MONTREAL-Striving to help its Alliance Tire Professionals members differentiate themselves from their competitors, Michelin North America (Canada) Inc. has begun offering Alliance dealers the opportunity to certify their counter personnel to the gold standard.
After initiating a beginning level training program two years ago for Alliance dealers' sales personnel, Michelin has carried through, creating bronze, silver and now gold standards.
The program's objective is simple: to increase consumer satisfaction with the tire purchasing process through high standards of service and certification for technical knowledge and sales expertise.
There are 178 Alliance dealers across Canada, a number that has been relatively stable the past few years, according to Roger Menard, administrator of the program. In the key provinces of Ontario and Quebec-where about half the Alliance dealers are located-the program has reached a state of relative equilibrium, whereas in the western provinces, where Alliance dealers are underrepresented, most of the eligible, desirable independent dealers are already tied to a buying/marketing group, Mr. Menard said.
``We're not really in a growth mode at the moment with Alliance,'' Mr. Menard said. ``Instead we are focusing on improving the quality of the stores so as to improve the network as a whole.''
The Alliance program has its roots in the Royal Care Tire Professionals program started in the mid-1980s with a few selected Uniroyal dealers. Royal Care expanded in 1988 to include the BFGoodrich brand following the creation of Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. In 1992 the Michelin brand became available after Michelin acquired UGTC.
Club Excellence was created in 1993 to supply the demand for a similar type of program in the province of Quebec. Four years later, Michelin merged the Royal Care and Club Excellence programs to form Alliance Tire Professionals.
The program initially was largely a buying cooperative, said Ken Simpkins, owner of Johnston & Magwood Tire Service Ltd. in Mississauga, Ontario, and an executive on the dealer council. But it has evolved through the years into so much more.
``Buying tires competitively is a big part of our business,'' Mr. Simpkins said, ``but it's still only one part. You still have to know how to sell them,...how to get them off the shelf. The Alliance program helps us do that.''
Alliance dealers carry the Michelin, BFGoodrich and Uniroyal lines, and are offered an exclusive on the Regul brand and selected Uniroyal lines, Mr. Menard said.
Besides competitive purchasing terms on tires, Alliance dealers get benefits such as: cooperative advertising programs; individual Web sites through the Alliance dealer locator; protected territories; showroom design assistance; exclusive tire lines; a counter personnel training program; and an equipment purchasing fund known as Added Value Service.
The latter of these allows dealers to accrue points toward buying new tire servicing equipment, where Michelin co-ops up to 70 percent of the purchase price.
This practice allows dealers to have the latest generation equipment, which benefits customers, while looping back to the program's objective of quality stores and knowledgeable staff, Mr. Menard said.
Last year Michelin extended the AVS to include a deal with Dell computers, Mr. Simpkins said, allowing many dealers to update their office systems.
Jamie Kelley, owner of Ron Mitton's Tire Service Ltd. in Scarborough, Ontario, said the program's buying power, affordable cooperative advertising and training make it a good deal for him.
To promote the Alliance program nationally, Michelin put up 400 billboards across Canada last year, Mr. Menard said, and it does both television and radio promotions.
To ensure that Alliance dealers' services are up to the standards advertised, Michelin uses ``mystery shoppers'' to monitor each dealership's appearance and how personnel deal with customers.
This provides valuable feedback both to Michelin and the individual dealer, Mr. Simpkins said.
As for the training programs, Mr. Menard explained the system as: bronze is a basic introduction to tires, tire service and how tires interact with the customer's vehicle; silver adds knowledge about warranties, tire wear and damage, and other buying decision variables; and gold adds knowledge and experience of interfacing with the service department and communicating service issues with the customer.
There's also professional development service training for owners or store managers.
Alliance dealers are encouraged to promote their employees' level of training to customers in their stores and in promotions.
As of April 2001, nine out of 10 Alliance dealers had at least one employee certified at the bronze level and about half at the silver level, Michelin said. Gold level certification started this year.