With their technical experience, unique proximity to the local customer base and intimate knowledge of those customers’ needs and preferences, counter sales managers play an invaluable role in the operation and success of electrical distribution firms. But working at the counter isn’t for the faint of heart—those in the job will confirm that this fast-paced function requires technical know-how, customer service skills, an ability to multitask and much more—often under time pressure and the added layer of difficulty posed by current supply chain issues.
In the following article, counter sales managers at several IMARK member companies nationwide share insights on the ups and downs and opportunities and challenges associated with running the counter sales department and offer top tips on how manufacturers can help support counter operations for mutual success.
At the counter, you see a lot of customers on a daily basis, and they become friends of yours; the rapport you build with these customers is very rewarding.”
Roles and Responsibilities
“At our counter, I ensure that our customers’ orders are accurate, ready as quickly as possible and that our customer service showroom is spotless and displays are stocked with new innovations, time-saving tools and appealing products,” shared Brett Beil, counter sales manager at Mayfield Village, Ohio-based Mars Electric, a company he joined in 2007. “I also manage our staff in our branch ‘Business Growth’ initiative and help ensure that our team’s culture aligns with our company’s mission, vision and values and that we take a team-oriented approach to all aspects of our business and work to continuously improve.”
In his role, Beil said that the counter team’s goals are numerous. “We’re here to listen to our customers’ concerns and provide solutions in a transparent and honest way so that we establish clear expectations,” he said. “We try to identify their pain points/gaps and get them what they need in an efficient way while also helping them to understand and appreciate that we’re their partners—we succeed by helping them succeed.” Beil noted that salesmanship is also part of the job. “We’ll try to get up-front contracts where we can—such as, ‘if I can do that for you, will you commit to giving me the order?’ We also ask if they need any related items that are typically purchased along with what they’re buying to ensure that they leave with everything they need for the job and we double-check all orders before handing them over to the customer.” Finally, Beil said, “we educate customers on new or noteworthy items that will make their workday easier.”
At Quermback Electric, a more than century-old company based in Buffalo, New York, Counter Sales/Account Manager Steve Engel said that he and his two associates at the counter are important liaisons between electrical contractors and their end-user customers. “We enable a lot of services—from upgrading old fuses with new 100, 150, or 200-amp service in a house to undertaking a lighting and control upgrade in a commercial or industrial building,” said Engel, a more than 30-year veteran of Quermback Electric who was appointed to the role of counter sales manager in 2014. In the fast-paced and competitive field of electrical contracting, he said, “we aim to get contractors what they need to complete the job so that they can move on to the next one.”
At United Electric Supply in New Castle, Delaware, Counter Sales Manager Tim Hopkins believes that the most important service a counter sales professional offers is face-to-face interaction. “Building a relationship with a customer is a fantastic way to learn about different products and materials in a way that helps problem-solve the customers’ challenges in an ever-growing industry,” shared Hopkins, a 10-year veteran of distribution who joined United Electric in 2019 and was appointed counter sales manager two years ago. “Every day brings new and different scenarios and is a learning experience,” he said.
A Day in the Life—Now and Then
“My staff works as a cohesive team in what I can describe as a very fast-paced environment,” Beil said. “A good portion of the day is spent satisfying our customers’ needs and extracting and processing their orders from the phone and with our rushes of daily walk-ins. My team also supports all of our other sales departments and 11 other branches by picking their orders for customers who need to access the extensive inventory here at our CDC,” he added. “We often reach out to customers outside of our demographic market to develop new business with not only electrical contractors, but with various other trades.”
Beil said that the need to maintain the superior level of customer and solutions-based service that their loyal customers have come to expect and appreciate added new layers of difficulty during the pandemic.
“When COVID hit, we prioritized our employees’ and customers’ safety and encouraged our team members from every department to think critically about ways we could work around the new challenges the pandemic threw our way,” Beil said. He and his team developed curbside pickup as well as their new Express Will-Call service, through which customers placed orders over the phone or via Mars Electric’s website and received an automated text informing them they could walk in, grab their order from designated ‘Express’ shelves and leave without having to encounter anyone. “Customers were instantly wowed at how quickly we developed this process and how efficiently it ran,” he said.
