AKRON-A small mining machine was busy chopping 80 feet off the top of a South American mountain when it lost a tire. A 10.5-20 mining tire, to be exact; a size Bonanza Tire Sales Inc.'s Robert Delvo had never heard of.
But he didn't panic in the face of the daunting task of locating and shipping an unheard-of tire to workers anxious to finish erecting a signal relay on an unfinished South American mountaintop site.
He called Goodyear, despite having dealt little more than six months with the company-a tire maker he said was notorious for being difficult with which to work.
But that was before Goodyear implemented-and debugged-its Customer Sales and Service Center (CSSC), a collaboration of determined service representatives and state-of-the-art computer technology that 74 percent of Goodyear dealers say has made it easier to do business with the Akron-based tire maker.
In a matter of minutes, the unusual tire was located in a warehouse in Oregon and ordered shipped to Bonanza Tire in Houston, where Mr. Delvo was able to route it to South America.
``It's the greatest thing since sliced toast,'' Mr. Delvo said of Goodyear's CSSC, which went on line in July 1995.
Across the nation, Goodyear dealers have reveled in the new system.
Only 6 percent of dealers recently polled by Goodyear said they were ``not satisfied'' with the CSSC. That compares with 33 percent who said they were ``satisfied'' and a prevailing 57 percent who said they were ``very satisfied.''
What makes the numbers particularly inspiring for Goodyear is their contrast with previous years.
``(Before) it felt as if you placed an order and it went into a black hole. If everything worked right, sometimes the right thing came out the other side,'' said E.A. Sterosky Jr., now CSSC manager, who previously had worked as a district manager in Chicago.
The CSSC is a collection of 45 Customer Account Representatives, known as CARs, stationed ``in the bowels'' of Goodyear's corporate headquarters, Mr. Sterosky said.
The CARs, grouped into nine U.S. sales regions, work in small cubicles, each dominated by a large computer screen capable of providing them with what may seem an unlimited amount of information.
When dealers phone the CSSC, a computer identifies the callers and attempts to rout them to their primary service representative, their secondary rep or another rep that serves their geographic region-in that order.
Before they even pick up the telephone, software at each station allows the CARs to recognize the calling dealerships, their owners, locations, buying volumes, personal notes and even the past 120 days worth of telephone transactions.
But as advanced as the CSSC's technology might be, Mr. Sterosky is quick to focus on his team of representatives.
``When everything else isn't working, your people always get you through. Always,'' he emphasized.
The 45 CARs range in age from 26 to 61 years old and in company experience from three to 33 years. But all of them are heavily focused on customer service and adaptation, Mr. Sterosky said.
When Frank Wilson, a Mid-South region CAR, found a computer wouldn't allow him to order a tire a dealer was asking for, he decided to scribble the purchase on a piece of paper and faxed it to the warehouse.
``All the dealer cares is that his shipment is moving,'' he explained.
Goodyear dealers have responded favorably to the service their CARs have provided, according to a CSSC poll.
Ninety-seven percent said their CAR was ``trustworthy,'' while 75 percent said they were ``very satisfied'' with their account representative.
The CSSC handles as many as 5,000 calls from a core group of 3,000 U.S. dealers per day. But about a quarter of those can be handled by the system's computer-operated voice response unit, which prompts dealers to use a touch tone telephone to receive faxed information about their accounts.
But the sheer number of incoming calls can bog the system down-particularly at peak times, Mr. Sterosky admitted.
``We knew going in that's a major (point of contention), because a dealer's time is money,'' he said. The group is working to keep ``hold time'' to an average of 15 to 30 seconds.
``Ninety percent of the calls are `Do you have it?' `Can you get it?' `Where is it?' and `How much is it?'*'' Mr. Sterosky said. But the other 10 percent are ``everything else.''
``If we don't know the answer, we know where to get the answer,'' Mr. Wilson added.
The ``one-stop shopping'' approach of the CSSC is convenient for dealers, according to Bonanza Tire's Mr. Delvo, who said he is having a slow day if he doesn't call the CSSC five times.
``(Now) we know how to do business with Goodyear. I am stunned,'' he said. ``They are `customer service' now.''
He's not alone. Ninety-two percent of those polled by Goodyear said they agree the CSSC handles their needs in one call.
Some dealers said they believe the increased amount of contact with Goodyear the CSSC allows makes up for the reduced face-to-face contact they now have with field sales representatives.
``The small dealer (now) has a place to call when they may have never met their dealer rep (before),'' said Jenae McKiernan, a CAR in Goodyear's Central region.
The difference between doing business with Goodyear a year or so ago and today is ``night and day,'' Mr. Delvo said.
``I'm really stunned. When I competed against Goodyear (as a sales rep), I visited hundreds of Goodyear dealers.
``They used to complain and whine about how hard it was to do business,'' he explained. ``(Goodyear) went from one of the worst to the absolute best.''