LOUISVILLE, Ky.—``Prescription without diagnosis is malpractice'' in the medical profession—and the same could be said of dealers who fill the tire needs of commercial truck fleets. That's the opinion expressed by Bob Fender in a speech, ``Performing proper fleet inspections and surveys,'' at the recent International Tire and Rubber Association's World Tire Conference & Exhibition in Louisville.
Mr. Fender, general manager of McBuck Wholesale Tire, a commercial dealership in Kalamazoo, Mich., reminded his dealer audience that their role in recommending the best tire to meet a customer's specific needs is not unlike that of a physician who prescribes the most effective remedy for the patient's ills.
Both physicians and tire dealers need to first gather and interpret relevant data before offering their respective prescriptions; and for commercial tire dealers, assembling that data requires a proper fleet inspection or survey.
Mr. Fender pointed out that even though his physician is a close friend, he still refuses to write a prescription without examining him beforehand. As a doctor, he would be guilty of malpractice if he did otherwise, Mr. Fender said. And this same principle applies when the dealer attempts to recommend the best tire for a fleet customer's use.
It's the dealer's job, he pointed out, to provide the right product and necessary service to optimize tire performance on each wheel position—``and be able to support that recommendation with data.'' There simply is no substitute for a proper tire inspection or service, he said.
Moreover, independent tire dealers are in a far more suitable position to do this than the typical tire manufacturer's rep, he told his audience, because ``you can make a recommendation based on data and be a true commercial tire cost consultant.''
``Let's face it,'' Mr. Fender said, ``a tire manufacturer's rep can only recommend the brand he represents. As a true cost consultant—you the independent tire dealer—can gather your data and make the recommendation to the client for the tire that best fits his specific application regardless of brand allegiance.''
``Knowledge is power,'' said Mr. Fender, noting that there are potent economic benefits in conducting fleet inspections. ``He who controls the performance data is going to control the fleet.
``Al Capone was history's most successful beer distributor in the city of Chicago. And he had a saying that `You will go further in life with a kind word and a gun than you will with just a kind word.' Well, in your case, that gun is the data,'' Mr. Fender told his dealer audience.
Guidelines developed by The Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations list at least three types of inspections that can be carried out on a fleet's tires, he pointed out.
First, there's the simple treadwear test in which tire mileage is tracked through the original tread or retread life. Be consistent when conducting such a test, he advised. Make certain to apply the gauge in the right place. On a rib-type tread, get as close to the center as possible.
A second type of inspection—the tire serviceability test—is similar to the treadwear test except that tread mileage continues to be tracked throughout the life cycle of the tire, he explained.
A third type of tire-related fleet survey—the fuel economy test—takes so much sophistication it's best left to the manufacturer, he said.
To the above list, Mr. Fender would also add what he described as a ``walk-through'' inspection, during which the dealer tries to spot developing problems and get them taken care of during the fleet's downtime.
Regardless of type, most such inspections are carried out by the tire dealership's salaried or commissioned employees, he said. The slim profit margins in the commercial tire business today simply don't permit paying hourly workers to do so.
``I start my fleet inspections at the crack of dawn,'' Mr. Fender told dealers. So by the time his company's service workers arrive at work, he already has phoned in or faxed a list of what is needed in the way of products and services at each fleet location.
``I'm running ahead so the service man doesn't waste time and is just going from place to place doing his thing,'' Mr. Fender said.
Safety must always be a consideration, he added, ``particularly when you're out there before dawn or at dusk doing these inspections.
``You're going to get muddy, wet, cold or hot—depending on the season,'' he told dealers. ``In winter, there will be ice which could cause you to slip and fall under a tractor-trailer rig that's being moved.''
For the same reason, he said, ``Never duck under a trailer attempting to save time getting from one side to the other.''
When comparing your tire against a competitor's, use the best tire for that particular application, he said, and let the competitor worry about putting on his best. ``In other words, don't make his decision for him. Don't worry about it being a fair comparison from his standpoint.''
And by the same token, ``How many of you are willing to accept the fleet's data about stuff they've been running for years?'' Mr. Fender asked dealers in the audience. ``Not me, I'm going to say `Prove it to me first,' because sometimes you get sandbagged.
``Never leave anything to chance,'' he advised. For example, on the same sheet he turns over to the fleet's maintenance manager to get permission to do the work, Mr. Fender always makes note of the time he arrived and departed. He also lists every vehicle on the lot at the time of his inspection.
Mr. Fender said he's had fleet managers claim the dealership missed finding a flat tire during its inspection. But this notation on the sheet showed the vehicle wasn't even on the lot at the time.
All these procedures, he said, are intended to accomplish one of three objectives:
1) To maintain an existing relationship with the customer when you're already his preferred vendor;
2) To help establish such a relationship when you're ``Mr. Out'' and somebody else is ``Mr. In.''; and
3) To re-establish a former relationship that earlier was lost.
There are five essential ingredients of a successful truck tire program, Mr. Fender said: the customer, availability of compre-hensive new tire programs, fast efficient tire service, a TQM (Total Quality Management) retreading operation and a data-based information system.
``These are like cogs on a gear,'' Mr. Fender said. ``They all fit together and you've gotta have 'em all to make the machine work.
``If we do our job right,'' he said, ``we're probably going to sell the guy fewer tires.'' But, chances are, that customer's business is going to prosper and grow. ``And when we're the preferred vendor, we'll grow with it.''
Providing fleet customers with complete tire maintenance and retreading services is absolutely essential to the long-term success of commercial tire dealerships, Mr. Fender believes.
``There's a big trend in our area now for fleets to hire their own tire service people,'' he said. ``But 99 percent of the time, tire maintenance costs go up while maintenance service goes down.
``You spend two or three years getting the fleet on track and their tire cost under control only to have some guy at the corporate level take you off the deal. They think they can't afford the $25 service call. But we'll be back there in about a year—putting it all back together at twice the cost.''
As for retreading: ``I cannot see how you can remain a factor in the commercial tire business if you do not have your own retread plant,'' Mr. Fender told dealers.
``You will not control your destiny. You will not have access to complete information. You will not be able to be a true cost consultant if you do not have your own retread facility,'' he added.