Article > Opinion

What makes someone a true automotive aftermarket parts professional?

By Gerald Wheelus

What is a true parts pro? It depends on whom you might ask.
Gerald Wheelus

What is a true parts pro? It depends on whom you might ask. If you ask an outsider to our chosen profession, then you will get a different answer than what the veterans of the business will give. Also, if you were to ask the person using this profession as a go-between until something better comes along, you’ll  likely get a different answer, too.

A true parts pro would likely say this:

•We need a vast knowledge of automobiles and the components that run them from front to back.
•We must understand the customers’ needs and how to assist them.

•We must understand aspects of our business that have nothing to do with an automobile such as farm tractors.
•We likely have to know something about four-wheelers and motorcycles.

So how do we learn all that we need to know? It takes time and more important than time, it takes dedication to the profession. A veteran will tell you that someone who walks in off the street and is hired will simply be overwhelmed by the amount of need-to-know information. Let’s face it: This job is not as easy as many of us make it look.

“Professional” often is reserved for doctors, lawyers and pro athletes. We as parts professionals tend to overlook the amount of schooling (on-the-job or otherwise) we have had to attain the status of professionals. Many of us have taken a lifetime to learn and study, and re-learn and study to the point we can consider ourselves a true professional. I found a dictionary definition of “professional”:

1 a : of, relating to, or characteristic of a profession b: engaged in one of the learned professions c (1) : characterized by or conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession (2) : exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.

The definition does not say anything about having been to college for any length of time. It says simply taking on the character of conforming to the technical or ethical standards of a profession. We don’t have to concern ourselves with how many schools we have attended or even how many years we have spent behind the counter or even how many years we have lived on earth. Our consideration as a true parts professional has to do with ourselves and our dedication to the business.

Anyone can come in off the streets and look up parts. But the attitude that you take in doing this becomes the question as to whether you are a true parts professional or not. Dedication and attitude are the two things that we veterans cannot teach the new employee. If this is just another job to a person then that is all it will be. If the only things someone cares about are payday and quitting time, they will be like others who run to the back and pretend to be on the phone with a customer while someone else deals with the hard stuff. If this is the case, you’ll never be satisfied in the parts world.

Both dedication and attitude mean a lot to a true parts professional. We’re required to know lots of things as discussed before, but we don’t need to understand all aspects of everything that come across our counter. There’s an old adage: “People do not care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” That adage applies here.
Retail customers can be a demanding and difficult bunch, for sure. This fact isn’t likely to change. Considering this though, parts pros can often defuse a situation. Likewise, a negative condescending attitude can cause a conflict and we have all been on both sides of this.

However, attitude is something we cannot teach. The person in question, no matter who it is, must have the right attitude in order to be taught. If you have the run-to-the-back mentality, then the true parts professional cannot teach you because you do not understand the value of dedication. Dedication to our profession has to come from the person in question. Every day is a learning opportunity or adventure if you chose to take it. It is very rare for any store to not have at least one true parts professional. It makes very little difference whether you work in a big box store or the smallest of independents — someone is there who can teach.

Take the initiative to ask the questions. Stand beside a veteran and learn how to handle the tough situations. With the right attitude and dedication, you will certainly move up the ladder to management, if that’s your goal. And if you have the attitude and dedication and are willing to travel or move, then there can be many other opportunities for you. But if you are here to draw a paycheck, then that is all you will get out of it.

Gerald Wheelus is general manager of Edgewood Auto Parts, Edgewood, Texas.

  Previous Comments
avatar   Paul   star   6/16/2010   5:55 PM

Just like any other job, it's all about the Attitude. No matter how much you know, you have to be willing to learn. I worked with a guy who, when you tried to explain something, got the attitude of "I've been working on cars for years." He was 21. We had a 19 yr old come in, worked for and was given the Commerical side of the business and CRUSHED the numbers of the 'veteran' who ran it before her. Both 'newbies' but totally different Attitudes.

avatar   Mike S.   star   6/16/2010   4:16 PM


At NO time did I every say that ALL newbies were bad. I have trained several of them to become great counter people! DON'T PUT WORDS INTO MY COMMENTS!! I even started out as a newbie many moons ago. As long as we all work together for the common good of the store, that's all that matters.

