My marketing education began before kindergarten, but I “officially” began working in my family’s auto parts business when I was thirteen years old.

By working in our company’s many stores over the years, I came to appreciate the business, our employees and our customers. Working on the front lines taught me much about business, customer behavior and service that, ironically, is very applicable to the white-shoe world of professional services to which I made the leap. 

The Beginning

As a kid, I was insecure, shy and deathly afraid of making mistakes. This condition made me fearful of meeting people, trying new things and actually engaging life. My fear and anxiety killed any desire to interact with customers. What made things worst, my last name was on the front of the building and I knew NOTHING about cars. Working in the store made my gut tight. Today, going to work in my family’s business is called exposure therapy.

The company had no formal training or onboarding programs. My father made me begin like my grandfather did him— sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, and stocking shelves. The fancy word is apprenticeship. I did what I was told  and tried to stay out of the way. I stood nearby as team members mixed paint, cut brake rotors and looked up parts in the catalogs. I asked questions when I felt safe and tried to retain all the answers. I would fetch parts and opened boxes to see what was inside. Little by little my understanding of automobile systems, our parts inventory and customers grew.

Although overcome by anxiety, I couldn’t wait to be a counterman looking up parts and serving customers (cleaning bathrooms got old quickly). Before too long, I was given the opportunity to wait on customers. Some were patient and understanding with the newbie, others wanted only their favorite, seasoned veteran to serve them. Others shared my ignorance and we learned together.

After a while, I got smarter about which customers would be better matched with my fears. I could tell who was mad and in a hurry; which mechanic had just had a bad interaction with a customer; who was confused; who didn’t need any help and who was just hanging out for a while.

These interactions over the years led me to the interesting conclusion that has shaped my understanding for customer service and marketing. It is this: for most people going to a parts store is like going to a funeral home—you really don’t want to be there.

A visit to the parts store meant that something was broken and you had to spend money—and sometimes lots of it—to fix an unanticipated problem. It was a problem that was throwing a wrench (no pun intended) into everyday life—getting to work, picking up kids or leaving town for the weekend. In addition to stealing time, the repair required spending money that they either didn’t have or that was earmarked for a vacation, a child’s toy or other important purchase.

Once I had this revelation, working in the stores became easier. I started assuming that every jingle of the door and phone ring was someone with a problem and a “negative” disposition. My goal became helping people through the “crisis.”

Here is what I learned and how this industry prepared me for the world of consulting and professional services marketing.

 

First, you must understand whom you are serving and their priorities. It all begins with market segmentation.

I grouped our customers into 3 simple segments.

Group 1—The Mechanics/shops/car dealers: For these customers, time was money. Turning over shop bays for mechanics is like turning tables for waiters. The key was to get the CORRECT part to the shop ASAP. Ask for all the relevant information quickly, succinctly and only once. Doing so means getting it right the first time so no time is lost on repairing the car. They demand quality parts so there are no warranty problems that require the shop to reinstall the part for free. The shops felt the brunt of the “funeral home” feeling from their clients. Mess with this model and you are messing with the shop’s revenue stream and brand.

Group 2—Walk-ins: These were the people who had a problem, but did not know exactly what it was. But, to save money, they were determined to do the work themselves. Wrought with the frustration of being late for work or dropping their kids off at school, they just wanted the car to start when they turned the key. They did not want someone insulting them or taking advantage of them because of their ignorance.

Group 3—Gearheads: This was the one rare group who loved coming in the store. These were the people who tore down and rebuilt cars from the ground up. It was a passion. It was about getting more horsepower for a dragster or more heads turned for a classic. It was all about joy and upside. Gearheads bring in doughnuts, beer and deer sausage and stay for hours talking and perusing. They are loyal. They special ordered chrome, four-barrel, super-charged manifolds, lift kits and limited edition anything. They LOVE talking cars and SHARING knowledge.

