Counter Culture

Oct. 1, 1999
The phone is ringing. A delivery driver is wondering where exactly the skid steer loaded on his truck is going. The jangling of the bells on the front

The phone is ringing. A delivery driver is wondering where exactly the skid steer loaded on his truck is going. The jangling of the bells on the front door means another customer has just come in with precious time to spare.

The customer wants to rent a chain saw to cut a tree. "What kind?" the counterperson asks.

"A palm tree."

"I won't rent it; the blade will be ruined by the sap of the palm. I recommend a bow saw instead." Satisfied, the customer signs the contract and is off to tackle the tree, bow saw in hand.

The customer on the phone is inquiring about rates on a "cherry picker." Relying on experience acquired from several years on the job, the counterperson asks what type of work the customer will be doing. Knowing that a cherry picker has different regional meanings - on the East Coast, it is slang for a device that extracts engines; and in the West, it is an aerial work platform - it can mean the difference of a rental quote of $20 and $700. After hearing details of the project, the counterperson knows that $700 is clearly the answer.

Jangle. Another customer comes in looking for a surface grinder to grind through a 1-inch surface. He is told that a 1/8-inch surface is considered thick for that machine and he will need to rent a concrete planer instead. This is more than the customer wanted to spend, but he is grateful for the help and the honesty.

The driver gets his directions. The phone rings.

And so goes the morning of a counterperson, the lifeblood of the rental center.

The rest of the work done by the store's other employees begins with these individuals. Without the writing of the contracts, the center can deliver no equipment nor make any money. Without the counterpersonnel's friendly faces representing the store, there are no repeat customers.

"We see the counterperson as a critical component of our business," says Kirk Walton, vice president, sales operations for Hertz Equipment Rental Corp., Park Ridge, N.J. "The counterperson is the key contact with our customer. They have to be adept at solving problems, they have to think well on their feet, and they have to be flexible."

On any given day, Walton says, a counterperson might have to adjust the daily rental schedule to accommodate a customer with an emergency; to reroute a delivery to avoid an accident on the freeway; or to coordinate with another branch to move product where it is most needed.

Charged with knowing the details of each piece of equipment inside the store and out in the yard, counterpeople need to be able to recommend the proper items to use on each customer's particular job. Many are responsible for knowing what equipment is out on rental, what will be coming in and what needs to be delivered when.

In addition, they write contracts, field questions, answer phones, solve problems and calm angry customers, maintaining a smile all the while. It can be hectic and overwhelming, but for many, it is gratifying.

"Each day is different at the counter; you never know what to expect," says Pam Juarez, assistant manager of the Pasadena, Calif., branch of Allied Equipment Rentals. "I have been between the counter and dispatch for 10 years, and I love it."

When hiring for counter positions, rental center owners must ensure that potential employees are up for the challenge.

"You spend all day interacting with customers; you absolutely need to be a people person," Juarez says.

That may not sound like a tough bill to fill, but finding a counterperson who won't lash out at customers when pressure is high is not as simple as it may seem. Being able to calmly talk a customer through a panic when a piece of equipment breaks down and all he can think about is the clock ticking as his work deadline draws closer is a critical skill, she says.

"The best counterpeople can put themselves in the customer's position and are able to read the customer," says Don Phillips, store manager of Ashland Rents, Talent, Ore. "You've got to take the time to treat the customer right because customer relations is really your biggest job at the counter."

Counterpeople have to think on their feet and be conscientious, consistent, reliable and articulate, says James Turpin, vice president of human resources for Prime Equipment in Houston.

The counter team members - who are called sales coordinators - at a Naples, Fla.-based United Rentals store (formerly Florida Contractor Rental & Sales) are effective, says manager Kevin Duffy, because they are outgoing, competitive, aggressive and knowledgeable.

Counter Intelligence Counterpersonnel do not become knowledgeable overnight. Training takes time, and each rental center has its own program to teach new employees. Creating an exceptional employee, many say, begins with exceptional training.

"You are only as good as your teacher," says Dan Byers, manager of Allied Equipment Rentals, Pasadena, Calif. "The more a manager knows, the better he or she will be able to explain the job to a new employee. It takes time and employees have to want to learn."