P.S. You better be glad that the Censors gods didn't post my other comment that I sent yesterday. Somenone would have got his little feelings hurt.

avatar   Will   star   6/16/2010   3:58 PM

Kyle, I've been doing this for 10 years. I didn't know that much about cars except what I owned. I learned from a 30+ year veteran. I still ask questions if I'm not sure about some stuff. We can all take in and pass on the knowledge from surrounding team members. I know little about Honda/Nissan/Mitsi but we have guys that know more about those than anyone here. I know Mopar more than anyone at my store, one guy knows almost all things Ford. We question each other all the time so we can learn. I think Mike was referring to those newbies that act like they know everything. I despise those people because they think they know and that causes issues. Share what you know about Hybrid technology and jump in when an owner comes in. They'll ask for you from then on.

avatar   tony@o'reilly's   star   6/16/2010   3:52 PM

31 years in this business and i try to learn something new one is ever gonna get rich working the counter,you do it because you love it.i feel bad for the newbies because cars are changing so fast,its alot to keep up with.i think they keep me around just to deal with the pre-1990 crowd, gonna do this another 10 years and then im advice i could give the newbies is that you should listen to the customer,shut up for one second and actually listen for a change.also we have these things called books,they have words and pictures,check it out

avatar   Daniel P @ O'reilly's   star   6/16/2010   9:59 AM


The new guys are just as important as the vets. I've been in the buisness a long time and I try hard to help the newer people. There are alot of new guys that do very well and have a great deal of knowledge there are somethings that just come with time. That said I'm still learning everyday when I stop learning I need to do something different so keep an open mind. Partsmen that can keep learning keep getting better that starts as a Newbie all the way to the Vet.

avatar   Kyle's dawg   star   6/15/2010   7:18 PM

Kyle you know what you talking about, you've been doing it for 3 years.

It's a newbies that killing the business. Teens that don't know none. Not wanting to train.

Pass your knowledge on, share what you know, help newbies, It takes time, but that how real counter people get born.

avatar   Dave Elliott   star   6/15/2010   8:33 AM

Kyle, I don't think Mike was referring to you, since you seem to know what's up. With the comment of the 250V Hybrid, it tells me that you keep up with your training. You may be the True Parts Professional of your store's next generation. Us old guys aren't going to be around forever and it's folks like you who care, that have to pick up the banner. Stick to it sir. And Mike, you are correct in your statement that there are a lot of "newbies" that don't really take this job seriously. It's just a job, not a career like you and I have made it. And that's because this industry is not the "lucrative cash cow" that it could be.

avatar   Kyle   star   6/14/2010   3:31 PM


you may have been doing this for longer than ive been alive but just because your a "vet" and im a "newbie" doesnt mean i dont know what im talking about. im a counterman and have been for three years and on some things i can smoke the "vets" we have here. its people like you that make the workplace miserable for us. there is no need to stereotype young people and say we dont know what were doing. just because i dont know everything there is to know about a carburetor doesnt mean i dont know what im doing. tell me what you know about working on a 250 volt hybrid? theres no need to be sour and hateful to young people. we all have to make it out in this screwed up place we call home and lifes to short to make it tough for everyone else. so dont tell me i dont know what im doing.

avatar   Stephanie   star   6/14/2010   3:23 PM

You made a point I doubt many read...that it is rare that each store doesn't have at least one TRUE (my emphasis) parts professional. The one that knows what a donut is, WHY to replace headbolts on torque-to-yield applications, the one who knows that the reason the O2 isn't listed for that car is that it uses an air/fuel ratio sensor (Nope, it's not an O2, just really REALLY looks like one). The one that SAVES the sale!

I fight this battle all the time. I work for a wholesale only w/d and our GM believes that personality and customer service are the winning combination. He cites the sales figures of several people who are longtimers, but couldn't match a waterpump or tell you, by V.I.N., the tonnage of a truck. His proof is that their cheerful personalities make them consistently high performers. My point is "Imagine the figures they would do if they knew what the **** they were selling!" As Tim G. says, they buy from the lady that "talks nice" to them. great! Now think what she would sell if she were actually competent? Boggles the mind.

