needs. As reported in the February 2006 issue of Aftermarket Business ("An epiphany leads to wholesale success," cover story), Loop Road co-owner Ed Chappell soon found that the surveys provided insights as to what his business really should and should not keep in stock, among other insights.
Paul Morro is Loop Road's outside sales representative, but he has the unusual distinction of being the sales representative for Carolina Motor Parts, which is across Raleigh on the north end. He's actually president of The Morro Group, a sales consulting firm whose two clients keep him busy.
"I've sold since dirt," jokes Morro, who has also spent time in his career as an ASE-certified technician and a counterman. "In fact, I used to call on both stores as a warehouse representative. But I've had this split arrangement for about four years now — neither store could really afford a full-time salesperson, but wanted a dedicated person in place — and it works well. They're two different markets and there's a tremendous amount of trust."
What makes a successful distributor/service center relationship? While there is no guaranteed recipe for success, here are five basic tenets to follow to ensure you at least get started on the right track when calling on or delivering to an account.
1. Be supportive. Morro recalls the day his outlook changed from traditional hard-selling to a partnership with clients. He was attending a seminar for shop owners, but found the message of "your job is to reduce the stress of car repair for car owners" applicable to his line of work. "It's an added-value approach: My job is to reduce the stress of getting the right parts to them quickly," he explains. "It may be corny, but if you approach it that way, the parts sales will come."
2. Offer training. Morro teases that what seems to be a benevolent gesture of offering classes or helping pay fees for training for service center customers is actually quite self-serving. "If I make them a better business," he says, "they're going to be in business longer and therefore be around as a customer."
Terry Wynter, owner of Terry Wynter Auto Service Center in Fort Myers, Fla., agrees. "The shops doing training are doing well, while the ones not staying on top of training are falling by the wayside," he says. "They may have one or two bays, but they're just not growing."
Wyatt Harrington, service manager for Denver-based Addison Auto Center, says he appreciates his distributors' training efforts. "They'll e-mail me with what classes they're offering or what else is coming up locally, and with my hectic schedule, it's basically doing the research for me," he explains.
Wynter cautions that the concept of training goes both ways, however. He worries about the trend of an aging industry — where 20-somethings looking to get into the automotive world are opting for computers and marketing over parts sales and vehicle repair.
"There's a definite need for good counter experience," he says, adding that his hope is more stores start taking the new generation under their wing and have them "learn everything they can."
"My average technician is about 45," he says of his 20-bay, Blue Seal-certified shop. "But I've hired a couple of techs in their 20s to train them in the business."
Morro notes that management training is just as important as the technical curriculum. "It's a tool that never goes out of style and doesn't depreciate," he says. "Free hats and calendars don't buy loyalty. Helping build a service center's business does."
3. Be honest. Hank Bejian, owner of NAPA Auto Parts in Ann Arbor, Mich., remembers a service center with a technician who returned items on almost a daily basis. He decided to print out all the offender's receipts from a 30-day period and called the garage owner to meet over a cup of coffee.
When the owner sat down, Bejian stood up, his 6-foot, 4-inch frame no match for the 25 connected pages that spilled to the ground.
"I told him these were like this every month," he says, adding that the man was none too happy and left in a huff. "I got concerned because he didn't buy from me for a week. But then he came back. Now he is one of my best customers. He's 100 percent supportive that I took a chance and even did him a favor by pointing out an employee who needed better training."
Bejian notes that "it's attitude more than anything else" when it comes to tackling problems with shops or addressing concerns. "I've seen jobbers call a customer about a return and rant and rave. Where is that going to get them? The shops are trying to be successful, too."
Morro says it's important for garage owners to have technicians who are on top of the technical side, so the owners can focus on growing the business. It dovetails with his two stores' strategy of offering management training: "We try to get the owners away from the wrench and onto the business side of things." Even a morale-booster like a "customer appreciation day," for which Morro's stores will defray half the costs for their select customers, adds to raising the level of professionalism a shop gains as it becomes more business-savvy. Wynter notes that honesty and respect is a two-way street. "We believe in building relationships, even with the parts driver; if we have pizza around, for example, we make sure he's going to get a slice," he says.
4. Get to the point. "The distributors I use sell me the things I need," Harrington says. "They don't spend 20 or 30 minutes explaining to me stuff that I won't use. They take five minutes and then go away. No offense, but I don't have the time."
Harrington is quick to add that he knows cold calls are a part of business and has made a few himself during his career. However, for a shop his size — nine bays and an alignment rack — "a two-to five-minute presentation is preferable to 20 to 30 minutes," he says. "Otherwise, call and make an appointment."
Wynter agrees. "Changes come fast in the industry, and there are always new diagnostic equipment and parts lines coming out," he says. "We want to know about it, but we also have limited time to spend."
Harrington notes that during a cold call, he expects the representative to anticipate the question, "Why should I buy from you?" If he or she cannot demonstrate the company's benefits over the competition, he says, he's not interested.
"I'd say the biggest benefit I have in my relationship with sales reps is that they stop in my office once a week to pick up returns, say hi and see if we have any concerns or anything," he continues. "They'll also e-mail me about training. And since I'm ordering online, while technically they're my 'salesmen,' they're not really selling to me very often."
Morro makes every effort to use his customers' time wisely. In fact, he often does the part look-ups for them and keeps track of their co-op accounts. "We partner with Bumper to Bumper and Parts Depot, and we just see it as an added service," he says. "I just have them save their receipts for tax time and we take care of the rest."
And as for cold calls, Morro stays efficient. "I want to know their business, not how much they're currently paying for oil filters," he says. "When I cold call, I ask how many bays are there? What's your labor inventory this week and how much was billed out? This gives me a pretty good idea of their needs."
5. Deliver with speed and accuracy. "When you sell me a part, I want to know two things: Is it in stock, and how soon can you get it to my door?" says Wynter. Because his shop averages about 55 cars daily, he requires a 15-minute turnaround time. "If it's not here in 15 minutes, my parts manager will call and give them another five to seven minutes," he says. "But there's no reason to wait an hour on a spark plug, for example."
Wynter admits the need for speed is the main reason he deals with nationally branded distributors. "The mom-and-pop stores that have one driver on the road can't get it to me quickly."
Harrington says he's willing to wait for a quality part, but points out that the clientele of his shop, which began more than 20 years ago as a Saab repair garage, understands that.
"A quick turnaround is taken into account, but I don't want to do the same job twice, either," he says. "If it's a $2 part, I don't want to replace it six months later. And I've learned to tell who I can and can't buy from and what lines I should and should not use."
Harrington adds that the upside to just-in-time delivery online, and even still over the phone in some cases, is that he doesn't have to keep a lot of on-hand inventory. "I used to have between $30,000 and $50,000 of stuff on the shelf," he says. "Now I can get items in so quickly that we just keep between $17,000 and $20,000 in inventory."
Morro, who counts as his four offices his home, his Lexus, a "chair and a desk" at one store and a "chair and a file folder" at the other, says that even in this age of nameless, faceless technology, his customers respond positively to personal interaction. And Morro, who recently won the Independent Garage Owners of North Carolina (IGONC) President's Award, continues his crusade in getting shops to become more business savvy. "It'd be a whole lot easier to keep my mouth and heart shut, but I can't," he quips.