At Quermback Electric, “our busiest times of day are mornings when we first get in—customers are often waiting when we open at 7 a.m.—until about 11 a.m., when activity tails off a bit and then again in the late afternoon when customers stop in to get products they need for the next morning,” Engel said. “As an account manager, I also visit with customers, check on jobs to see how they’re coming along and do some vendor management, but our two other counter salespeople spend the day pulling will calls, loading product and answering questions about product features, compatibility with related products and availability. We try to know a little bit about everything, especially in today’s business environment,” he noted. “Things are competitive and there’s no such thing as wearing one hat anymore.”
While the pandemic changed the rules about how and when customers and employees could be in their facility, Engel said that it didn’t alter customer demand. “We did curbside pickup initially, and then once the store was more open, we installed plexiglass shields to protect our customers and employees,” he said. “But things aren’t completely back to normal in the sense of ongoing supply chain issues,” he said. “Lead times on some fixtures that used to take 3-4 weeks have now extended to at least 12 weeks, metering products for the exterior of buildings or homes are a minimum of six months out, and even simple day-to-day products that we used to stock regularly have been harder to get, which is frustrating to contractors.” Relative to pre-pandemic days, “we’re spending more time these days searching around for what were previously readily available products,” he said of this current challenge.
The experience has been similar for United Electric’s Hopkins, who noted that he’s seen more customers being flexible in the products they order because of lead times.
“A typical day at the counter begins at 7 a.m., when we usually have our morning rush or ‘regulars’ who come every day at around the same time,” Hopkins said. “The rest of the day is usually spent taking orders, answering phones, following up with quotes and will call orders, stocking shelves, cycle counting and working closely with our warehouse team to ensure that customer orders are fulfilled. I’m extremely fortunate to have a talented team that helps keep all of the day-to-day functions running smoothly and efficiently,” he said.
Like many other distributors, “we adopted a curbside-to-go policy where we’d walk out to our parking area, take customer orders and bring out their material,” Hopkins said of their pandemic-era process. “Lead times started to become long, pricing on material began skyrocketing and shortages of different material (including PVC, switchgear, breakers, fuses, etc.) all became an issue, though for the most part, everything is back to normal now,” he said. “We’re still dealing with long lead times on certain items, but it’s nowhere near what we dealt with in the beginning of the pandemic. We saw a slight slowdown in traffic at first, but picked back up to normal quickly and our current day-to-day demand seems comparable to pre-pandemic days.”
When it comes to deciding which products to feature in front of or behind the counter, our experts have clear merchandising strategies.
“We have self-serve counter locations and we typically put faster-moving products and promotional items on the end caps and close-to-the-counter terminals,” Hopkins said. “We prioritize items that sell quickly, and we review dead stock to help ensure that we’re keeping products on the shelves that customers want.”
According to Beil, “we stock tools, fasteners, time-saving niche market items and impulse items within the customer’s reach and like to provide ‘hands-on’ access to enable our customers to get a feel for the tools they need before purchasing. We promote and feature ‘Innovative Products of the Month’ and ‘Hot-Buy’ promotional items, which we display in a high-profile area,” he said. “We also review dead inventory each month and work with our vendors to replace those items with new items that have been selling across our region.”
At Quermback Electric, “I like to position nuts and bolts, zip ties and other small items that customers can add on at the last second or else might have forgotten about right up front,” Engel said. “You don’t want to leave higher-ticket items like breakers or panels right out front, as someone could walk in and grab/steal them while you’re busy.”
The Best and the Worst
When it comes to their favorite and least favorite parts of the job, nothing beats the personal and professional rewards of helping customers and building relationships.
