All too often, watching a televised pro football game becomes the sole distraction from an otherwise cold, dreary winter weekend. Starting with the initial kick-off, I review the lofty personal goals that I had set for the year. At about half-time, I get around to thinking about the professional goals that I must achieve to keep paying the bills. Near the last two-minute warning, I think of all the people who I need to help me achieve those personal and professional goals. This isn’t a matter of priorities, mind you, but a matter of the reflective process.
Suffice to say that today’s auto service business climate has become one in which constant challenge dominates all of our planning and activities. Just as a quarterback tries to force a fourth-quarter touchdown play from the five-yard line, shop operators like me often find themselves forcing a fourth-quarter play that will result in a profitable and happy year’s ending for all involved.
But forcing fourth-down plays usually isn’t a new sleight-of-hand tactic on the quarterback’s part. Instead, any winning play must involve all eleven players on the field, with some blocking, some faking a play and some running into the end zone to catch the deciding pass. In the end, the deciding factor is the accuracy of the quarterback’s pass and the deftness of the receiver’s catch. Without those two critical factors in play, the automotive service game will become just another day on that great calendar of events we call the automotive aftermarket.
As a shop owner, I imagine that my game title would best fall under the definition of quarterback. Without my organization and direction, my service enterprise will fail. Without playing the ball forward, the game would simply stall, perhaps on the twenty-yard line and maybe even on the fifty. In either case, the ball would fall well short of the yardage needed to make it a profitable day.
Each day I practice my marketing game by trying to attract good customers who appreciate and are willing to pay for good automotive service. Each day, I devise ways to provide a faster, more accurate evaluation of the owner’s needs and the vehicle’s problems. I juggle the numbers to see if the collective efforts contained in my playbook result in a set of winning numbers. If those efforts don’t result in winning numbers, then my jobber loses, as does his warehouse, his suppliers and ultimately, his manufacturers of automotive parts.
As you might suspect, the receiver/counterperson is the most important player in any winning game. The receiver, after all, must be able to maneuver freely through a field of opposition. The counterperson must be able to catch the ball and run it into the end zone despite the uncompromising drum beat of the time clock and the fury of opposing bodies flinging themselves at him.
The receiver’s job is becoming more complex each year because the playbook is becoming larger and industry rules keep changing. Despite a decal listing of a diesel-powered Ford Excursion as having a federal or 49-state emissions calibration, we may find, for example, that Ford managed a mid-year hardware conversion to conform to a California calibration. So we discover that we need to order parts, not for a federal engine, but for a California engine.
As for changing the rules, simple acts like helping a customer change his battery can result in a large repair bill for re-programming his car’s radio or re-initializing his car’s anti-theft system. Sure, the counterperson was just trying to help, but on the other hand, he or she should have known better. For the unwary and uneducated, our world has become amazingly complex and often unfriendly.
And then there’s old technology. I had a 1992 Ford Taurus come into the shop this summer with a faulty engine computer. Because the owner had dabbled with installing salvage yard computers, life in the end zone became more complicated. The first-down play consisted of my counterperson discovering that, among all of the computers listed for a 1992 Taurus, this was the rarest and the least available. The second-down play was discovering whether the Taurus had the correct computer installed in the first place. Third-down was finding the emissions calibration number, which according to my counterperson’s research, consisted of a paper decal attached to the doorpost of the driver’s side rear door. Fourth-down my counterperson discovers at the last minute that a reman computer can be shipped within days from an out-of-state source. Here again, the winning points were made, not through luck, but through sheer perseverance.
So, in the analogy of the football game, my perception of the star counterperson is as simple as it is complex. Simple, in the sense that the counterperson is the one who ultimately catches the touchdown pass in the game of parts sales. It’s complex in the sense that the counterperson is an amalgam of talents dedicated to the art and science of moving the auto repair ball forward each and every day without fail.
A star counterperson must be a quick learner to keep pace with modern technology. He or she must be a student of not only my business, but all of the businesses served by their automotive jobber. Only my counterperson, for example, knows that I prefer the premium brand and that my shop supplies go on a different account number than my resale parts.
To be a star player, a counterperson must also possess a combination of perspicacity, tenacity and audacity. Perspicacity is valuable because an excellent counterperson must often work beyond that with which they have been provided. Only the star counterperson would discover, for example, that my Ford Excursion had undergone a mid-year hardware change and that the part numbers ordered no longer apply.
Tenacity is self-explanatory because it’s all too easy to report back that, “we don’t have that part in our product line.” Tenacity doesn’t take no for an answer and tenacity often locates another source for the part or product in question.
Unlike perspicacity and tenacity, audacity often comes into play when it’s necessary to tell the quarterback that he’s calling the wrong play. Unlike many in my trade, I don’t mind it when a counterperson tells me I’m wrong. It’s a trait I admire and it’s a trait that has led me to become a better technician and shop owner.
Do these traits cover it all? In most cases, the answer is yes. But, in my playbook, humor rules the day.
THE GREAT ANTI-FRICTION ADDITIVE
To illustrate, most of us know that not every fourth-down pass results in a touchdown play. Sometimes the pass gets blocked and sometimes the receiver gets knocked out of the end zone. Cataloging errors, misplaced freight shipments, incorrectly boxed parts and other numerous unpredictable happenings in this business can cause mild stress at the very best and extreme frustration and anger at the very worst.
The greatest antidote to the vicissitudes of the wholesale parts business is a marvelous sense of humor. After all, the aftermarket parts ball game is just a ball game — mistakes happen, but they’re not life-and-death issues. Humor is therefore, the greatest of anti-friction additives in the daily grind of business life.
A sense of humor takes all of the day’s misadventures and places them in perspective of the greater happiness that we all strive for.
Without intelligence, perspicacity, tenacity, audacity and a great sense of humor, the star counterperson becomes just another clerk working in just another auto parts store — and “game day” becomes just another day in the great calendar of events we call the automotive aftermarket.