Two years ago when Justin Fazio joined The Reflex Lighting Group, Boston, the lighting-industry novice possessed a speech communications degree and valuable people skills, but “I didn't know the difference between a downlight and a flashlight,” joked Fazio. “I was really at a loss.”

A year later, after completing Reflex Lighting's training program, Fazio felt more comfortable when it came to the lighting products of the manufacturers Reflex Lighting represents, but he still felt foggy when it came to the fundamentals of how his electrical distributor customers operated their businesses — and he didn't know the lingo of contractors and supply houses.

“We work with electrical distributors both at their counters and out on the street to get their customers to buy the products that they've put on the shelf for us,” said Steve Norris, Fazio's supervisor and Reflex Lighting's distributor resources division manager. Being able to talk with contractors and understand the lingo is obviously key, said Norris, a 26-year industry veteran.

Founded in 1981, The Reflex Lighting Group represents about 80 lines — Cooper Lighting being its largest — and does more than $60 million a year in lighting sales. With 33 employees and one location, it serves eastern Massachusetts, Cape Cod and Rhode Island.

Although Reflex Lighting works with the majority of electrical distributors in its Boston-area territory, one of its largest distributor customers is Granite City Electric Supply, Quincy, Mass. With 19 locations, 220 employees and $76.5 million in 2004 sales, Granite City ranked No. 78 on Electrical Wholesaling's 2005 list of the largest electrical distributors.

To help Fazio learn the electrical distribution and contractor sides of the business, Steve Helle, president of Granite City Electric Supply, invited Fazio to spend a month working the counter at the Quincy branch. Fazio spent January of this year as a counter guy at Granite City. “I learned how a contractor talks when he's placing an order,” said Fazio.

Fazio shadowed a different counter salesman each week. The first week, Fazio teamed up with Mike Bright. “We covered every square inch of the warehouse as Mike was pointing out the entire inventory,” said Fazio. “It was important for me to learn where the inventory was stored and why it was organized the way it was. How effectively a distributor operates its warehouse ultimately will maximize their bottom line. After the first week, I was beginning to get a stronger understanding of the counter stock and flow business.”

Fazio spent his second week working the Granite City counter shadowing Bob Bennett, a 13-year counter sales veteran. From Bennett, Fazio learned the basics of good counter sales. (Incidentally, the basics of good counters sales are good basics for anyone in sales. See sidebar below.)

Of course, Fazio learned to cut wire. “There I was on Monday of my second week in the warehouse cutting 50 feet of 12/2 wire,” wrote Fazio in a chronicle he prepared for his supervisor detailing his experience at Granite City. “Cutting ‘THHN’ and ‘SER’ wire was an invaluable learning experience for me because I did not have an understanding of all the different types of pipe and wire. It's one thing to know the ins and outs of a lighting fixture, but in order to add value to the contractor I needed to understand how a commercial building is wired, and how that process interacts with lighting.”

During the third week, Fazio worked with additional construction materials. “I now understand that EMT (steel pipe) is used primarily in outdoor environments, and PVC (conduit) is piped in below ground and used indoors,” said Fazio.

Fazio was amazed by how much pipe and wire flows over the counter — and this was the middle of January. “Imagine how quickly stock sells during the spring and summer months when the New England construction season hits its peak,” he said.

The diversity of product flowing through the counter involved Fazio in areas of the electrical industry with which he previously had little experience. “It helped me learn about who the brand-name vendors are, and what products offerings they have,” said Fazio. “The time I spent at Granite City Electric Supply was much more than a beneficial experience; it was an essential one.”

Counter Sales Tips

  • Listen to the customer

    “That's the No. 1 thing at the counter,” says Bob Bennett, a 13-year counter sales veteran at Granite City Electric Supply. “Listen to what he's buying, and listen to see how he's feeling. If he's looking cranky, you just get him what he wants. Usually you can tell when they're chipper; that's when you can make some add-on sales. When they had a bad night, you look them in the eye, get them what they want, and get them out.”

  • Smile and make eye contact

    Greet every customer that comes in. Make eye contact right away, and let the customer know you'll be with him in a minute if you're helping someone else. Let customers know that you want their business and you appreciate them coming in that day.

  • Remind customers of things they might need for a job

    “If the customer's buying a whole lot of Romex, he's going to need staples, too,” says Bennett. “I've had a lot of guys come back and tell me, ‘So listen, Bob, you know I didn't have any staples on the truck. It's a good thing you reminded me.’”

  • When you don't have something in stock, tell the customer in the right way

    Tell the customer how quickly you can get the product and offer another option. Be positive.

  • Make sure orders are properly pulled, and do it quickly

    “That's counter sales in a nutshell,” says Bennett. “Get the customer in, get him exactly what he wants, and get him out.”