Staying focused on the customer

As a tech at a Chevrolet dealership, Joe Gruba became a Cornwell customer largely because he liked the dealer who stopped by the shop every week.

“He was the nicest old guy. I think really at that point is where I kind of wanted to become a dealer.”

Today Joe is a Cornwell dealer, working a route in the Portland, Ore. area. He has made the top 100 sellers-list almost every year he’s been in business, and he was named a Cornwell Top Dealer in 2009, only four years into his career. Although he started in the automotive service industry as a technician in 1981, it was only five years later that he began thinking about becoming a tool dealer.

“I always wanted to go into business for myself. I thought that I was too old to start a shop of my own. There were a few tool dealers that I dealt with over the years, and they treated me well (and) looked pretty successful. I kind of wanted to be that; as successful as they were.”

But at the time he had only been a technician for about 5 years, so he decided to wait; “I had some growing up to do I guess.”

Growing up meant learning about different businesses he would be serving, such as body shops and heavy-duty truck shops. Joe says that Cornwell’s own customer service department and trade magazines like Professional Distributor were helpful, but he also learned a lot about specialized tools from his customers.

One thing he didn’t need to learn was how to treat his customers.

“I conduct myself in a way I wanted to be treated, just like the dealers I did business with when I was a technician.”

Customer Service

That experience helped Joe develop his own concept of Customer Service, which he describes as what happens after he’s completed the sale.

If there’s a problem with a tool Joe has sold, he does his best to make sure the technician does not have to spend time without it. When possible, Joe will repair a tool right there on the truck so his customer doesn’t have to wait for shipping. He’s often successful, particularly with air tools and Streamlight flashlights, because he stocks a few basic spare parts.

“It's easy to put lenses in, or switches. One of a technician's biggest assets is their pocket screwdriver and a flashlight. They're lost without their pocket flashlight.”

When field repairs are not possible, Joe does his best to make sure his customer is able to keep working. “If I have to bite the bullet and take a new air tool off the shelf to give to him to use…that's the way it needs to be. It goes back to how I wanted to be treated when I was a technician.”

Another part of customer service is being there every week, and being on time. On an average day he makes 20-25 stops, but traffic, road construction and weather can cause delays. “These guys, they'll tell you when you're late, even when you're 15 minutes, 20 minutes late.”

Although he recognizes the advantages of visiting large dealerships with many techs, Joe says about 70 percent of his 200 regular customers work at “ma-and-pa shops.” He likes doing business with small shops because when there are only three or four techs at a particular stop, he gets to know each of them better, which makes it a more pleasant experience and easier to keep track of the money. Joe said his turns average only three to four weeks, and he credits that success to thinking about his own experience as a customer.

“You get somebody mad at you, and they're more likely to not pay you. That goes back to the dealers when I was a technician. You can't jump up and down and scream if they don't have that $30 that week,” explained Joe. “But you try to ask them to help you out and have it next week. I don't know, it's just been happening for me. I feel really fortunate about it.”

Product Mix

Joe reports that his best-selling tools are flashlights, cordless electric power tools and air tools, specifically half-inch drive air impact and three-eights drive cordless impact wrenches.

“I sell a lot of these Makita combo packs…tool carts have always been a good sell too. The new (models) started off real strong…I've been buying them in packages of three.”

When asked about diagnostic or other specialty tools, Joe said he keeps an eye on his market. “You kind of get an idea of who's doing what out there. You know, what they're into. The gadget guy, that's who you go searching for if you want to sell the new stuff.”

Often he’ll lend out a new piece of test equipment to get a customer’s opinion on its usefulness. “It kind of helps you sell it (to other customers) too.”

Joe says that learning what other dealers are selling, through magazines like this one, is also a big help because much of any dealer’s on-board inventory is slow-moving stuff. “ I think a guy works mainly about 30 percent of his inventory. A lot of (the rest) is just stuff you've got to have. (There are always) warranty issues (and) that guy who hasn't bought the extra-long set of wrenches yet…Lights are big… worklights and flashlights. Lighting is huge.”

Joe also spurs business with incentive packages, like raffle tickets for a flat-screen TV at Christmas time or for hunting gear in the fall. Sometimes the incentives are offered with a purchase, or sometimes they are awarded for making a big payment on an outstanding account, depending on what he thinks his business needs at the time. “Do I need to bring some money back in, or do I need to put some money back out. It's kind of a fine line.”

Company promotions help too, because it gets customers to notice and talk about a particular tool.

Joe also recognizes the importance of searching for new opportunities and new products. “Somebody's always doing something that you're not that's a good idea. You've got to keep your ears open and find out other possibilities and other ways of doing stuff.”

“Product knowledge is another huge tool (for selling). I think that's one of my biggest downfalls. I don't (always) know enough about a piece of equipment to actually sell it to the customer. So whenever I get a chance to learn about it, I take that opportunity and go with it,” says Joe. “Take for instance, scan tools. I’ll pick a scan tool (and) try to know the best on (that) one tool: Know it's capabilities, what it can and can't do.”

In the end though, Joe still feels that helping his customer is the most important part of his success in this business.

“Just being there. Keep the service end of it up. Try to keep the truck stocked. Always ask for the sale (if) somebody's hemming and hawing. Before they leave the truck, ask ‘do you want me to order that for you?’ if you don't have it. You'd be surprised how many people say ‘yeah, go ahead’ rather than just taking it for granted that you can’t get it.”

That’s not just selling tools, it’s making sure your customer gets what they need, and that they get it from you.





Top 5 Tools

  1. Streamlight products
  2. Air tools
  3. Hardline tools (wrenches, etc)
  4. Cordless electric tools
  5. Knives