Crucial to the learning process is hands-on equipment experience, he says. "Some employees just get told what to do and don't get to actually try it out for themselves. They don't know any details of the equipment or how it fully works."

Juarez, who learned under Byers, has been the benefactor of this training Zapproach. "After testing out some of the equipment I felt much more confident in talking to customers about it."

Larry Gregson, co-owner of Time Rental, Edmond, Okla., also endorses the value of personal experience. "In order to teach new employees about equipment, you should let them take it home and use it," he says. "There is nothing better than hands-on experience; otherwise, it is impossible to explain to customers how to use it. You need to judge what to recommend."

Sometimes, the customer is a teacher. Gregson recommends listening to customers, especially their complaints. Asking why a piece of equipment didn't work on the job can be more valuable than knowing why something did work, he says.

Duffy sends his sales coordinators on the road with sales reps to get a feel for the industry. This experience shows them how their decisions and suggestions made at the counter affect the entire rental process. In addition, the company provides training and safety seminars and practice phone calls.

Once a rental center manager feels a counterperson can handle customers without constant over-the-shoulder guidance, it is time to establish the amount of freedom granted when dealing with customers.

At Duffy's store, employees are given the freedom to make their own decisions. "I take the blame if a bad decision is made," he says. "I will stand by every decision. That way the coordinators know they can't be chastised."

Byers prefers that customers deal with only one counterperson. While there are some decisions that must be made by him alone, he appreciates the need to minimize customer confusion by having him or her talk to only one person to make transactions smooth.

"We have a good system here for customer relations," says Juarez. "Since Dan and I are usually always at the counter, we can jump in when it seems appropriate instead of having the other counterpeople explain the question or problem again, which wastes the customer's time."

No matter how much time a new employee puts into the job and no matter how reliable he or she may be, nothing is more valuable than experience, which takes time to acquire. "After 30 years, I am still learning," says Byers. "If someone says they know it all, they haven't learned anything."

Becoming familiar with customers is also a learned skill. "One thing that is difficult to teach is how to judge someone coming through the door for the first time," says Gregson. "If someone gives you a driver's license from out of state, you need to be able to quickly figure out whether you will ever get that equipment back. In a mom-and-pop store, every dollar counts, and you don't have a lot of room to lose equipment."

Another skill that takes time to learn revolves around common courtesy, Duffy says. "I like all my employees to remember customers' names. Even if it's only his or her second time in the store, I would like the coordinators to say, 'Hi, Mr. or Ms. So-and-So.' It adds a personal touch."

Once counter employees are fully trained and have gained some experience, where can they go from there? At some companies, ambitious staff members are given the opportunity for advancement.

Counter Move At Prime, the next step in the ladder is the newly created position of customer support agent. After a rigorous training process, qualified applicants, with at least five years on the counter, can take a test to attain the coveted position. If the test is passed, the employee then does inside sales for the company.

"Before this program, counterpeople would move up to managerial positions," says Turpin. "Now they get to stay in direct contact with the customer, which for most of them is their strongest talent, and it's what they enjoy the most. Plus it gives counterpeople something to strive for in terms of an elevated career position, as well as an increase financially."

And given the constant search for quality at the position, it's not surprising that HERC tries to keep its best counterpeople doing what they do best.

"There is a natural path of advancement to sales that can occur," says HERC's Walton. "However, a top-notch counterperson can have a very successful career in that role. They don't necessarily need to move to something else. There are people on the counter who are just as important and are just as fulfilled as any other position."

And fulfilled they should be: Working the counter is a vital part of a rental center's day-to-day operations. Counterpersons have the challenging, yet rewarding job of being the liaisons between the customers and the rest of the store. It is a fast-paced, demanding job that requires quick reaction, versatility and extensive knowledge to field questions asked at the desk and on the phone, while at the same time writing contracts and keeping a mental inventory of the equipment still available in the yard.

It's all in a day's work.

Counterpeople are employed at 75 percent of all locations and earn slightly more than $22,200, on average.

Source: RER 1999 Salary Report

At $30 million rental companies, counterpeople earn roughly $27,000. At companies with revenues under $1 million, the average salary is $18,400.

Source: RER 1999 Salary Report