If Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. is to recover from its current crisis, it will be due in no small part to the support of its independent dealer network.
The Nashville, Tenn.-based tire maker must not lose sight of this as it battles a fire storm of bad publicity and financial hardship surrounding the recall of 6.5 million Firestone ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT light truck tires.
Bridgestone/Firestone should do all it can to help those retailers on the front lines deal with the crisis. To customers, they represent Firestone.
Firestone dealers, through no fault of their own, are working overtime fielding customer complaints, answering questions and assuaging fears. They're taking in recalled tires, mounting replacements and completing the necessary paperwork—often at little or no profit.
Dealers did not design nor make the re-called tires or the vehicles they're mounted on—in this case mostly Ford Explorers. But clearly they're among the victims of this tragedy.
Dealers are asked to replace tires they didn't sell—sometimes going out of pocket to buy competitors' products and then having to wait for reimbursement by BFS. Dealers also face the possibility of seeing the value of their Firestone franchise decline should customers shun the brand.
And while be-ing overrun with recall traffic, dealers have neither the time nor the personnel to pursue more lucrative business.
Firestone dealers see retail competitors selling replacements at a substantial profit and sending those same customers to them with recalled tires in hand. They then must collect and ship the recalled tires to the company and process the necessary paperwork.
Whereas some mass marketers and other big-volume retailers ducked the recall issue by sending customers elsewhere for replacements, BFS dealers have continued supporting the company and servicing its customers.
Bridgestone/Firestone still faces an uphill struggle with safety critics, product lawsuits and government investigations. It also must live with the knowledge that at least 134 people have died in vehicles equipped with its tires.
Nevertheless, the beleaguered tire maker has an important ally in its independent dealers, who've stayed loyal to the Firestone brand for generations.
For Bridgestone/Firestone to overcome this crisis, it will need these dealers. It's the tire dealer, trusted in his or her community, who will change public perception of the company and its products—one customer at a time.
The company must take steps to resolve its quality issues and determine what is causing the treads to separate from the casings of some its tires. It needs to quell the bad publicity and reassure customers that its tires are safe.
But no less important, Bridgestone/Firestone must strive to make the recall more palatable for its independent dealers—dealers who can and will help the company rebound after the crisis subsides.