How to Handle Walk-In Customers in the Parts Department

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How to Handle Walk-In Customers in the Parts Department
A parts manager in Michigan learned that empowering employees helped his staff handle urgent situations more smoothly.

For years, Varsity Ford boasted a rock-solid reputation, known as one of the top sellers of new vehicles in America.

But, by 2013, fissars had developed at the high-volume dealership in Ann Arbor, Mich., with regard to its fixed operations. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to see a technician getting noticeably aggravated with the parts department, due to shaky inventory records that caused delays in the repair process.

“There was a lot of that when I got here,” recalls fifth-year parts manager Nate Brewer. “There were a lot of errors. Let’s say somebody sold a brake job; the DMS showed two rotors in stock, and then they went to the shelf and they wouldn’t be there.

“So that was a huge roadblock—and that was really making the technicians angry, and the service writers angry.

“And, it kind of divided the dealership.”

Brewer had taken over a department that, all too often, couldn’t track down parts quick enough, such as when walk-in customers arrived in the service department. But he was confident that, if he cleaned up the facility’s inventory documentation, it would boost efficiency to ideal levels.

And, in the process, rebuild the parts employees’ standing in the eyes of their co-workers in the service drive.

“We don’t ever try to hold anybody up,” Brewer explains, “because the more they sell, the more we sell, you know?”


The Waiting Game

When he took over as parts manager back in October 2013, Brewer received a fairly cold reception from the dealership’s service employees. But, in retrospect, they had some legitimate gripes.

Technicians would often have a vehicle disassembled and ready to repair, only to find out that necessary parts weren’t adequately stocked. And Brewer’s predecessor as parts manager had no qualms about causing an additional day’s delay on repairs; he preferred to make virtually all orders like usual—through Ford—and had a short temper for those who had other plans. Thus, walk-in customers, or those who preferred to wait around in the service area, weren’t always made a priority.

As a result, a rift was torn in fixed operations.

“The service department, instead of looking to the parts department as a business partner, they looked at them as someone that was against them,” Brewer recalls.

So Brewer had his first big assignment: essentially, to unify all fixed operations employees.

“It took probably a year to change the culture,” he says.


Springing to Action

Back in 2013, Brewer took over a parts department that, in many respects, was on solid ground, with an inventory of $680,000. Yet, he wanted his department to work far more cohesively with colleagues in service and collision repair departments.

So, he utilized a multi-pronged approach. Key implementations included:

Increasing quality of inventory. Dealing with walk-in business, in particular, starts with the caliber of a parts department inventory, Brewer says. If you have inaccurate inventory records, it’s likely to irritate coworkers and cause repair delays.

So, five years ago, Brewer made sure to stock fast-moving, general maintenance parts—like wiper blades, air filters, fuel filters, shocks and struts—close to his back counter, so they were especially easy to keep tabs on.

“That cuts down on wait time as my people are pulling parts for the technician,” he notes.

Mastering the DMS. Brewer has become quite proficient with regard to Varsity Ford’s Reynolds and Reynolds dealer management system. That fact has had a trickle-down effect that aids departmental efficiency.

“As a manager, it’s your job to become an expert on the DMS,” he says. “You have to learn how to set it up … so that you can effectively manage your inventory in a timely fashion.”

That can help keep stocking levels ideal, he adds, as a parts manager closely monitors how certain parts are selling over the course of, say, 90-day timeframes.

Growing the Inventory and Resources. “Once you have a good, healthy inventory with depth and breadth of part numbers,” Brewer says, “then you can focus more on [parts] that you don’t have, and how are you going to get them fast enough to keep the service department moving.”

If a customer requests a rare part, Brewer will typically track it down by calling factory-authorized distributors, checking parts websites, or even conferring with other area dealerships.

Streamlining Processes. In recent years, Brewer has made a couple key tweaks in his parts department’s procedures. For starters, when oil change technicians venture to the parts department, they’re now given oil filters by the case, which speeds up their workflow.

Technicians now send their repair tickets electronically through their DMS, and when the ticket prints at the back counter, parts employees quickly grab it and start fulfilling the request.  

Empowering Employees. When he started in the auto industry nearly two decades ago, Brewer had a boss that entrusted him with the autonomy to take care of customers; if Brewer made a mistake, it was calmly discussed afterward. He carries that strategy with him to this day.

“My staff [is] empowered to make the same decision I’d make,” he says. “As long as it reflects us trying to take care of the customer, that’s all I can ask. … I had to get the [employees] to buy into me and feel comfortable, and know that they’re not going to get their head ripped off if they made a decision to try and help the customer.”

Eventually, all these measures helped Brewer gain the confidence of coworkers throughout fixed operations.


Breathing Easy

As time rolls on, Varsity Ford’s parts department continues to grow in multiple respects. The inventory has surged to a value of $1.5 million, and the 17 parts employees produce nearly $3 million per year in wholesale sales.

Brewer’s department has become a serious asset for a dealership that won its OEM’s President’s Award in 2017.

And, he says tensions have “dissolved” between his employees and service staffers.

“When you fix the inventory so the accuracy’s right, [service department employees] don’t

have to second guess, ‘Well, is it really in stock?’” Brewer says. “And, as I grew it and started having things they were selling on hand, allowing them to write up more customers, the more money they started to make the more they started to trust me.

“If you have a healthy parts inventory, your shop will flourish.”

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