What Makes for a Good Counter Person?

counter person

I asked the many contractors who post regularly on The Wall at HeatingHelp.com to tell me what they like (and don’t like) about the counter people at their suppliers. Here’s some of what they had to say. I hope you find it to be good food for thought.

Stop with the banter - A contractor who works mainly in New York City said, “I deal with one large, busy wholesaler in NYC that has six guys behind the counter at all times. The banter between them is endless; and finishing their jokes and telling stories always takes precedence over taking an order, or filling one accurately. I realize it's great to provide a friendly work environment and it's wonderful that coworkers get along so well, but you gotta get me and my guys out of the supply house. It's incredibly expensive for us to be there for any amount of time.”

Another contractor added, “Yeah, get me in and out. You can always tell who owns their company, and who's an hourly employee. I'm friendly, and I banter while I'm grabbing what I need and they're ringing me up, but I'm not there for coffee, donuts, and war stories.”

And speaking of donuts - A New Jersey contractor said, “Donuts, tee-shirts and coffee really don't make us want to go to your counter area more than the competition’s. As a matter of fact, I'm not that excited about grabbing a donut from a box that has been sitting on the counter for the last five hours, knowing that every other contractor licked the icing before I walked through the door. Just get me out of there as quickly as you can.”

Hide your anger - I’m not sure you can do anything about this situation, but here it is, and it may be going on in your place as well.

“There is one young counterman who clearly hates my guts. When he sees me, his face changes immediately. He stops smiling, and begins typing aggressively on his keyboard. I don't why he does this, but I really don’t care. I applaud his professionalism in tending to my order and not letting his emotions or feelings about me get in the way. In fact, it's probably better this way because he can't get me out of there fast enough.”

On second thought, maybe we need more of this. Hmm.

Know your inventory - This came up a lot, and this contractor cut to the chase: “Know your inventory and where it is in the building. I hate it when the person at the counter tells me on the phone that the computer says they have something. Then I drive there and learn that the computer lied. It does not make me happy. If I call and there are only a few of whatever I’m looking for left, please pull it and set it aside for me.

Know your stuff - We both know it’s tough to get good help these days, but here’s what one contractor had to say about what is, what was, and what might be:

“The counter person is probably not being paid much more than he or she can make at Dunkin’ or Burger King. You get what you pay for. Back in the day, I could count on each supply house having one or two counter people who knew their stuff. Now, not so much. If you go in there and don't know exactly what you need, you’re going to have problems.”

Another, more sympathetic contractor, said, “Imagine trying to know every part in the warehouse and how to size and apply it. That’s a huge task that can take years to learn. It’s good to have different divisions - plumbing, hydronics, and HVAC.

“But then, once they get that guy or gal trained and up to speed, a competitor tries to hire them away. I recently heard of people getting retention bonuses. Their employers upped the ante to try and keep their people from being lured away from them. They promise them big sign-on bonuses, or other benefits.”

See? You (or your competitors) get what you pay for.

This was from a New Jersey contractor:

“I have three favorite supply houses. Two have guys who have been in the business about as long as I have. One is about 75 years old. He works part time during the heating season. He and two other guys really know the hydronic-heating supply business. They actually understand how a commercial, gas, power-burner functions. They know what a fire-tube boiler is, when compared to a water-tube boiler. They are not at all cocky. I suspect they are paid well and they should be. I am certain two of them have received offers from the competition over the years. They seem to rarely take off from work. Others count on them for information and they share it willingly. They go to just about every seminar their company offers, and they always ask questions. The oldest one used to teach boiler-controls, wiring, combustion, and even pneumatic controls. I have two of their personal phone numbers, but I have never needed to call them (yet).”

Another contractor said, “When I got into the trade in the mid-‘70s, the counter people knew their products. They explained why you would use this control over that one; and they would introduce anything new that came out. Now we have to get those explanations from a company website, a tech-support phone line (with a one-hour wait), or from YouTube.

“It is because this product information has been lost in the wholesaler-supply industry that I found HeatingHelp.com, for which I will be forever grateful to the wholesalers I deal with.”

I appreciate what he said, but I need to share this with you right now: We built HeatingHelp.com by asking these four questions, again and again and again. You should be doing the same:

  1. What business are we in?
  2. Who are our customers?
  3. What are their problems?
  4. What can we do to solve those problems for them?

Finally, please consider this - Let’s conclude with this contractor’s musings. I think he’s asking some very good questions:

“There will be a new person entering our trade today. Perhaps you will be taking this new helper or apprentice to many wholesalers. Unfortunately, the new person is too busy thinking about the opposite sex, or texting, or the poor kid is just too shy to say boo because you are now at your fourth wholesaler, trying to get what you need. You’re not happy because some guy in front of you is trying to return 20 bucks worth of supplies. You’re thinking that wholesalers need a better and faster system for returning things.

“Fast-forward to the day when you will send that kid alone to a wholesaler. Here are my thoughts about that day, and every day that follows:

  1. All counter people should be wearing name tags so the new helpers and apprentices can start building relationships with the suppliers that are so important to our success.
  2. Wouldn’t it be nice if counter people had a financial incentive to get all orders filled ASAP? Why does my salesman get the commission for all my purchases? I never talk to him, but I always talk to the counter people. Why is this?
  3. Does the counter person like their current management? If so, why do I see the same counter people working at different wholesalers?
  4. We all pay for management’s salaries, but isn’t it amazing how they can walk by us without saying hello? And if they’re treating us that way, how are they treating the counter people that don’t pay their salaries?
  5. Dan, it is sad that the wholesaler experience had to be brought up on HeatingHelp.com. Just by starting this thread and reading the comments shows why Amazon is growing. Most wholesalers luckily don’t have reviews.

There you have it. I hope it helps you.


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