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Connecting with Customers: A Day in the Life of an Outside Salesman

By Michael Freeze

The world of the outside sales rep is far more than just making sales. It's about developing relationships.

It's early morning on a late-spring Friday in Mentor, OH. The day, at first, is cool, but will later turn hot and muggy. The coffee is hot to the sip, the newspaper is still folded, not yet read and the gas tank in Bob Broadman's car is full. Bob, who is an outside salesman representing a handful of Pat Young Service Co. Federated parts stores, prepares for the day in typical fashion. He goes over his list of customers, makes small-talk with his fellow employees at the Federated parts store and repeatedly keeps an open eye and attentive ear to his cell phone, which will be active throughout the day.

Of course, the countermen manning the store give him light-hearted, but frequent, playful jabs.

"Looks like it's finally getting warm outside, Bob. What golf course are you heading to today? Don't want to miss that tee time," jokes one of the countermen. "Hide your golf bag in the trunk - that's some good thinking there," chides another.

It's all good natured fun, and Bob knows he's not doing his job if the guys in the store start ignoring him.

Anyone in sales knows that relationships are often the difference between making and breaking the deal. For outside salespeople like Bob, it's no different. It's his job to stay in front of the shop owner, reminding him of promotions, new lines and services. But more importantly, Bob is a relationship steward, cultivating them with humor, advice and often a compassionate ear.

Turning the ignition key, Bob again runs through his list, making sure his promotional material is squared away.

The first stop is Heisley Tire & Brake, an established multi-bay auto repair center with a reputation for high-quality work and good customer service.

Bob meets with shop-owner Ralph Gamber in the lobby. Ralph runs the day-to-day operations and this Friday is as characteristically chaotic as any.

Ralph talks to one of the techs about positioning a sensor in a Chrysler, as Bob makes his early morning salutation.

"Hey Bob, did you know the airbags in Chryslers have powdered rocket fuel?" quizzes Ralph, right after hellos are traded. Like most shop owners, Ralph seems to be very talented at multi-tasking. Bob waits for the appropriate time to begin his pitch; Ralph alternates between talking to customers and employees, moving effortlessly among them. Eventually, Bob wins Ralph's full attention, and Bob moves full speed ahead with a causal, but informative presentation.

After a few minutes, the pitch is over and the sales call morphs into a regular chat.

"Mechanics are the most abused people (in the industry)," preaches Ralph. "It's not all me, me, me - it's a team effort in this industry; it's hard work."

Ralph and Bob converse about various issues affecting their industry. This isn't idle talk, though, and Bob closely listens to his customer, mentally noting his complaints and needs. Often, the best ideas come out of these side conversations.

"We called a dealership with a VIN on a dual-wheel Chevy lookup for a fuel pump," explains Ralph. "There's two different style pumps. If you put the wrong one in, it won't last, but they both fit and look the same. The guy on the phone told me the (pump code) "P" was the same as the "T." They're not; they are different."

"The only way to know (which pump is correct) is to have the proper VIN lookup and the dealership won't give that to us. We're handcuffed."

Ralph and Bob talk about other shop issues before they are interrupted by the Snap-on driver making his regular visit. Bob wishes Ralph well, and he's on his way to the next call.The next stop is ESS Automotive, a shop in one of the many business parks in the next town. At the desk is one of the owners, Richard Skotniski. Like Ralph, he is a seasoned multi-tasker, handling customers and the books with ease.

Bob gives him his pitch and Richard listens intently. The conversation between the two is straight and to the point - no small talk, but still relaxed.

"If there was one thing you could say to your parts suppliers, what would it be?" Bob asks."We need to have localized training for the technicians," responds Richard.

"In this area, there are a lot of businesses that sell parts. Our technicians work all day. For them to get off work and drive an hour and a half to a training session, that just doesn't work out."

Bob counters, "We have local training, and it's not expensive at all."

Bob explains the details and how Federated invests in its educational programs. For an outside salesman like Bob, it's just another way to add value for his customers.

The next shop to visit is Lim-o-Tec, a limousine repair service in the nearby town of Willowick. Fleet repairers like Lim-o-Tec deal with a different type of customer, and Bob is given an education on the concerns for the average limo owner.

