For 2019 Counter Professional of the Year Pete Chapman, the key to his success at Car Parts Warehouse (CPW) boils down to one principle: If you want to grow your business, you have to “grow your relationships.”
Cultivating customer relationships is more of an art than a science. It starts with outstanding customer service, of course. But it’s also about the little things – like making sure customers know that you value their business. And Chapman could teach a course on customer appreciation.
Chapman, who has been the manager of CPW’s Warrensville Heights, Ohio, facility since it opened in 2012, goes out to dinner with customers, and invites them to his home when he and his wife, Laura, are hosting a get-together. During the holidays, he sends dozens of Christmas cards to his customers, and delivers personalized gifts to his top accounts. Over the years, he has hosted a Christmas Eve fish fry at CPW’s Warrensville Heights facility, where he and Laura cook 40 to 50 pounds of catfish for his commercial and DIY customers.
Saying “thank you” to customers is a familiar practice for Chapman. His father, Elvin, owned a repair shop in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Growing up, Chapman remembers how parts suppliers would send gifts to his dad – ranging from confections to Indy 500 tickets.
“And I just saw the way that the different parts stores and vendors took care of him,” Chapman says. “They weren’t buying him. They were telling him ‘thanks.’”
For Tony Wiederhoeft, an outside salesperson for the Auto Value stores in Mankato and Waseca, Minnesota, customer appreciation comes naturally. Like Chapman, Wiederhoeft attributes his success to the relationships he’s developed since joining Auto Value in 2019. In March 2021, Automotive Parts Headquarters (APH) recognized Wiederhoeft as the 2020 Auto Value Salesperson of the Year.
“Once you build a relationship with [your customers], everything just kind of clicks,” Wiederhoeft says.
Depending on the day, Wiederhoeft might visit a handful of shops or he might make it to 15 or more shops. No matter how many calls he makes, Wiederhoeft has embedded customer appreciation into his routine.
“Sometimes, if they need a car pushed in, I’ll end up helping push a car in,” Wiederhoeft says. “Or if it’s a one-man shop and they need somebody to bleed the brakes, I might sit in the car and bleed the brakes.
“The way I look at it, I work for them and I work for Auto Value. … They’re more than customers – they’re friends, they’re family. I’m not there just to sell them something. I’m there for them.”
Wiederhoeft credits his employer, APH, for fostering the family atmosphere. On any given day in a normal summer, you’ll find one of APH’s events trailers setting up shop in one of its markets, grilling hot dogs and hamburgers for the local technicians. In the smaller communities where APH does business, “word gets around and we pretty much feed the community,” adds Jim Pascale, APH’s vice president of store operations.
On especially hot summer days, APH delivery drivers bring ice-cold bottled water and even ice-cream treats to its professional customers.
Saint Cloud, Minnesota-based APH celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020. To commemorate its centennial, APH had planned a number of customer-appreciation events throughout the year. The centerpiece of the yearlong celebration was going to be its 1952 International Metro delivery truck, which was completely restored and ready to deliver 100,000 ice cream treats to customers across APH’s six-state market. While the pandemic forced APH to scale back its in-person events in 2020, the Metro delivery truck hit the road the following summer.
In September 2021, Wiederhoeft got behind the wheel of the vintage delivery truck to delight some of his customers. Of course, he made a point to visit his top accounts. But he also swung by a few shops “that I don’t do a lot of business with.”
“I drove that ice-cream truck all day,” Wiederhoeft recalls. “We put some serious miles on it. I was in five towns in one day, and they loved it.
“ … We opened up the side panel and everybody from the shop would come out. Some of them are looking at the vehicle, some are enjoying the ice cream, some are signing up for prizes. But I didn’t have anybody say, ‘I don’t have time for that.’ Every single one of them came out to check it out.”
How do you build strong relationships with your customers? It’s not complicated. You have to spend time with them and get to know them, Wiederhoeft explains.
“They tend to open up more to you when you open up to them,” Wiederhoeft says. “So I’ll buy them pizza or donuts or whatever, and sit down and just hang out with them.”
By spending time with his customers, Wiederhoeft gets a good feel for their hobbies and interests. He takes some of his shops hunting and fishing. In August, he took some of his customers to the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals drag races at Brainerd International Raceway, after receiving tickets for being the 2020 Auto Value Salesperson of the Year.
“Instead of just taking my family, I also took a couple of my customers,” Wiederhoeft says. “They had the best time of their life, and we’re going to go back no matter what this year.”
For one of his top customers, the event was his first drag race. “He was like, ‘Dude, we have to go back.’ He wants to bring a couple other people and make a whole weekend out of it this year. It’s the little things like that, I think, that make a world of difference.”