What are some of the most common weaknesses of aftermarket parts sales staff, and how can you work to correct them? Find out in this Q&A with Chuck Udell, senior partner of Essential Action Design Group, Leawood, Kan., management consultants specializing in heavy-duty and automotive aftermarket operations.

Aftermarket Journal: What are some of the common problems you see when you do ride-alongs with salespeople and other diagnostic work with clients?

Udell: So many aftermarket people don't make a good sales call. To me the most serious problems are two fold:

1. They don't have a real reason to call on an account except a stock check, a weekly visit or to drop off a flyer.

2. They're not good at asking good questions to try to uncover a specific need; they're not uncovering points of pain. Every business, I'm convinced, every shop, there's something they can do better. And they have hurt points, and the job of a salesperson is to find those.

On the other hand, we do see some very good salespeople that are focused, they know exactly what they're going after, they know what their accounts are carrying, they ask good questions -- They have a game plan to go in there.

What does a distributor need to do?

Udell: You really have to figure out what the problem is. So often, an inside trainer or a consultant gets a call saying, 'Our sales guys aren't closing well, we need some training.' But is that the real problem?

Why aren't they closing well? Is the problem that these people don't know how to close, or is it the fact they don't know how to uncover needs so they can close?

You've got to do the diagnostics. And that takes time. And that's one of the hardest challenges for people in our industry to realize, they've got to spend some time investigating and really make sure they understand, what is the problem, what is the issue, before they can come up with a prescription for it.

How do you diagnose the problem?

Udell: You don't have to use an outside person. An outside person is good because we're not there every day; we're not going to get lost in the can't see the forest for the trees. But you can use an inside person.

You manage by walking around, a lot of times. In a store, you walk around the store. With a salesperson, you may have to ride around.

At the same time you may want to have someone else observe. You watch not just once, but if you do it a number of times. It's one thing for someone to really fake it and do really well if they're being watched one time. If you do it more often, things are going to crop up.

So often, you drive up to an account with a salesperson and you ask them, 'What are you going to do today?' and the answer is, 'I'm going to check stock.'

Is that really a sales call or is that a customer service call? And is that a wise use of that expensive resource which is the outside saleperson?

20 years ago, I came from a consumer pharmaceutical world, the company I worked for had a sales force that called on the retail store, then they had another sales force that all they did was go around to the retail outlets and kind of check stock, arrange things. I have not yet seen that in our industry.

How do you teach people to sell by helping customers solve problems?

Udell: It may be something like question techniques. You don't have to have a formal training class on question techniques. It can be the manager riding with the salesperson, observing, and either encouraging and reinforcing by saying this one was good, or saying, 'This is where I think it would have made sense to ask them this question, so you can really bring out where their hurt point is and how our solution is going to solve the problem.'

How can salespeople identify the accounts with the most potential?

Udell: There are various formulas you can use to determine what an account's potential sales are.

Say you look at Larry's Truckstop, and based on some factors at that shop, potential sales could be $10,000 a month. Yet you thought you were doing good because you sold them $2,500 a month. They're buying their stuff from somewhere.

Now let's focus on what they're buying and what they're not buying from you. How do you find that out? A lot of times it's observation and listening.

A good salesperson is going to have the rapport with not only the shop owner, the shop foreman, but also the techs, and hopefully they're spending time out in the bays, and they can see what's out there, what kind of boxtops are out there. If I'm a Vipar HD distributor, am I looking at stuff from HDA Truck Pride?

You identify what lines they're buying from you and what they're not. Then you can say, maybe I have an opportunity here.

I understand you have a new tool to help.

Udell: My partner, Tom Easton, came up with a new software tool, SPOTS: the Sales Potential Opportunity Tracking System.

You can think of it as an electronic file cabinet. You can put in all sorts of information on the account - how many units they have, what products are they buying from you, what are they buying from which competitors, and all this points to identifying opportunities so when you call on an account, you're focused.

The other thing SPOTS does it tracks an identified opportunity through every milestone, every step toward a win. It keeps multiple opportunities at multiple fleets on track through the entire sales and negotiation process.

That sets up the opportunity part of it. The system will walk a salesperson though what to ask for, how to identify the reasons they're not buying from you and the reasons they should buy from you.

How does a manager follow up?

Udell: Let's say you find that in doing your diagnostic work that the issue is that they don't know how to do it. So maybe training is a solution. Where I've seen so many companies fall short here, they'll do a nice job getting someone to do the training, but here's what happens.

The training class happens, they're done, and that's it.

And then nothing changes.

Then the distributor is left saying, 'I just wasted all those dollars.'

This is not just our industry, it's a universal problem. Management has got to be involved, so the behavior that is being taught is reinforced on the job. If they don't apply what they learned, what happens? Nothing.

Who's the most critical person in this training process? That's the trainee's manager, not the instructor or the participant, because the manager's the one who has to monitor, encourage, reinforce and hopefully reward the new behavior being demonstrated by the learner.

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