They are the same things average motorists are encouraged to check-such as tire inflation and tread wear-but the high cost of downtime for a commercial fleet is making service inspections a must-have for commercial tire dealerships, sources told Tire Business.
The competitive nature of the commercial tire business coupled with the recent trend of most trucking accounts being settled on a national-account basis give independent dealers little choice.
``Basically the only way to differentiate ourselves from our competition is to save (fleet customers) money somewhere else other than the cost of their tires,'' said Shawn Campbell, a commercial sales representative for GCR Truck Tire Centers in Phoenix.
Mr. Campbell, along with 25 service technicians at the Phoenix outlet, performs fleet inspections as needed by the individual customers. Some fleets can require daily air-pressure checks on a percentage of their trucks, while others prefer a full-scale inspection every month.
The information from the inspections then can be boiled down into reports about costs per mile and costs per hour, whether to retread and dozens of other issues.
The common inspection points include checking air pressure and uneven tread wear, plus other factors such as rim damage, mismatched duals, valve cap problems and signs of a needed alignment.
Jeff Lecklider, president and owner of Gem City Tire Inc. in Cincinnati, said his technicians remove and inspect any tires that are more than 20 percent under-inflated. He said as many as 75 percent of those examined had problems.
Kevin Rohlwing, senior vice president of education and technical services for the Tire Industry Association, said the best technicians can see maintenance issues before problems arise.
``With experience you're going to be able to notice things...but most times the tires will tell you,'' he said, adding many techs get accustomed to the warning signs of, for example, a front end out of alignment.
TIA's commercial tire service training requires an eight-hour class plus two to three hours of hands-on work to be certified. Mr. Rohlwing said close to 15,000 technicians have been trained, including 900 that became certified instructors.
He said more dealerships are looking at training to curb rising insurance costs.
David Shipp, sales manager at Austin, Texas-based GCR, said Bandag Inc. also offers several training opportunities for the dealership's technicians.
The frequency of inspections depends largely on the type of fleet being serviced, Mr. Rohlwing said. For example, a waste hauler will need service more often because the trucks twist and turn on the road, often hit curbs, travel both on- and off-road and run at very slow, then very fast speeds.
``Those tires go flat on a daily basis,'' he said. ``The waste business is tire hell.''
Terry Westhafer, president of Central Tire Corp. in Verona, Va., said his four technicians and personnel on five service trucks keep detailed records of inspections so they have the most complete information about a fleet's condition.
The two-outlet Goodyear re-treader and commercial dealership also can inspect trucks its customers are considering buying.
Still, inspections can't catch every problem.
``The tire that's fully inflated today can be half inflated tomorrow,'' Mr. Westhafer said.
Mr. Campbell said he performs a scrap tire analysis fairly frequently for many of his fleet customers. The analysis examines tires before they are discarded to notice trends. For example, a history of impact damage can show a need for more driver training.
Technology also can play a big part. For one customer, Paradise Waste Services Inc., GCR runs casings that will be retreaded through Bandag's 7400 Insight casing analyzer, which does a bead-to-bead inspection scan of the casing. With that system, Mr. Campbell said he helped replace 130 of the fleet's tires-at about $350 each-that had bead damage. He said finding the problem on the competing tires helped his image with the client.
``You can help save the fleet very quickly on something like that,'' he said.
The ultimate point, Mr. Campbell said, is to maintain existing customers and gain new ones.
``What we're doing anymore is to take our fleets out of the tire business and make that our job,'' Mr. Campbell said.
Mr. Westhafer said the relationship that is built from the service translates into a competitive edge since competing on pure tire sales is increasingly difficult.
In fact, Mr. Shipp of GCR said dealers shouldn't even try to compete only on price.
``If they're not doing some of these value-added services...then they're missing the big picture because then all they are is pickup (and) dropoff,'' he said.
Mr. Westhafer said the service is expected as part of the entire package and is usually ``what you do to maintain the account.''
While Mr. Rohlwing of TIA said commercial tire dealers should start charging customers for the valuable service, he admitted the business is particularly competitive.
``The number of fleets is static,'' he said. ``That's one of the things about this business, there's no new business.... The only way you get new customers is if you take one away from a competitor, and you lose a customer when someone takes one away from you.''
For that reason, the relationships that are established from a healthy service unit can be invaluable, Mr. Westhafer said.
``They have to trust you and know that you're looking out for their welfare, not just spending their money in an indiscriminate fashion,'' he said.
With tires the third highest cost of his fleet, Les Weaver, maintenance director of Transco Lines Inc. in Russellville, Ark., said good service is the No. 1 trait he looks for in a tire dealer.
``If I call somebody, I want a tire now,'' he said.
Still, Mr. Weaver said he performs the daily inspections on his 180-truck fleet.
``I don't like to put anyone else in charge of our tires,'' he said.
Mr. Lecklider of Gem City Tire said the most important task for a tire dealer is to show how the inspections by tire experts can save money in the long run.
``You have to work really hard to gain that trust,'' he said. ``You can't get that on your first visit.''