Every cloud has a silver lining. If so, last winter's unusually severe weather was an eye-opening barometer for all automotive repair centers. It not only indicated how well service personnel sold maintenance, but how well technicians performed the maintenance that was sold.
The winter of 1993-94 also shows why alert tire dealers should do more than complain about lousy weather.
Recent conversations with two good sources in northeastern cities were enlightening because these owner/managers emphasized the same three points:
Slow service traffic during the worst of the severe weather allowed them the luxury of extra time to think and analyze customer records.
Nearly all the catastrophic failures they encountered occurred on new customers' vehicles-not those owned by regular customers.
The spring thaw brought compliments from regular customers about their vehicles' reliability during the severest weather.
For readers who aren't near the northeast, the area was hammered, at various times, with the entire gamut of brutal, car-breaking winter weather-sub-zero temperatures, wind, deep snow, freezing rain and recurring ice storms. By March, veteran service person-nel in the area were saying it was the worst winter in memory.
Understandably, many regular customers postponed appointments for routine, maintenance-type services such as an oil change, tire rotation and alignment etc.
Workers in both shops used the slow time to best advantage, checking inventory, cleaning the shop, performing overdue maintenance chores on shop equipment etc., sources said.
``It was so strange to see how busy some of my competitors were at the time-while our bays were almost empty. Everyone here began feeling a bit self-conscious,'' one owner/manager commented.
However, the work that trickled into both locations quickly established the same pattern. First, the jobs were all hard failures of vital systems directly attributable to inadequate maintenance.
For instance, decrepit-looking belts snapped and crusty coolant hoses split open. Instead of spewing fresh-looking green coolant, these cooling systems disgorged thick, muddy liquid.
Where water pump seals failed, the corroded trail left by leaking coolant confirmed the pump had been seeping for a long time.
Original equipment (OE) batteries with four to five years service quit. When techs investigated no-start, no-spark conditions, they found OE distributor caps and rotors with holes burned through them.
Meanwhile, the same cars showed 60,000-70,000 miles on OE spark plugs! (Worn spark plugs increase the voltage required to fire the plugs. Eventually, this increased voltage strains the distributor cap and rotor.)
OE camshaft timing belts-operated way beyond the recom-mended replacement interval-snapped.
Service personnel also realized that nearly every job represented a new customer rather than a regular patron taught to come in for regular maintenance services.
``When the weather is so bad and bays are empty, you're thrilled to get whatever work you get,'' an owner said. ``Under different conditions, we wouldn't give much thought to the fact that these people weren't regulars. But the slow periods really gave us time to think and evaluate.''
Both owner/managers admitted they gradually realized that almost none of the core customer base was calling about a catastrophic failure.
As the weather broke, service personnel heard the kinds of remarks we long to capture on videotape. ``My car was the only one on my block that started right away the morning it dropped below zero,'' was a typical one.
Another: ``Everyone at the office but me had car trouble all winter long. People wanted to know why the weather didn't affect my car.''
Though not a scientific survey, I'll bet most readers whose stores do a good job selling maintenance have had similar experiences.
The next time the weather turns wicked, it should spur you to monitor service traffic for regulars versus new customers. If you're seeing a high percentage of ``regulars'' suffering the kinds of failures described above, it's time to reevaluate the services your store emphasizes and/or the quality of work the techs do.
Plus, use this customer feedback to convince new customers to adopt your service department's recommended maintenance program. It's a peer or third-party endorsement that your store provides reliability and peace of mind. And it confirms that maintenance doesn't cost-it saves!