INDEPENDENCE, Mo.-Pleasing the customer used to be so simple: A fresh pot of coffee, a comfortable chair, some relatively up-to-date magazines in the waiting area. Of course, trustworthy, professional service was, and always has been, a given.
To steal a little thunder from Ford Motor Co.'s old ad slogan, tire dealer Ed L. Becker's got some better ideas.
First, you start with the premise that a customer really wants to know what's happening to his or her car when it's in for repair. Carrying that a step further, why not let them watch those repairs?
At his new dealership, which opened Jan. 1 in Harry S Truman's hometown of Independence, Mr. Becker added some new wrinkles.
Unlike most tire dealerships, his store-doing business as TTI, for Tires & Transmissions Inc.-indeed fixes transmissions.
And there's that center aisle between the store's eight service bays where customers can stand around and jaw with the techs, peer over their shoulders and incessantly ask, ``Watcha' doin'?''
Funny thing is, once the customers know they can do that, they rarely do.
``It's kind of like having a fireplace,'' Mr. Becker said, chuckling. ``If you don't have one, you want one. Once you have it, you never use it.''
Nevertheless, he said customers do appreciate the opportunity to observe repairs, and his insurance company said the practice does not create a liability problem.
With the ``old way'' of doing business, shops ``want you to leave so they can do stuff to the car,'' Mr. Becker said, which can play into customers' fears that not everything is entirely above board.
``I don't think they should hide the car-we're not doing brain surgery here,'' he stated.
That's also part of the reason he said he got into the transmission repair business, in addition to providing tires, undercar and underhood service: To provide ``an honest, trustworthy'' alternative to ``some of these transmission guys (who) would rather lie than tell customers the truth.''
Transmission shops sometimes seem to have a bad reputation for ``dinking'' people, his word for ripping them off.
Put a pencil to it, he suggested. Typical charges to fix a transmission range from $1,200 to $1,800. What they don't tell you, he said, is the actual overhaul kit only costs between $20 and $100. Add in labor of $30-$40 and a like amount to pull the unit, then rebolt it. Hard parts can cost $300.
Does that add up to ``dink''?
While Mr. Becker also operates four outlets in Kansas under the Tire Town Inc. banner, he said his new Missouri store-affiliated with American Car Care Centers-is a separate entity, a ``different concept'' than the others.
``It's geared more toward true retailing,'' he said. ``We're exceeding customers' expectations at this store-that's why I developed it.''
This month he also plans to open another store, in Metcalf, Kan., modeled after the Independence outlet.
The 9,000-sq.-ft. Independence store, located in a high-traffic, predominantly blue-collar area, caters to cash-paying customers who generally drive older vehicles. It has a large, warehouse-like showroom, a congenial waiting area that's not ``hidden away,'' and features a bold color scheme and horizontal pallet racks to showcase tires, rather than the traditional vertical displays.
The soon-to-open 2,800-sq.-ft. Metcalf store is in a more upscale area where Mr. Becker said he expects to service the BMW and Lexus crowd, who pay mostly by credit card.
A half-retail, half-commercial dealership, TTI sells ``any tire the customer wants,'' Mr. Becker said, though it predominantly stocks Michelin, BFGoodrich, Uniroyal, Laramie, Goodyear and Dunlop, plus Kelly-Springfield farm tires, and ServisFleet large truck tires.
The differences between his Tire Town stores and TTI, Mr. Becker said, ``are like night and day-like Kmart and Neiman Marcus.''
After numerous discussions with women customers, he said he's realized ``it's an inconvenience for them to come to a service shop. They're afraid they're going to get dinked. That's why we're building our new concept around trust.''
He wants women ``to really understand what we're doing to their cars. Typically, they bring a guy with them to a shop because they don't trust it. Then the salesman talks to the guy and ignores the woman. That really irritates me.
``Salesmen think women don't really care about what's being done to the car. But they do care.''
So Mr. Becker distributed to his nine Independence store employees a list he drew up of customers' greatest apprehensions about auto service. (See inset.)
They also received TTI's ``quality policy,'' which states the company ``is committed to a long-term strategy of exceeding customer expectations by providing the highest quality products and services...through uniform, consistent processes, each supported by an empowered workforce striving for continuous improvement.''
It further notes: ``We are committed to working with the highest level of integrity, bringing credit and value to ourselves, our owner and our entire company.''
He continually reinforces to his staff that they ``sell the world's number one product-yourself,'' and that ``customers resent imposed solutions, and therefore us if we're doing the imposing.''
Mr. Becker reported business is growing at the Independence store, with $80,000 in sales in January, $73,000 in February, and $111,000 in March. His goal ``is to have a $2 million store.''
Though he said he doubts his changes will set any kind of industry trend, already his competitors ``are throwing rocks at me-so I must be doing something right!''