A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit with a very successful farm equipment dealer who has spent the better part of 40 years in the business. We talked about the huge changes that have taken place during his career and how his dealership adapted to them. He admitted, though, the changes taking place at present will dwarf those he’s seen so far.

I asked him to look back and identify the one thing he would do differently if he had the chance. I was surprised when he said, “Hire the best ‘parts’ people I possibly could.” He said the industry tends to focus on technicians and salespeople in their recruiting and training efforts, but it doesn’t give parts personnel the attention they deserve.

“When you really look at it closely,” he said, “who has the most everyday contact with your customers at the dealership? It’s your parts department. These employees really need the ability to relate to people as much — or more — than your sales department. If I had the chance to hire someone who worked for Nordstrom for 10 years, I would snatch them up in a minute and worry about the mechanical and industry related stuff later.”

I remember a farm equipment seminar I sat in on 10 years ago and how it focused on the appearance, demeanor and the soft skills of counter people. I recall how the speaker talked about the value that parts personnel create with their ability to upsell. But he stressed that “clerks don’t upsell.” They only take and fill orders — most of the time.

Last summer, I stopped by a local auto dealership to order an owner’s manual. I bought a used car and it didn’t come with the manual. The dealership didn’t have it in stock, but promised to order it and call me when it arrived, about 2 weeks later. I paid them $29 for it and left.

Six weeks later I called them to ask about my order. Their first response: “Yeah, I think it’s here, but you gave us the wrong phone number.”

About an hour later I heard from the parts manager who apologized profusely for the oversight and promised to “overnight” it, which he did. I did point out that both the sales and service department of the dealership had called me on several occasions without a problem. Guess where I won’t be going back to anytime soon?

While the special report in this issue of Farm Equipment focuses on measuring parts department performance, dealers understand that performance, productivity and profitability start with properly trained and professional parts people. This showed up in the write-in responses to the survey.

When asked about changes planned to improve efficiency and/or increase parts department sales and profitability, about one-third mentioned “people” and “training.”

At least one dealer made my point about great parts people more clearly and succinctly than I ever could. He said what he’s doing to improve department performance is to “add two new and fresh faces and retire one.”

More than half the dealers who participated in our parts survey say that parts sales account for 16% or more of their total annual revenues. That’s significant. At the same time, most agree it could be even better. The first step in that improvement will be to find the best parts people you possibly can. Maybe you could try Nordstrom.