LAS VEGAS-The secrets to a successful tire dealership aren't exactly secrets but rather mere common sense combined with some good and often innovative ideas.
Many of those ideas were shared-and often debated-during a two-day program entitled, ``Successful tire dealers share their secrets,'' held in conjunction with the Specialty Equipment Market Association/International Tire Expo in Las Vegas.
The two 90-minute seminars featured 11 panelists, six the first day, five the second. Roughly 40 dealers attended each session. The panelists represented the gamut of tire dealerships. Large and small, single-store and multi-store, tires-only and full-service dealers were on hand, as nearly every conceivable point of view in the industry was represented.
Narrated each day by longtime industry veteran and former tire dealer Don Olson, the sessions took a few minutes to get rolling. But once the rhetoric started, there was no stopping it. Attendees who came with questions left with suggestions, if not answers.
The hottest topics among the two discussion sessions centered on loyalty, both employee and customer. Attendees learned how the two ideas actually go hand in hand.
``Consumers want to shop at an element that they trust,'' said Paul Sullivan of Sullivan Tire in Norwell, Mass., reflecting a shared opinion that keeping employees can lead to retaining customers, based on the element of familiarity. But therein lies the rub. Nearly to a dealer, those in attendance claimed the revolving door on the employees' entrance among their biggest problems.
Keeping enough quality technicians in stores seemed to be a great concern among those in attendance. When someone leaves, an adequate replacement isn't always waiting.
``The turnover ratio is astronomical,'' said Tom Bothe of Mr. Tire Inc. in the Washington-Baltimore area. ``If you can get techs through 90 days, you're doing as much good as you can do.''
That number-90 days-seemed to rile the panel and those in attendance. Many techs aren't fully trained when they bolt to another store, many lamented.
Employee pirating also was addressed, and to a degree encouraged. At the very least, some panelists suggested it as necessity-kind of a get theirs before they get yours way of thinking.
Tire Industry Hall of Fame inductee Pam Fitzgerald of Mike Gatto Inc. in Melbourne, Fla., pointed at industry perception as a culprit for the shortage of technicians. ``It's the image of the grease monkey,'' she said, adding that public education's phasing out vocational/technical curriculum hasn't helped increase the flock.
So what to do? Training, panelists stressed, is an important step in finding and keeping employees. Perhaps as important is illustrating to them some of the benefits of staying on the job long term.
Christie Stock of Wholesale Tire Distributors in Logan, Utah, suggested sitting down and explaining exactly what a benefit such as a 401k can do for an employee over the long haul. ``Show them how much (money) they can have,'' she said. ``We've noticed a dramatic turn-around time with our technicians.''
Mr. Olson suggested allowing employees to have an active role in the way things are done to develop a sense of ownership in the business.
Mark Rhodes of Plaza Tire in Cape Girardeau, Mo., said changing store goals-kind of reinventing the wheel-from time to time creates freshness. Eliminating repetition can make a job environment more pleasant, he added.
Ms. Stock and others emphasized that in a time of high employee turnover-a condition exacerbated by lack of quality candidates-it is of paramount importance to keep employees happy.
Ditto for customers who, panelists noted, have many choices where to shop and few reasons to be loyal to their neighborhood tire dealer. So customer service becomes as essential to dealers as inventory.
``I can't think of anything more important in business today than knowing how many customers you have and who they are,'' Mr. Sullivan said.
Dealers can lose customers before they even get them in some instances-a product of a mere lapse in common sense or common courtesy. The panel also emphasized the importance of good consumer relations, especially during competitive times.
Both Ms. Fitzgerald and Randy Clark of Dunn Tire Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y., suggested logging phone calls, following scripts and emphasizing phone manners to keep customers coming back. Mr. Clark even recommended a bit of undercover work to find out exactly how those on the service desk are handling customers over the phone.
``If you want to find out why you have a losing store, call it,'' he said.
Ms. Fitzgerald suggested encouraging customer feedback ways they won't be shy. Her dealership uses comment cards, offering patrons a chance to write down their feelings. She has found in most cases customers will put in writing things they wouldn't say out loud.
``Even if they don't say anything, chances are they're thinking it,'' she said. ``Make them think you're a good guy. You can do the right thing 99 percent of the time, but it's the other 1 percent that they remember.
``Whatever makes the customer happy is better in the long run, even if it's not the right thing to do,'' Ms. Fitzgerald said.