Electronic cataloging has dumbed-down the field. We supply our better customers with an online cataloging solution, but warn them that it only covers 70-80 percent of our inventory, that we have extensive niche converage and they may need to call the store for certain items not found online. I wish I could get that same point across to our higher-ups about our counterpeople. I die a little inside when I hear "They didn't make that car that year" or "We don't have any listing on that" when they only use the ecat. I know the next call that customer is making is to someone who asks for the V.I.N to verify year/engine, someone who opens a buyer's guide and identifies a part manually, etc. That's a call we'll never get back.

Open the book, take available online training, go to training classes, open boxes and LOOK at parts, ask questions.

Please....ask questions.

avatar   Matthew Vaughn @ O'Reilly Auto Parts 529   star   6/14/2010   1:36 PM

Bottom line on this article... If you want to succeed, learn all you can, be dedicated, pay attention to the true veteran professional, give your customers unrivaled service and you can have a lucrative career with a huge following. It isn't always easy, but you have to stay the course.

Ed... Hardest decision to make sometimes. You are almost damned if you do, damned if you don't.

avatar   Mike S.   star   6/14/2010   1:34 PM


Hi there, S & P!!!!!

(my nickname for him)

Daniel P.

Hi there Sgt. Dan!!!

Mike S.

avatar   Kim   star   6/14/2010   12:15 PM

Thank you Gerald! When the question came up in your last article, I wrote a list of what I thought made a treu parts professional and it's cool to see we agreed on several points! Mainly attitude and listening to the customer. Getting to know your customer's wants and needs...

Thanks for the great article!

avatar   Tim G   star   6/13/2010   9:31 AM


Getting people to ask for you (not you personally)does not necessarly mean you are the best counterman (technacal parts person anyways)but the one they like the most for whatever reason. I remember working at Tropical/Parts Depot and people asked for me and not my big partner. For some reason they just didn't like him. Here at this store they talk to the lady that "talks nice" to them. We have counterpeople with more experience here but they like her voice. She is a good counterperson but nothing special.

The best way to get you business up is by building relationships. I still have people who have called me over 20 years. They have called me at 4 different companies. Not that I am Mr Super Counterman but I don a good job and we have a personal realtionship.

avatar   Ed   star   6/12/2010   12:44 PM

Let's get down to brass tacks and be realistic, as GM or owner/co-owner, you know what truly matters, bottom line profit. Really the only variable we have to control that bottom line is staffing/payroll costs, every thing else cannot be realistically changed or changed to the dollar amount that payroll can.

So given that, Gerald, you have two candidates to hire for an open parts pro position at your store. You have a veteran, with a stellar resume, great work history in this field, ASE P2 certified, double-digit years of experience in automotive and perhaps even an associates or bachelors degree in this field. His only stipulations are full time and minimum $13/hour with the option of overtime and full benefits. Your other candidate is a young kid, eager to learn, no experience in this field other than occasional work on his own means of transportation, no certifications and maybe can't even pronounce "resume" correctly. He is only asking for $7.50/hr and part time, no benefits, willing to work weekends and holidays.

Who do you hire?


10+ years Parts Professional

avatar   Mike S.   star   6/11/2010   2:51 PM

Very well put Gerald!!!!! There are so many newbees out there now a days that think they know it all and think that us old veterens should get with the times or have out lived our usefulness. I think the main idea here is that listen to the veterens (the ones that know what they are doing) they have alot to pass on. Yes I said it. Just because you are a veteran at this doesn't necessarly state that you are an expert. There are a few vets that haven't got a clue. If you see customers flock to a certain counter person when they come in, or notice that people are always calling and asking to talk with the person. Take notice!!!!! That is a person that you need to follow and learn as much as you can. You would be suprised, the true parts professional is always willing to pass on his/her skills/traits/secrets. You just have to be willing to listen and take it all in.

Thanks for this article.

Mike S.

21+ yrs Parts Pro.

avatar   Daniel P. @ O'reilly's   star   6/11/2010   1:26 PM

Great article Gerald!

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