"When you have a simple Town Car (limo)," explains shop owner Mike Urda, "they eat ball joints and control arms. The suspension is not designed for the weight. We have limos coming in twice a year to get ball joints. And they go through brakes like crazy all 'stop and go'"

Mike goes on to explain the cutthroat nature of the limousine business. The majority of his customers that come in for repairs are dealing with their own bottom lines. For Mike, reliability and availability are important factors in running his shop - and choosing his parts sources.

"That limousine sitting in the shop is not making any money for its owner," says Mike. "Take for example, a Hummer limo. Maybe the owner is paying $2,000 on it every month. If that Hummer is here and broken down and we can't get the parts, the customer says, 'You cost me a lot.' So for us and our customers, the parts have to be right the first time."

After an early afternoon chicken Philly sandwich lunch at the local eatery, Muldoon's Saloon, a re-energized Bob looks on his list to see where the next sales call will take him.

He is soon on his way to RTS Service Center. Bob Smith owns RTS and is a veteran mechanic. He's also known Bob for many years, and they enjoy a friendly relationship.

As soon as the two men meet, they waste no time making wise-cracks at each other.

"Are you going to that event this weekend?" Smith asks.

"No," replies Bob.

"Good. Then I'm going for sure," quips Smith.

Smith is a "matter-of-fact" person and a straight shooter to customers. He expects the same from his parts suppliers. As with any shop owner, he is always playing tug-of-war with the dealerships in an effort to get parts.

"Dealing with the dealerships and getting parts is a hassle," says Smith.

Smith and his son, who also works at the shop, are in the middle of some software improvements for the computers in the shop. Bob walks around with Smith until they reach the shop's inventory room. As Bob looks around to survey the parts in stock, Smith mentions his parts sourcing strategy. He tells him how he has been burned in the past from unreliable suppliers and promotions that didn't really appeal to him. He likes to order parts from Bob, but he stays cautious about putting all of his eggs in one basket.

"Everyone gets the piece of the pie," says Smith. "But Federated gets the big piece." Bob smiles.

The last stop of the day is Lake Shore Automotive, a fairly new shop on the outskirts of Cleveland. Steve Miller and Kurt Gyorki are typical shop owners - they were sick of working for other people who didn't share their passion of fixing cars. So, they opened their service facility, and it's been busy every since.

Bob zigzags his way in between the soon-to-be serviced cars in front of the bay doors to meet the two men, who currently have their heads buried in a car working diligently. Kurt greets him and Bob proceeds with his sales pitch.

"I source parts from about 8 to 12 different places," says Kurt as he is goes through a mental list of parts he has ordered. He's had particular success with a recently ordered set of pads.

"I've had no comebacks on those," he says.

"No squealing, either," adds Steve as he pops his head out from under the hood to chime in.

"We like to be honest with our customers," says Kurt. "Most of the time, our business comes from word of mouth."

"We were busy when we first opened the garage door," says Steve as he turns a wrench. "We can't clean this shop because we're so busy."

Business is good - so good, in fact, that the pair is already about to add an addition to the two-bay shop they currently operate. Kurt takes Bob on an informal tour of the unfinished bays.Bob asks if they will hire another tech. Kurt replies proudly, "A good tech can work three lifts."

Bob leaves some sales literature with the two shop owners and he is on his way back to the Federated store to call it a day.

As he is drives back to where he started the morning, he recalls the times when not every client he had was as friendly.

"There was this one guy. He was a chronic complainer," says Bob. "He would say 'I waited 45 minutes for this water pump and you didn't even send the clamps and the hoses.' And just when I thought this guy was coming up for air, 'And another thing'"

After two years of bending over backwards, Bob decided it wasn't worth the trouble dealing with those types.

Another type he tries to avoid, oddly enough, are the ones who talk badly about Bob's competition.

"When customers come up to me and say that my competitor is an idiot and has cheated him, the red flags go up," he says. "You really don't want that business. I may not like my competitor, but he's not a thief. "

Bob finally pulls into the parking lot of the parts store, parks and grabs his notebook and sales material and heads inside. The counterpeople there will probably joke and ask how many balls he lost on the golf course. But as Bob's job as an outside sales guy goes, the deals are not made on the fairway; they're made in the shop garage with the grease still fresh on the invoice.

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