Tire and auto service at Merchant's Inc. exemplifies the old leadership philosophy that you inspect what you expect. Simply put, Merchant's leadership gets excellence because they tell the troops what they expect and then inspect the work accordingly.
Furthermore, the company's leaders lead by setting a tone for the entire work force: These are managers with a conscience, who don't tolerate underhanded selling tactics. For these reasons, I'm convinced Merchant's approach points the way to long-term success in
the increasingly competitive auto-motive service market.
With headquarters in Manassas, Va., Merchant's has 130 stores and 12 distribution centers between Pennsylvania and South Carolina. In this and subsequent columns, I'll discuss examples of the company's ``inspect what you expect'' philosophy. These include an innovative brake parts program emphasizing quality over price and customer follow-up that gauges service personnel performance by customer satisfaction.
The unspoken law in this business seems to be: Buy parts as low as possible, sell them high and pump out enough volume to offset losses from comebacks.
We're accustomed to reading about Japanese manufacturers who are heavily involved with their vendors, teaching them their specific needs and working with them to develop high quality components. We've heard about such companies reducing comebacks and improving customer loyalty by building in quality up front.
But how often do you hear about a tire dealership creating a parts committee of technicians, service managers and company leaders who jointly evaluate the quality and completeness of the parts they buy? How often do you see a tire dealership closely monitoring mistakes its techs make and then collaborating with parts vendors to develop service guidelines that address those mistakes?
Long before anyone heard of things such as MAP (Maintenance Awareness Program) and NAAG (National Association of Attorneys General), how many tire dealers were stuffing parts boxes with reminder placards outlining essential steps for a complete, comeback-free repair job?
Merchant's, that's who! And according to Carl Dunn, vice president of parts, the company's brake parts program was a prime example of boosting customer satisfaction by building in quality up front.
Anyone who does brake work knows comebacks caused by noise and/or premature wear are major issues. Instead of waiting or hoping for someone else to resolve these issues for them, Merchant's brake parts committee studied the causes and sought vendors who were willing and able to help address real-world causes, Mr. Dunn told me.
For instance, original equipment (OE) brake pads with integrally molded friction material are commonplace on foreign cars. Although this isn't the cheapest type of pad available, the committee demanded it when they realized switching to other types increased noise and wear complaints.
The committee discovered some techs weren't replacing vital noise-suppression shims and shims weren't always readily available. To maximize the chances of techs replacing shims on every brake job, they searched for vendors who packaged the proper shims with the brake pads.
Plus, many techs coat the back of brake pads with a gooey, glue-like substance to reduce squeal. But when Merchant's techs convinced the brake parts committee that a more expensive product (a heat-resistant silicone grease) worked better, the committee updated standards by requiring that a tube of lubricant be packaged with the brake pads.
Likewise, replacing brake hardware became standard procedure. As the committee learned more, it added required procedures to a reminder placard packaged with new brakes.
Whereas techs once had to crimp and fit brake pad ``ears'' onto some remanufactured calipers, caliper assemblies come prefitted with new pads to save time and reduce brake squeal.
The committee's work has progressed to the point where Merchant's buys new rotors having a specific swirl finish on the brake surface that helps the pads seat in quicker and more quietly. Plus, rotor suppliers must adhere to stringent runout specifications, apply a particular rust protection material and package rotors in specific boxes, Mr. Dunn said.
Because OE brake friction is becoming more and more vehicle-specific, the brake committee also will demand more vehicle specific replacement brakes to combat noise and wear problems.
Thanks to the committee's efforts, ``Brake problems have dropped dramatically, and we made a huge dent in noise-related comebacks,'' Mr. Dunn said.