LAS VEGAS—History is rife with evidence that change never comes easily. Just look at the turmoil of 1960s- and '70s-era Communist China, when Mao Tsetung pursued with a vengeance his infamous ``cultural revolution.''
Because the way automotive service providers do business hasn't changed radically in the 100 years since the advent of the automobile, many say that approach is in need of a major overhaul.
Images of Chairman Mao to the contrary, a Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. executive is calling for nothing short of a ``cultural revolution'' to initiate that change within the industry.
Now before dealers start worrying about wearing those funny looking Mao jackets and spouting nifty proverbs, Al Schretter is simply suggesting that dealers replace many of their time-worn service practices with a more lucrative, less risky remedy for the woes that may ail their shops.
The manager of service merchandising for BFS retail operations, Mr. Schretter has more than 20 years experience in the automotive industry on a national level.
His advice: Capitalize on selling the scheduled maintenance services recommended by vehicle manufacturers.
Now that's not necessarily a new message.
But it's one that continues to grow in favor with many industry experts, especially every time a report is publicized about how some repair facility or other was alleged to have sold unnecessary service or parts.
Addressing the more than 2,000 dealers participating in Bridgestone/Firestone's consumer dealer meeting, held Nov. 6 on the campus of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Mr. Schretter offered insight into some significant changes he sees occurring in the auto service business over the next few years.
``Today, growth in traditional hard parts is flat to declining.
``Things like shocks, struts and suspension parts are lasting much longer than they used to, and new car designs have eliminated some parts altogether,'' Mr. Schretter pointed out.
``The problem is that service providers—and tire dealers in particular—have counted on traditional parts replacement for a large share of their sales.
``Soon, they will have to figure out a way to add other businesses to replace what they are losing in this area.''
While focusing on routine maintenance service is a dealer's ``best strategy,'' he added, it is much more than simply a sales strategy.
``What I'm talking about represents a significant change from the way most of us have done business in the past. We're really talking about a distinct cultural revolution.*.*.*(that) must take place in the mind and actions of every associate in a store.''
Right now, a lot of companies are fighting aggressively over the shrinking parts replacement segment. For almost 100 years, he said, shops have operated on the principle that you inspect a vehicle to find the problem, then sell the parts to repair it. ``Many outlets just don't know how to do it any other way.''
Consequently, he said it will take a revolution to ensure continued growth and, in some cases, survival.
Traditional parts will continue to account for millions of dollars of sales for years to come, Mr. Schretter believes. But it makes a lot of sense for shops to move in the direction of manufacturers' scheduled maintenance services because of the opportu-nities they provide.
Those services ``can be done by any technician on almost any vehicle,'' he said. ``The parts you'll need, like filters and spark plugs, are relatively inexpensive. And most importantly, these services are customer-friendly. They're easy for associates to sell and customers to buy because they are readily understood by both.''
Although a vehicle may not necessarily be in need of repair, he estimated that required maintenance services specified by manufacturers at certain mileage intervals could translate to somewhere in the range of $300—``with a gross profit, including la-bor, of over 70 percent.''
Acknowledging that that amount can be a lot of money for a customer, Mr. Schretter said what is attractive about it is ``every recommendation comes from the vehicle manufacturer, so there is virtually no possibility of over-selling or recommending unnecessary work.
``If you are priced competitively, you can sell with confidence, knowing that you are the expert offering sound advice on what the manufacturer says is necessary to keep the vehicle running well and running longer.''
Still, he admitted that the typical consumer often is ``convinced that the auto service industry is filled with disreputable crooks who thrive on the over-sell, the under-deliver and the inflated price.''
That's why ``customer attitude'' is ``the most important factor affecting anyone's service business, and is something we must all work to improve on every day.''
He cited the ``Auto Repair Task Force'' report—published in October 1995 by the National Association of Attorneys General—which identified the four most common reasons for customer complaints about automotive service.
Designated the ``Four C's,'' they are:
``If you want to change your customers' attitudes about the business,'' Mr. Schretter told tire dealers, ``you must focus on improving these areas.
``To enhance communication, a service provider must create a dialogue with every customer. Full disclosure of what repairs are going to be done and why—supported by a complete estimate for those repairs and the method used to arrive at the price—are all must-do's.''
Adequately describing a vehicle's symptoms and problems is essential, he continued, ``since consumers believe the whole experience is going to be difficult,'' so they don't necessarily want to discuss it.
``It's up to the store associate to put the customer at ease by asking questions and providing information,'' he said.
Another factor in customers' reluctance to discuss their vehicles' maintenance needs is that they simply don't understand the ``complexity'' of cars today. Combined with a lack of communication, ``many customers feel that they're at the mercy of the service provider, if the associate does not take an advocate position,'' Mr. Schretter said.
Consequently, a shop owner has a number of major responsibilities, he said, such as ensuring that qualified, competent associates are hired; providing for continuing education; selling quality parts; and keeping the shop as up-to-date as possible with the latest technical equipment and information.
As for the fourth ``C''—consumer fraud—Mr. Schretter advised: ``You don't strive to improve. You eliminate it. Immediately.
``Any case of charging for work not done, selling work which is not needed, or having an incentive pay system in place which rewards the overselling of parts and services must be dealt with at once.''
``As members of this industry,'' he said, ``we must be the police force that addresses these issues wherever they may occur.
``If we do not, the legislators and regulators will—and that will only serve to strengthen the negative attitudes of our customers.''
To counter that, Mr. Schretter said BFS, along with many other auto service providers, is working closely with the Motorists Assurance Program (MAP) to improve the image and reputation of the industry in the eyes of the consumer.
Since its formation in 1992—following the Sears, Roebuck and Co. auto service fraud scandal—MAP has established, for all major vehicle systems, uniform inspection guidelines that identify what actions service providers can suggest, or recommend, based on the conditions found.
The organization also has established an independent-third-party dispute resolution process for customers and service shops, and is in the process of rolling out nationwide another component of its program: shop accreditation.
``As MAP's involvement in the business grows,'' Mr. Schretter said, ``and as public awareness expands, a (MAP-certified) shop that displays the MAP logo will send a strong positive signal to any consumer that this is a location that can be trusted for automotive service and repair.
``In time, we believe it will become the `Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval' for our industry.''
Race driver Adrian Fernandez, part of the ``Dream Team'' who race on Firestone tires, signs autographs for tire dealers at the BFS meeting.
Earl Tanner, right, of Mack-Alger Tire & Service, St. Clair Shores, Mich., hops into a Corvette for ``hot laps'' around the University of Nevada Las Vegas parking lot.
Tire Business photos by Sigmund J. Mikolajczyk