“At the counter, you see a lot of customers on a daily basis, and they become friends of yours; the rapport you build with these customers is very rewarding,” Quermback Electric’s Engel said. “The part I like least about working at the counter is telling contractors that their product still isn’t here. Even when we’re informed that things are ready to ship, they still don’t ship; there’s a shortage of warehouse people, truck drivers, etc.—the issues are everywhere,” he said. “Contractors are calling us and it’s hard to constantly apologize. They end up frustrated and looking for someone to blame, or else they leave and say they’ll find the product somewhere else. From our experience, some end up finding it and some don’t.”
For United Electric’s Hopkins, problem-solving and collaborating with customers are valuable endeavors.
“The part of my role that I enjoy most is working closely with my team and brainstorming ideas together, whether it’s setting up a display and end caps or trying to figure out a way to service our customers better,” Hopkins said. “I enjoy building relationships with customers too, especially working on orders and quotes together, as it allows us to help them and their business.” The most challenging part? “Dealing with lead times and supply and demand issues,” he said.
“I really enjoy calling upon my experience in problem-solving and interacting with customers,” Mars Electric’s Beil said of his favorite part of the job. “I appreciate the diversity of my team and their different experience, knowledge and personalities. I utilize their strengths to the mutual benefit of our customers and our own company, and I also enjoy supporting their growth and development.”
Regarding his least favorite part of the job, “I would say that losing employees to advancement within the company and/or having to replace employees, which involves additional training and coaching, is the most difficult,” Beil said, “though I know that it’s in the best interest of the employees and Mars Electric. Training new counter employees takes months and can be challenging, but it’s equally rewarding. Sales are an essential part of what we do at the counter, but the growth and development of our employees is the most critical aspect of a manager’s job and when we do that successfully, the sales naturally follow.”
Below, our experts offer manufacturers and their reps top tips for achieving greater success when it comes to having their products featured in a distributor’s counter sales area:
- Keep Communications Clear – “Products that are easier for both the sales team and customer to follow typically sell faster than products whose applications require more time to understand,” United Electric’s Tim Hopkins said. “The most important thing is having a spec sheet that’s easy to follow, as electricians are looking for quick and efficient solutions that they can work with and explain to their customers.” Mars Electric’s Brett Beil wholeheartedly agreed. “Provide simple, easy-to-read brochures about your product’s applications, features and benefits,” Beil said.
- Invest in Training – “Provide internal training to counter staff, including one-on-one sessions when possible,” Beil recommended. “Creating different avenues for training—e.g., in-person and online—helps promote education by offering flexibility,” added Hopkins.
- Be Considerate – “Don’t show up unannounced and expect to get our undivided attention—we may be tied up working on projects with/for customers, in training, dealing with our busier customer rush times or short-staffed due to lunches,” Beil said. “Also, don’t monopolize a counter salesperson when a customer enters and is waiting to be welcomed and served. Be polite and step aside.” Beil also confirmed that pushiness doesn’t serve anyone well. “Understand that our product line selection is complex and altering anything takes time and involves other departments,” he said. “Win the counter person over, gain support and follow through with others in our company.”
- Make Time for In-Person Interaction – “It’s good to come in and have a face-to-face conversation with our purchasing agent,” Quermback Electric’s Steve Engel advised. “It’s nice to build a relationship; then if you have a problem, you have someone you can reach out to and count on.”
- Play Fairly – Beil advises manufacturers and their reps to avoid inquiring about their competitors’ prices or leaning over to try to view the distributor’s sales order entry screen.
- Be Accessible – “One thing that can make us ‘skip that product’ at our counter is the inability to reach a manufacturer or rep if there’s a problem after the sale is over,” Engel said. “Also, if we or our contractors continually run into issues with a product’s quality, we’ll walk away from that product.”
- Utilize Counter Days – “Proactively schedule counter days to promote your product,” Beil suggested.
- Forge Relationships – “Don’t pass anyone up to get right to the manager,” Beil said. “Get to know everyone on our staff, as they’re the ones who will be choosing your product over your competitor’s—or not!—and are the key to your success.”