In today's increasingly competitive markets, tire dealerships are always looking for ways to ensure customer satisfaction while also showing their appreciation.
Many dealers agree positive customer treatment is the key to maintaining customer loyalty.
``If we don't take care of them,'' said Bill Williams, speaking of his customers, ``our competitors will.''
The chairman and CEO of Jack Williams Tire Co. Inc. in Moosic, Pa., said one thing that sets his company's stores apart from others is that any sales associate is required to go to a customer's car and make a recommendation.
``We don't want them standing behind the counter,'' he said, adding that instead of doing it themselves, he has seen salespeople at other dealerships ask customers to go to their cars to find out their tire size. That he views as highly unprofessional.
``We go to our competitors and we figure whatever they do, we should do the opposite in most cases,'' he said.
Mr. Williams said customer convenience is a determining factor of total satisfaction, so at each of his 24 stores, located throughout northeastern and central Pennsylvania, between two to four service bays are reserved for express tire changes.
``We don't want to lose the express service,'' he said. `` A lot of people just want to come in and get tires and leave.''
While technicians may perform quick safety checks in the tire express bays, they must move the car into a service bay if it needs any additional work, Mr. Williams said. There also is a designated lube technician who works at each store, making it more convenient for customers.
Jack Williams has installed service pits instead of lifts at its newest stores, which Mr. Williams said makes it easier for technicians to work on vehicles. The pits cost about $50,000 per bay compared with lifts, which are about $30,000 per bay. Pits tend to cost more because there are more environmental standards that must be followed for their installation, he said.
Despite the cost increase, Mr. Williams said the pits are worth it because they eliminate the issue of clearance on low cars and lifting capacity problems.
Outside of its service bays, Jack Williams' stores make sure to have clean and comfortable waiting rooms, he said. And since the company opened its high-performance center in 2003, all new stores, and most old, come equipped with Internet access so customers can surf the Web while waiting for their automobiles.
Dave Church, senior vice president of Ken Towery's Auto Care Centers based in Louisville, Ky., said the company hopes to portray the message that its employees are friendly to all, especially to female patrons.
``Fifty-five percent of our shoppers are women,'' he said. ``We want to create that image that we're women-friendly.''
That's precisely why Ken Towery's held a companywide competition for each store manager and his spouse/companion, in search of the ``friendliest'' bathroom. A clean and neat facility presents a positive image to patrons, especially women, he said.
The competition was open to all 16 stores, located throughout Kentucky and southern Indiana.
Mr. Church said those who participated painted walls, hung pictures, brought in flowers and even hung hooks so women could hang their purses. The participation was so good that Ken Towery's decided to present rewards to first-, second- and third-prize winners.
Immediately, the company began to receive positive feedback about its bathrooms through customer comment cards, Mr. Church said.
Ken Towery's also hopes to attract female patrons through the company's latest TV commercial, which will air in August. It features the wife of company president Ken Towery, whom Mr. Church called ``one fantastic business lady.'' He said the company hopes its female audience will connect with the spokeswoman.
The most important thing a company can do in order to retain customers is to perform what the customer expects in a timely manner, Mr. Church said. In addition, if dealers do simple things such as use floor mats, seat and steering wheel covers, they will gain customer satisfaction, he said-all things Ken Towery's stores do.
The company also prides itself on its hire of ASE-certified technicians and enforcement of its drug-free policy.
``It's really amazing how much drugs are out there in the workforce,'' he said, adding that all of Ken Towery's new employees are drug tested and randomly tested after that. ``We don't gloat over the fact. It just makes us more professional.''
In addition, Mr. Church said Ken Towery's has customer-friendly showrooms and provides Internet access to its patrons.
Aubrey Felton, president and CEO of Felton Tire & Auto Inc., has opened three Tuffy Tire & Auto franchise stores since April in the competitive southern Florida region and has more on the way.
As a new franchise owner, Mr. Felton knows customer treatment is essential for the success of his stores. That's why Felton Tire goes out of its way to ensure customer satisfaction, he said.
All customers receive a quick safety check on their vehicles within seven minutes of entering the store, he said. That immediately lets customers know if there are any problems, and they can then choose whether to stay while their vehicles are serviced, Mr. Felton said.
All customers receive a call the day after their visit to see how service was and as a personal thank-you, he said. They also get thank-you notes placed inside their cars and, as another gesture of appreciation, female customers receive carnations inside their cars.
``Price at that point doesn't become such an issue, so we don't have to go out and compete with low-ball oil changes and other enticements to bring customers in-basically to bribe them to come back,'' he explained.
Mr. Felton said he also has a reward program set up with area Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar, Chili's Grill & Bar and Outback Steakhouse restaurants. Customers who spend more than $500 at one of his stores receive a gift certificate to one of those restaurants as a token of appreciation.
Mr. Felton said he also takes pride in his store's showrooms. Unlike most, Mr. Felton has leather furniture and satellite televisions with remote controls left out on tables so patrons can watch what they choose.
Mr. Felton said he wanted his stores to feel like a ``family den environment,'' so every store features an area for children, complete with puzzles and hand-held electronic video games ``so parents don't pull their hair out.'' And one store even has a 150-gallon fish tank.
In addition to providing coffee and soft drinks at all stores, he also has popcorn machines at two.
Steve Shannon, president of Steve Shannon Tire Co. Inc. in Bloomsburg Pa., and located throughout north-central Pennsylvania, has been in the tire business for 19 years and is about to open his 10th store.
``It all boils down to people,'' he said, adding that good employees are able to build a rapport with customers.
While treatment is, above all, the deciding factor for customer satisfaction, still other factors come into play, he said.
Stores that ensure basic essentials are the ones that tend to be most successful with customers, he said, such as those that provide ``clean bathrooms with toilet paper and soap''-something some stores seem to lack, he said. ``Sometimes you get an eye-opener'' when visiting competitors' shops, and ``we try to have a nice clean waiting room'' and to make sure showrooms are comfortable, he added.
To ensure cleanliness, all tools are put away in the service bays at the end of each day-even if it means employees have to stay a half-hour over, he said. Also, scrap tires are disposed of both inside and outside the shop each night.
Mr. Shannon said another way to ensure customer satisfaction is to designate service bays for specific services.
All Steve Shannon Tire & Auto Centers have six to 10 service bays, he said. Each store has a number of designated bays for tires and for service, which makes it easier because technicians then have all the tools they need in front of them and don't have to search around the shop. Mr. Shannon said the stores usually dedicate a larger number of bays to service because it's more profitable.
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The following are some suggestions from the North Carolina Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association's ``Tarheel Tire Topics'' newsletter on why dealers ought to display in their showrooms materials on tire pressure monitoring systems.
* Instead of having your employees waste time explaining TPMS, have educational materials on hand in the waiting area. Oftentimes the customer already will be apprised of the work being done without a lot of explanation and valuable time taken out of your employees' schedule.
* Reserve a particular area of your waiting room for references to the types of work you may be performing on their vehicles.
* Have a TV available with a VHS and/or DVD player and use it to play TPMS educational programs.