A car rolls into a VIP Discount Auto Centers Inc. outlet and is greeted by a crew of automotive and tire technicians wearing headsets and uniforms resembling a NASCAR pit crew.
In the next room, adjacent to the garage, the vehicle's owner watches through a window and listens to the cadences being called out by the techs as the ``crew chief'' pulls the car in while another tech motions him towards the lift. One by one, the chief turns on the blinkers, wiper blades, brake lights, belts and hoses. When he's done, the car is lifted up into the air, and the chief yells for a safety check.
At the chief's call, a master tech stops whatever he's doing to inspect the car's undercarriage. In about a dozen minutes, the inspection is completed.
Such is the routine at the dealership, which adopted this service format called Speed Lane last September to speed a customer's visit while at the same time improve the quality of inspections performed on vehicles, said John Quirk, owner of the 48-store chain in New England.
``Our whole safety inspection process is a major focus of the speed lane process,'' Mr. Quirk said. ``Typically, what happened in our stores in a lot of cases where we had tire technicians doing safety inspections on cars because the mechanics were busy. And we decided that we wanted our highest trained personnel to do the safety inspections.''
Lewiston-based VIP Discount came up with the Speed Lane concept as a way to reduce tire tech turnover and raise the standards for the tire installation process, Mr. Quirk said, noting that installing four tires used to take 45 minutes to an hour at some of his outlets.
``We started to wipe the slate clean and say, `Hey, if you're going to change the tire properly, how do you do it?' We locked ourselves in a room for over three weeks before we answered that question,'' Mr. Quirk said. ``We listed every little thing we could think of.''
After testing the new concept in five stores last summer, Mr. Quirk was convinced he had a winner as his sales in those locations jumped by 22 percent. Then a five-month training process followed, along with a substantial investment in new tire-changing equipment, speed lifts, facility renovations and personnel as the dealership hired approximately 100 new technicians to implement Speed Lane, according to Jeff Riddle, vice president of tire sales and marketing.
VIP Discount operates on an 80-hour work week that includes Saturdays and Sundays with two shifts. To implement Speed Lane, the dealership needed to add a technician to each shift, Mr. Riddle said.
Mr. Quirk said VIP Discount spent $500,000 on new equipment alone. Every senior manager of the dealership spent two to three nights every week during a five-month period training employees.
Not only did VIP reconfigure the way each of its stores services vehicles, the dealership also signed NASCAR Winston Cup driver Ricky Craven to a three-year deal to help promote Speed Lane in TV commercials. Mr. Quirk said it was only natural to sign Mr. Craven because he has purchased parts from VIP Discount since he was 15, is a Maine native and even built his first race car from VIP Discount's parts bins.
``As an individual, I don't think we could be associated with a nicer guy,'' Mr. Quirk told Tire Business. He said Mr. Craven also advised VIP on the design of the format.
On a typical day at a VIP outlet, an oil change, safety inspection and tire rotation takes less than 30 minutes, Mr. Quirk said, noting that the record for an oil change, tire rotation and inspection is 11 minutes, 40 seconds. Another substantial difference he said he's noticed is that employee turnover is down. With Speed Lane, there are two teams of crew chiefs and tire techs that work in the stores. Techs can work four 10-hour days and have three days off in a row. They also have a better idea of what's expected of them, he said. A team consists of two crew chiefs, two tire technicians, the lead salesperson and an alignment technician.
``We've really taken the pressure off the position by setting the standards as high as possible and by saying, `If you're properly trained, you can become part of the team,''' Mr. Quirk said.
The pit crew techs also receive monthly incentives for reaching certain goals, but Mr. Quirk declined to elaborate.
Speed Lane is now ``at the forefront of making this company successful,'' he added, so some of the tire techs are in the TV promotions. ``That's been a great morale booster for us,'' he said.