My childhood segmentation revelation is not brilliant. Any first year business student learns about marketing segmentation and addressing clients needs. While it is a simple concept, it seldom gets executed. Professional services firms think of markets and buyer needs only in the simplest demographic terms like industry, geography, size and function. Taking the time to identify what is beneath those apparent needs creates growth opportunities and can differentiate firms.

Second, people do not want to be seen as ignorant. Don’t treat them as if they are.

They most certainly do not want their ignorance to be taken advantage of.   Many of our walk-in customers were successful doctors, teachers and businessmen. While they may not be able to diagnose an ignition system or tell the difference between disc and drum brakes, they were intelligent in their own rights. They deserve to be treated as such. David Maister wrote a brilliant chapter entitled, “How Clients Choose,” in his seminal book, Managing the Professional Services Firm. Read it. If you want to internalize this lesson, be mindful of your feelings the next time you take your car in for a repair and the cost, number of parts and time exceed your understanding and expectations.

Third, you don’t need a Harvard M.B.A. or even a college education to be a thought leader.

I was one of four people in our company with a 4-year degree. Many of the people working the counters in our stores had high school educations or GEDs. But, the knowledge they possessed was every bit as hard-earned as a college business education. The depth and breadth of knowledge required to diagnose, identify and locate a part for a customer is extraordinary. Automotive systems (drivetrains, electrical, chassis, etc.) are incredibly complex akin to a human body. Mix in a century of car manufacturing, global supply chains and manufacturers from GM to BMW to Kia to Delorean, with hundreds of models like Corvettes, 525s, Pacers and Edsels. You can calculate the possible number of permutations and problems. It takes decades to acquire that level of knowledge.

Don’t get hung up on school pedigrees and don’t believe a piece of paper is a singular reflection of intelligence or learning. I’ll take a person reading thirty books a year over a University of Chicago graduate who has not read a book in five years.

Fourth, a part store can’t carry everything in its inventory. Neither can a services firm. Stay focused and true to your ideal clients and people.

An old-time counterman in one of our stores took a $10 bill out of his wallet and placed it on a store shelve. “Jeff, imagine all these part boxes are bills. We only make money when one goes out the door. Right part at the right time.”   Message received.

A part store has roughly 125,000 SKUs and an inventory value of $500,000+. The inventory turns 4.3 times a year at a gross margin of 37%. To maximize ROI, given parts proliferation and carrying cost, stores have to make choices. What customer segments will they serve? How will they position their brand (independent, co-op or national brand affiliation). What product lines will they carry? What pricing structure will they use?

It’s crass, but consultants/accountants/lawyers are just like carburetors. They are the firm’s inventory for sale. Payroll, benefits, training and office space are the inventory cost. Utilization and hourly rate are the key metrics. You can’t carry everything and you only make money when one of those “$10 bills” serves a client. Firms need to align core capabilities, growth opportunities and brand relevance to drive strategic growth. Misalignment creates convulsions for the firm and in peoples’ lives. The best firms create strong, healthy cultures.  Be conscious of the fact, that while no one calls a person a carburetor, we often treat them as such. 

Takeaway

I could write a book on the relevant and transferable lessons from my time in my family’s stores. I will leave it at this:

  • In our business, we are dealing with human beings with fears and complex motivational drivers that may be different from our own. We must be mindful of our own fears and motivations and not exploit others. Instead of “selling” them something, let’s help them through the “crisis” or feed their passion.
  • Be humble and recognize that a college degree doesn’t make you superior because knowledge comes in many different packages.
  • Life and strategy are about choices. Not choosing is a choice and has consequential costs—and benefits, which is why we often choose to remain in limbo.
  • Prudent choices and healthy metrics can be the difference between winning and losing.

Finally, if you are willing to expose yourself to a position that scares the hell out of you, listen and sincerely try to help, you might actually learn something that makes you, your life and the lives of others better.

Be prudent.

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