AKRON-Putting the automotive service customer back in the driver's seat is the aim of a new policy Goodyear will institute June 1 that changes the way it pays mechanics in more than 900 company-owned auto service centers nationwide. Goodyear announced May 16 that its automotive technicians no longer will receive sales commissions. Since the Akron-based tire maker got into the auto service business, its mechanics have been paid a flat hourly salary plus a commission that, in recent years, has ranged from 25 to 35 percent based on sales of auto parts and services.
Now, they will continue to get a base hourly rate but also will receive an additional amount based on their commission history over the last 12 months.
Goodyear officials could not provide a dollar figure for incentives paid in 1992 and 1993, but said the company returned about 7.5 percent of non-tire service sales in commissions in each of those years.
Tied in with the new policy, the company is initiating what it's calling a ``Customer Trust'' plan that provides customers with three levels of auto service:
Basic-Only the work requested by the customer will be done;
Standard-The basic level of service will be performed, as well as a vehicle inspection;
Premium-As determined by a comprehensive inspection, all vehicle needs will be serviced-with the customer's authorization.
``We're making sure the customer calls all the shots on auto service work performed,'' said a Goodyear spokesman, ``and that the level of service meets their level of expectation.''
Goodyear said it was public perception that the repair industry is rife with rip-offs that led it to change what has been an accepted practice for years in the industry.
In announcing the new policy, Chairman Stanley C. Gault said: ``When commissions in auto repair were determined to erode consumer trust, it was time to change the way Goodyear does business.''
The 1992 automotive service fraud scandal involving Sears, Roebuck and Co. was seen as a ``wake-up call'' to the repair industry, and Goodyear, too, has been the subject of charges that some of its auto service technicians have sold unnecessary parts and/or services.
Last year, prompted in part by an investigation of Goodyear-owned service centers by a television station in Minnesota, the company entered into a ``model agreement'' with that state's attorney general that, in a way, became the precursor to its new policy. Goodyear voluntarily agreed to keep product- and service-specific incentive programs and automotive-parts-manufacturer-sponsored contests for service personnel out of its 14 company-owned stores in Minnesota for five years.
The attorney general's office found no evidence of intentional wrongdoing on Goodyear's part, nor did the company admit any by signing the agreement.
However, in March, two Illinois law enforcement agencies began a joint investigation of some Goodyear-owned auto service centers in the Chicago area following an undercover probe by another TV station of alleged fraudulent auto service practices.
A spokeswoman for the offices of the Illinois Attorney General and the Consumer Fraud Division of Cook County State's Attorney said their inquiry continues, with no timetable set for its conclusion.
The Goodyear spokesman acknowledged the company is still conducting its own internal investigation of charges leveled by several Goodyear employees that they were forced to defraud auto service customers.
But Goodyear's change in policy was not due to any particular case or investigation, the spokesman insisted. Rather, it evolved over a long period of time.
Mr. Gault said that as auto service continues to demand greater technical knowledge and increasingly expensive diagnostic equipment and training, wider boundaries for diagnosis have been created. ``Inevitably, this brings more diverse opinions, judgments and honest mistakes into the auto repair business, adding to misunderstandings and even mistrust.''
``We believe by eliminating sales commissions-a perceived obstacle to customer trust-Goodyear will set higher standards for customer satisfaction,'' Mr. Gault added.
Much of the mistrust, he charged, has been compounded by investigative reports from TV news programs raising questions about overselling practices by auto service chains-reports that are often misleading and totally misrepresent what has transpired.
Initial reaction to the policy change appears to be positive.
A spokesman for Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III called Goodyear's move ``super...really what we hoped for all along.''
Gil Fergus, chief of the Consumer Protection Division for the northern region of the Illinois Attorney General's Office, said his agency is encouraged by Goodyear's policy change-``it's a very big step in the right direction.''
But he withheld judgment on whether consumers' fears about auto service fraud will be allayed. ``I'd be more concerned about the reality than the perception....''
For many technicians, ``the ability to earn an average hourly wage over an entire year is very appealing,'' the Goodyear spokesman said. With commissions, their wages tend to fluctuate because of the cyclical nature of the auto service and tire sales businesses.
To reinforce its new message to consumers, Goodyear has changed its advertising schedule, the spokesman said. The tire maker will ``put more dollars up front earlier in the year'' for TV and print advertising that will refer to its enhanced level of service and ``putting the customer in charge.''