Stop leaving millions on the table

Guest editorial
Ian Coburn, President and Director of Learning, GPA Training Inc.

This article was published in the August 2019 edition of NTEA News.

If I were to call in the middle of the night to say one of your staff was drilling a hole in a part that’s going to fit on a vehicle, using a drill bit they estimate to be the correct size instead of the precise laser you’ve established, what would you do? Or, suppose an employee was directing customers to attach your parts or upfits by hammering away at a screwdriver, instead of using a ratchet with the proper socket. How would you react? In both cases, you’d probably scream into your pillow, jump out of bed and make a mad dash to correct these atrocities. This is because we have structured, measured procedures to install and utilize specifically-sized products. We diligently train our teams in both product knowledge and procedures, and would never allow staff to interact with customers before receiving proper training.

And yet, every day, we do just that — we send our teams out in the world, engaging in numerous activities with customers, without providing them any training.

The commercial vehicle community demands the best, most widely available hard (technical) skills, training and processes that exist. But, what about soft skills? What is our process and language for answering the phone? Even more fundamental, what’s the objective when answering the phone? To be polite? No; actually, it’s to control the conversation. What’s our procedure for transferring calls that guarantees we connect with the right party, and, if applicable, the customer leaves a voicemail 100% of the time? When a customer asks a question, how do we get beyond it to identify and answer their real question? What about objection handling? What techniques do we teach, and which should be used when?

How much do you budget for your CRM, DMS, marketing, product development and expense accounts? What about staff development? If you’re like most businesses in the industry, you can answer the earlier questions, but the last one (i.e., outside funds a dealer might budget for service techs) could befuddle you. Yet, if I ask, “What is your most valuable asset?”, again, like most in the industry, you’ll answer, “my people.” Even though we recognize people as our most valuable asset, we often do not consider developing their soft skills (those that enable them to maximize success for themselves and us), which are transferrable to any product or industry.

It’s not a malicious or even intentional practice. It occurs because we, too, tend to be overlooked when it comes to soft skills training that would benefit us (such as workforce planning, team management and organizational development). Talent, organizational training and learning development are multi-billion-dollar industries, which have all but ignored the work truck industry. 

In part because training industries have ignored us, some erroneously believe soft skills can’t be taught; rather, our employees either have them or they don’t. It’s a skill we must hire, or staff will develop on their own as they do the job. But, do we really want customers to be test subjects for staff development?

Take objection handling. Any time I’ve been to a product training — I’ve been to many — whether conducted by a supplier, OE, distributor or other entity, there has always been one objection from an attendee. One and just one. Why?

  • When the objection occurs, the trainer (usually the regional sales representative) is unable to rebut it; instead, acknowledging it then quickly transitioning to another topic.
  • As the trainer can’t provide a satisfactory answer to the objection, the other attendees simply don’t raise their objections.

Attendees then leave the event without the knowledge, and thus confidence, to routinely sell the trained product to customers.

One highly effective objection-handling technique is Bring the Customer with You.

  1. Acknowledge the customer practice/statement by repeating or paraphrasing it
  2. Get permission to ask a question
  3. Ask your question without waiting for permission
  4. Repeat these steps until you bring customers to the conclusion that’s best for them

An amazing result of soft skills acumen is it enhances problem-solving ability. Consider a distributor that had been losing business to a local NAPA. After participating in training that included Bring the Customer with You, here’s what happened.

Objection at the distributor’s training: “Whatever parts you sell that I can buy from NAPA, I do. It’s a pain to drive back and forth 10 miles, but it’s faster than waiting for you guys to ship them. We can’t stock them because we’re just a satellite location for our dealer group, so we hardly have any storage space.”

Instead of his commonly-given previous answer, “Yeah, I understand — that happens,” the distributor representative replied as outlined in the chart below.

After the meeting, the representative met with several dealers who had this challenge. With a little elbow grease, ingenuity and company permission, a few weeks later, he was stocking the more common parts these dealers bought from NAPA nearby in rented storage space. The cost was nominal, while the sales amounted to an additional $4,000–$6,000 monthly per dealer.

If you decide to add soft skills to your staff acumen, make sure to utilize a comprehensive program. It does little good for employees to be able to schedule appointments but not close, or be tremendous prospectors who can’t manage their time. Even if you start with only one or two topics, use a program that enables you to expand on those skills later.

When we don’t provide soft skills to our staff, we leave millions on the table. Develop your staff, and pick up those millions.

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