DETROIT (Sept. 25, 2000) — In the interest of good customer relations, many Ford Motor Co. retailers are exchanging any Firestone tires, not just the tires on compact sport-utilities and pickups.
The unofficial practice—paid for out of the retailer´s pocket—is aimed at reassuring customers who may be spooked by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.´s voluntary recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires, even when the vehicles in question aren´t involved.
But Ford dealers have another incentive to swap tires. Ford is rolling out its Blue Oval program nationwide in an effort to improve customer satisfaction at the dealership.
The Blue Oval plan uses customer surveys on a dealer´s operating practices and service quality, as well as the dealership´s physical condition, to certify dealers for various factory benefits, including vehicle discounts.
"My whole life depends on my scores right now," said John Luciano, general manager of Town & Country Ford in Madison, Tenn. "I´ve had my scores blown up at Kinko´s and posted where customers can see how well I´m treating people."
Swapping to save sales
The Firestone problem could be an opportunity to move ahead, Mr. Luciano said.
"I calculate that we´re spending about $275 a month on advertising, per person, to bring people into the showroom," he said. "Why wouldn´t I spend another $300 on a different set of tires to keep a good customer coming back?"
Ford said it has no idea how many Firestones its retailers are popping off to replace with other brands, and there is no Ford plan to reimburse dealers for exchanges made outside of the recall.
Ford has certified 10 tire manufacturers to provide replacements for its pickups and sport-utilities.
Dealers say they are conducting exchanges case by case. They say the number of customers asking for non-Firestone brands on new Windstar minivans or F-250 pickups, for example, is small—perhaps one or two a week, in some cases. The dealers say they are explaining why there is nothing wrong with the tires that were not recalled, but if the customer persists, the dealership will swap.
Last week the recall situation became more complex when Continental General Tire Inc. announced a recall of the 16-inch Continental tires on 39,000 Lincoln Navigators. Those tires are suspected of uneven tread wear, but are not associated with any deaths.
Similarly, General Motors Corp. said it is not keeping tabs on the number of times its dealers swap out tires to facilitate a new sale. A GM spokeswoman said the company is aware of it happening, but estimated the numbers to be small. GM-brand retailers contacted by Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business, reported only sporadic requests for tire changes on new vehicles.
A spokesman for Honda North America Inc., which will equip about 650,000 North American-made vehicles with Firestones this year, said Honda´s national toll-free customer center had received only two telephone calls, as of the last week in September, asking whether Honda´s Firestone tires were affected.
Selling and reselling
For retailers, allaying consumer jitters may mean exchanging tires on a vehicle that has been sold. In other cases it means pulling Firestones off of a vehicle in the dealer´s lot.
"If it means saving the sale, we´ll swap out the tires," said Dans Callans, owner of Sunset Ford in suburban Phoenix. "Right now we´re thinking of this in terms of, `What do we need to do to satisfy the customer?´ "
Several weeks ago a customer returned to Town & Country Ford with a recently purchased Crown Victoria, asking for different tires. The car´s Firestones were not associated with the Wilderness AT light-truck tire line Bridgestone/Firestone is recalling, but Mr. Luciano, the general manager, said he swapped the tires at his own expense.
"How many of these exchanges am I going to end up doing? I don´t know," he said. "Will that Crown Vic customer go tell everybody in town? We´ll see. Would that even be a bad thing? I don´t know."
Revenues for some
It may have helped many Ford dealers that, a year ago, the factory encouraged dealers to create their own tire centers. As part of Ford´s "Around the Wheel" program, 3,000 dealers opened tire retailing and service centers. Participating dealers carry diverse brands of tires and can service and balance tires in competition with tire chains.
That spells revenues in the current crisis. Bridgestone/Firestone is reimbursing tire retailers, including Ford dealers, $24 per tire to mount and balance replacement tires. Processing 250 customers would earn a dealer $24,000 in service revenue, in addition to any profits made on tires.
Scott Wilmes, general manager of his family´s Wilmes Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Altus, Okla., is neither an "Around the Wheel" dealer nor certified under Blue Oval. But he agreed that eating some of the cost of the Firestone hysteria has to be expected.
He recently took Firestones off of a new Ford Explorer for a repeat customer and replaced them with more expensive Goodyears. The difference in cost came out of the store´s profits.
"We don´t make the same big margins you used to on a new car, so you may not have $200 to kick in for goodwill," Mr. Wilmes said. "But we´re in a small town. People know you. They expect you to do the right thing."