Counter People Distributors' â€˜Unsung Heroes'
June 25, 2007
Dave Lundberg did not mince words. “Good counter people are definitely hard to find,” admitted the territory manager for Brauer Supply Co., which has been supplying HVAC equipment and accessories for the St. Louis area, out-state Missouri, and southern Illinois for more than a century. “It takes a certain person to handle all that needs to be handled at the counter. Contractors rely on the counter person to help them with their project needs on a day-to-day basis. They have to know a lot about the industry, all the parts, and get them in and out in a timely manner. It’s a matter of trust.”
Todd Honer, who operates the counter at the small Brauer Supply branch in Swansea, Ill., smiled at the comments, knowing his boss was referring to his duties. “It is the counter guy that makes Brauer what it is,” said Honer. “Dave’s job is to get them [contractors] in. It’s my job to keep them happy. No one leaves a supply house unless they are unhappy with the service. So, I make sure to meet everyone’s needs the best I can.”
Listening to supply house owners and warehouse bosses, one could state that counter people are the unsung heroes of the HVACR industry.
“Yeah, you could say that,” answered Honer, but only after a slight hesitation. “I mean, I’m just doing my job.”
OK, add “humble” to the list of attributes a good counter person has. Most counter people approached by The NEWS during a two-day tour of HVACR distributorships, warehouses, and supply stores in the St. Louis area did not want to necessarily bask in the limelight. However, most, being courteous, did supply at least some insights into their respective career choice.
“It’s a matter of listening,” said Norm Johnson, who has been with National Sales Co. in St. Louis for 28 years. “When I go up to the counter, I think the most important thing you can do is listen. Good counter people need great listening skills to get the right stuff. It’s the same with phone orders.”
In Johnson’s case, that means knowing and locating the 39,000 or so products National Sales Co. offers. Johnson said he learned the ropes starting out in the warehouse filling orders.
“Yes, the counter person does need to be familiar with the products,” he said. “But you need to be more than just an order-taker. You need to get along with the customers and help them as best as you can. It’s all about relationships.”
LIFEBLOOD OF BUSINESSContractors seen visiting warehouses during the two-day tour certainly agreed with that last assessment. When a contractor finds a cooperative and helpful counter person, chances are she/he will stick with that helper forever.
“I always go to the same person,” confessed contractor John Paul of Paul Heating and Cooling, waiting in line to talk to Johnson. “Norm is a great guy, so I don’t mess with anyone else.”
Johnson did not let that comment go without a playful answer. “Oh, you’re just saying that because you want a price break,” he quipped, which caused both parties to laugh.
For counter people, telling a joke or two - when appropriate - does not hurt one’s cause, either. Providing a little levity during the course of a hectic pace seems to be the norm.
“You have to be a ‘people person,’” summarized Honer. “It definitely gets busy. Ninety percent of the time you have people at the counter and both phones are ringing. You definitely should not get excited. This is nothing to stress over. If you don’t have a part, you just let them know and if you can get it from some other outlet, you get it for them.”
Asked if he ever had a bad day, Honer answered, “No. When you get older, you get wiser. You don’t let the fast pace get to you.”
Pausing for a second, he added, “It is a good industry to be in. It is not going away. Everyone needs heating and cooling. I just try to do my part for the contractor.”
At nearby Edwardsville (Ill.) Winair Co., owner Jim Clark sang the praises of veteran counter person Patricia Watkins, who has been with the HVAC supplier for 16 years. Like Lundberg, Clark believes it is difficult finding and keeping good, qualified counter help.
“They must have industry knowledge and the personality to work with customers,” said Clark. “That can be a tough combination. Age has something to do with it, I think. This just doesn’t seem to fit the younger crowd, since they don’t know the industry. And, you need that knowledge to be a good counter person. The trouble is, the technology is always changing [in this industry], so you have to keep up-to-date with that, too.”
With a hint of frustration in his voice, he added, “I wish more young people would get into the field, but it doesn’t seem to be happening. Most go from wholesaler to wholesaler. They just bounce around. Many are looking for that $60,000 to $80,000 job, and you won’t necessarily get that salary being a counter person.”
Even though Watkins was too busy to talk to a reporter - customers come first, right? - Clark pointed out that his No. 1 counter person simply “provides good customer service.”
“Good customer service is the lifeblood of any business,” said Clark. “You can offer promotions and slash prices to bring in as many new customers as you want, but unless you can get some of those customers to come back, your business won’t be profitable for long.
“Good customer service is all about bringing customers back. And about sending them away happy - happy enough to pass positive feedback about your business along to others, who may then try the product or service you offer for themselves and, in their turn, become repeat customers.”
JUDGED BY WHAT YOU DOChuck Wilson, manager of the Belleville, Ill., branch of Benoist Brothers Supply Co., could not have said it better. “You have to have that sensitivity to the customers’ needs,” said Wilson. “And, the ability to think on your feet.”
Hesitating for a second, he added, “That person is hard to find.”
In his case, Wilson worked with one-time truck driver Joe Griffith, who has now moved up to be the top counter person at the Belleville branch. In Wilson’s eyes, Griffith, who has been with the company for 12 years, always had the personality for the position, which he believes is half the battle.
“You can teach what a counter person needs to know. Knowledge you can teach,” said Wilson. “However, if he does not have people skills, it’s not going to work. It’s like a contractor having a tech who knows everything, but then can’t relate to the customer. It’s the same with a counter person.”
It is as one contractor informed Wilson, “You will be judged by what you do, not what you say.”
“There’s no doubt the counter person is extremely important,” said Wilson. “I could always use more good counter people.”
Sidebar: Know Anyone?OK, contractors, let the voting begin. The NEWS wants to feature the best counter people in the HVACR industry, but we need your input. We suspect many contractors have a strong relationship with a distributor, warehouse, or supply store mainly because he/she is getting good customer service from a professional counter person. These are the ones that are capable and do fill out orders with a smile, are always courteous and fun to be around, know the industry backwards and forwards, can locate a needed part in seconds flat, and/or can get a contractor back on the road swiftly with needed material in the truck. If you’re lucky, he/she is all of the above - and more.
To nominate a counter person that deserves to be so noted in The NEWS, the following information is needed:
1. Full name of counter person;
2. Name of counter person’s place of employment;
3. City and state of counter person’s employer;
4. Phone number to counter person’s place of employment;
5. In 100 words (or however long or short you need it to be), tell us why this counter person is so noteworthy. What does this person do that impresses you? Give examples of how this counter person supplies good customer service.
6. Nominators must include their full name, correct title, employer’s name, employer’s city and state, and must supply a contact number (phone number or e-mail address) for possible follow-up purposes.
E-mail the above requested information to The NEWS senior editor Mark Skaer at email@example.com.
Publication date: 06/25/2007