"He pumped her gas and he cleaned her glass, And one cold, rainy night he fixed her flat.
The new store came where you do it yourself,
You buy a lotto ticket and food off the shelf.
Forget the little man.
Forget about that little man...."
CHARLESTON, S.C.—When Bill Watts recently considered buying property across the street from a fellow independent tire dealer, he couldn't help but think about the above lyrics from country music star Alan Jackson's ballad "Little Man."
It is a pensive song about how the small businesses of yesteryear disappeared when mass merchandisers and national retail chains came to small towns.
Though Mr. Watts is no mass retailer—he owns five new-tire stores in Charleston—he couldn't see himself building a sixth in an area where he'd compete head-to-head with another, smaller independent and possibly put him out of business. So he stuck to his principles and passed on the opportunity.
"We just got to thinking that if independents don't protect one another, who will?" he said.
Mr. Watts admits his dealership—Gerald's Tires & Brakes—feels the cutthroat pricing pressure from the Sears, the Wal-Marts, the Sam's Clubs and the Pep Boys. But just as principle affected his decision not to expand near another independent dealership, it also has guided Gerald's Tires to thrive in its market.
The dealership has gained a reputation for embodying the ideal of go-the-extra-mile customer service, or as Mr. Watts puts it, giving customers what they expect "and then some."
And it's paid off: A National Tire & Battery store down the street from one of his outlets closed recently, while Gerald's Tires is looking to expand.
Employees at Gerald's Tires not only service cars and try to sell tires at fair prices, but they do all they can to make customers feel welcome and have fun while they wait. Mr. Watts' philosophy is that he and his workers should always look for details about the customers who drive up, smile and ask them questions.
If a guy comes in wearing a veteran's hat, then someone at Gerald's Tires will ask him about his military service and express appreciation for his contribution to his country, Mr. Watts said, noting this "and then some" service makes all the difference. Customers appreciate the friendliness and kindness on top of good service and want to return, even though another dealership's prices may be lower.
"If you're conscious and look at what a customer drives, at tags and stickers on their cars, look at how they're dressed, you can come up with small talk items that tell a customer, `I care. You're more than just a guy here buying a tire,'" Mr. Watts explained.
"How many places have you shopped where you've left thinking, `You know, if this weren't the only place in town I could have bought this, I'd have bought this somewhere else. That girl behind the counter looked like she had been sucking on a lemon all day long,'?" he asked.
As a special service to women customers, Gerald's Tires leaves a long-stemmed rose on the front seat of their cars along with a card as a "token of appreciation for the confidence" they've placed in the company's employees, Mr. Watts said.
The service isn't promoted, and no one tells a customer about the flower, so she's surprised when she opens her car door. The dealership has given away roses daily for the past four years, he said, and last year distributed 25,000 roses.
The company even allows some male customers to take roses home to their wives and pretend they've purchased them.
To make sure employees are following through on expressing courtesy to customers, Mr. Watts has an outside consulting firm secretly shop at each outlet and later critique such things as how long it took an employee to approach them and ask what they needed.
The firm also calls each store about 10 times per month to see if workers answer the phone properly. That means they must say, "It's a great day at Gerald's," say their own name, ask for the caller's name, then ask how they can be of assistance, Mr. Watts said.
The salesperson who answers the phone is supposed to use the caller's name three times during the conversation and tell the caller to write down the salesperson's name and ask for him or her when they come in for tires. The rationale is that people call several places for price quotes and may feel more comfortable going to a place where they can ask for a specific person, he said.
Salespeople who score perfect or within five points of perfect on the consultant's phone etiquette evaluation sheet receive a $100 bonus at the end of the month.
To further serve customers, Gerald's Tires runs a unique treadwear test on new-tire lines. Mr. Watts made a deal with a local taxicab company to install tires for free on some cabs that drive about 2,000 miles per week—after the dealership rebuilt the vehicles' front ends without charge.
In return, cabbies must visit Gerald's Tires twice a week to have the tire pressure and treadwear checked and the tires rotated and balanced every 4,000 miles.
Though a bit unscientific, the cab test gives Gerald's Tires a way to calculate best buys based on dollars per mile, Mr. Watts said. Store managers can then tell customers that although a certain brand costs 20 percent more than another, it can get 30 percent more mileage.
It's a concrete way to explain brand value to a customer, he said, and helps maintain their trust.
Founded in 1974 as Gerald's Recaps by Mr. Watts' late father, Howard, and his partner, Gerald Davis, the company at one time operated 27 stores throughout the Southeast. Each store was named after its manager as a motivation for that employee.
During the early 1980s, Bill Watts purchased Mr. Davis' stake and began converting the business from retreading to retail only. The other retread shops were either sold or closed.
Mr. Watts manages the company with his brother-in-law, David Ard, vice president and general manager, and his two sons, Clint and Clay, both service managers.
The company's wide range of tire brands include Kumho, Goodyear, Dunlop, Michelin, Uniroyal, Bridgestone and Lee. Automotive service—brakes, front-end and CV joint replacement—makes up 60 percent of the business.
Expansion to a sixth location, in nearby Summerville, is in the planning stages.
Despite competition, Mr. Watts emphasized that his company has managed to prosper over the years because of his faith in God, which has made a difference in his family and professional life. He said he recently told a marketing class at the College of Charleston that many entrepreneurs smarter than he have failed to make their businesses survive, and he feels humbled by that reality.
"The No. 1 place we give credit is to God," Mr. Watts said. "He's just really blessed us."
Although it doesn't hurt to "get on your knees when times are tough," he added, applying Biblical principles in daily business leads to success.
"Whether a person wants to be religious or not, if you use those principles of going the extra mile, kindness and taking care of people, you'll grow. It works."