Beyond the BEEP!

May 14, 2010

The retail tire and service “sales counter” is the most exciting, challenging and rewarding place in the industry. It’s where decisions are made; it’s the contact point, the final link in the automotive aftermarket chain.

Engineers design, manufacturers build, distributors move stuff around, but the retailer delivers the goods to the consumer, the end user. Nobody really gets paid until the consumer makes a purchase.

As a retailer, you play an all-important role in delivering the goods and services, and the “sales staff” at the “sales counter” is where it all happens — or not!

The sales staff at the sales counter is critical. Selecting from a wide range, almost endless array of products and possibilities, the sales staff must recommend the right combination of tires and services to repair or maintain the consumers’ growing, changing, and increasingly sophisticated vehicles.

Communicating the right repairs or recommending the right tire requires skill and knowledge; we call this “counter intelligence.”

Counter intelligence is a combination of preparation, training, access to information, genuine concern, follow-through and communication. In the coming months we will discuss the specifics of counter intelligence, and the various tools needed to execute at the counter because if it doesn’t work at the counter, it doesn’t work!

Unlike much of the retail environment today, in which the sales counter is a check-out stand disguised as a customer service area; and customers line up with hand-picked, self-service items over which store associates do little more than run an optical scanner over the bar code (“BEEP!”) as the customers stand by (watching their totals rise), the activities surrounding the automotive aftermarket retail sales counter require skill and intelligence. Meaningful interaction between the counterman and consumer is necessary; it should go beyond the “BEEP.” It requires counter intelligence.


Adjusting attitudes

Consumers often arrive at your store with vehicle concerns and needs of which they are unsure or unaware. They arrive with a level of skepticism due to their lack of mechanical or automotive knowledge, and it is mixed with some level of distrust based on negative reports about our industry. As a result, the sales staff is presented with a great challenge and a great opportunity.

The key to overcoming consumer skepticism and capturing the opportunity is counter intelligence: accurate, timely and professional information presented in a trusting manner.

I’ve been in the tire and auto repair business for nearly 40 years. I began my career with Parnelli Jones Firestone first working on the wholesale side of the business, and later the retail side. Over the years, I have observed that the most successful stores were “optimized” at the sales counter.

The salespeople were friendly, trained, knowledgeable, prepared, motivated and confident, and they earned the customers’ trust! In every case, the sales counter was like poetry in motion. There was energy there, as well as attentiveness to the customer. In this environment, filled with high levels of engagement and communication, the proper presentation of information establishes trust between customers and the sales staff. If the trust is not established, customers may purchase, but they are unlikely to return and reward you with their future business.

How many times have we heard the story of someone who required service, only to find out that a simple, no-charge adjustment was made, and they became lifetime customers? That was the day trust was established. They not only rewarded you with their business, but also began to refer you to their friends, family and associates.

I coined a phrase years ago that I have used hundreds of times in many settings, and believe wholeheartedly: “Communication is 85% of everything. The rest is presentation.”


What’s to come

In the months ahead, I hope to present opportunities and solutions in the context of our “Counter intelligence” department that will impact your business and assist you and your team in providing even higher levels of customer service and profitability. Some future titles and topics include:

• “Winners win at the counter: key traits of sales/service champions”;

• “What’s a hang and turn? Speaking the customers’ language”;

• “I wish my gross profit would go up — intelligent merchandising for greater gross profits.”

Until next month, remember: If it doesn’t work at the counter, it doesn’t work!    ■

Wayne Williams is president of ExSell Marketing Inc., a “counter intelligence” firm based in La Habra, Calif.