NEW ORLEANS-They are among the most successful independent dealers in the country, and attendees of the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association convention in New Orleans had the opportunity to hear their views on attracting customers, marketing services and creating a unique business atmosphere. Moderated by the co-author of Up Against the Wal-Marts, Jeanne Smalling Archer, a panel of six widely known dealers painted vivid pictures of how-and why-they run their operations just the way they do.
Barry Steinberg, owner of Direct Tire Sales, Watertown, Mass.; Phil Wick, president of Les Schwab Tire Centers, Prineville, Ore.; John Mayo, owner of Lex Brodie's Tire Co., Honolulu; Tim Thornburg, owner of Long Run Auto Care, Louisville, Ky.; and Richard H. Erickson, president of Sun Tire Services Inc., Jacksonville, Fla., spent about an hour discussing their dealerships in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Prompted by Ms. Archer, the panelists exposed the differences in their dealerships and services. But their ideas converged when the discussion moved to understanding their particular marketing areas and offering uncompro-mising customer service.
``It's very important that you and everyone in your business know the answer to the question: `What is unique about my business?'*'' Ms. Archer told dealers attending the convention. ``If you can't answer that question, how can your customers find it?''
Though the dealerships each have their subtle differences, all six noted how they emphasize customer service while de-emphasizing price.
Les Schwab's 261 outlets provide their customers with ``a clean-cut gentleman who knows his products as good as anybody in the industry,'' Mr. Wick said.
Developing a trusting relationship in the automotive field is no easy task, said Mr. Thornburg, who operates three outlets in Louisville.
``We want the customer to look at us and say, `We trust you.' We do this by getting the customer involved in the decision to spend five, six, seven hundred dollars,'' he said.
One way to make customers more comfortable, according to Direct Tire's Mr. Steinberg, is to approach them as soon as they arrive.
``We take care of the customer immediately. Everyone is served like they are the only customer in the store,'' he said. ``We're the most expensive in town, but we do the best job in town.''
Honolulu-based Lex Brodie's image was defined through years of customer service and personal treatment when founder Lex Brodie owned the business. Mr. Mayo bought the business five years ago. ``Basically, what we try to do is not screw it up,'' he joked.
Lex Brodie became known as having ``the best image of any business in the state,'' not just among tire dealerships, Mr. Mayo said, adding that ``Thank you very much'' has been the tag line on the company's radio spots for the past 30 years.
Long Run Tire, on the other hand, has defined its own service philosophy that helps create consumer trust, Mr. Thornburg said.
``A customer comes in because: 1) They have a problem; or 2) They want to avoid a problem. . . . We fix their problem. We don't `put brakes on the car,' we `fix the squeak,' '' he said.
The foundation for adding a new service is the trust a dealership already has developed with its customers, Mr. Mayo said. His company recently was able to add air conditioning service because it ``had the luxury of a high car count and trust.''
At Direct Tire's two outlets, customers are constantly surveyed to determine what services they expect. Those surveys have led to a number of programs that distinguish the company from its local competitors, including a fleet of 21 rental cars customers are allowed to use for free, a snow tire storage program, and nighttime hours for commercial accounts.
``All of you in this audience have seen some changes in their customers the past several years. Customers are showing more signs of stress,'' Mr. Steinberg said, adding his dealership tries to make the consumers' experiences as pleasant as possible.
Each of the dealers stressed marketing themselves based on their strengths, and nowhere was that more obvious than during the discussion of the inspection programs at Long Run and Sun Tire.
Long Run, which performs nearly every type of automotive service including extensive engine repairs, completes a 50-point inspection on its customers' vehicles, Mr. Thornburg said.
``Our customers appreciate our thoroughness, he said.
By contrast, Sun Tire performs only suspension, alignment, brake, steering and oil-change jobs. Instead of a 50-point inspection, the company completes five-point inspections for its customers.
``We only look at the things we do best,'' Mr. Erickson said.