Some tire dealers and service shop operators resist working on older cars and trucks. However, successfully repairing older vehicles is an effective way to win new customers in today's ultra-competitive automotive service market.
What's more, the approach can boost the loyalty of existing customers who are stretching their pocketbooks in order to keep an existing vehicle operating reliably. Saving a vehicle from salvage—or from being parked for a while—is an enormous victory for money-strapped motorists.
For better or worse, I've worked through several steep economic slowdowns in the past. Severe gasoline price hikes during the 1970s and a recession in the earlier 1980s hurt businesses.
After a slowdown in the early 1990s, business was relatively robust until the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when another slowdown began. Then fuel prices rose and continued rising. Most recently, the financial crisis of 2007-2008 sucker punched service businesses that already were slumping.
Traditionally, tire dealers and service shop operators resort to working on anything when bays are empty. That response really isn't news. To me, it's a predictable reaction to slack times. But what's news to some service personnel is taking a more mature view of working on cars and trucks that may be 10 to 15 years old or older. Good times or bad, older "wheels" actually represent opportunity.
Let me try to put this into perspective for you by contrasting two different kinds of service jobs. First, I always have—and always will—espouse selling required vehicle maintenance. Today, selling maintenance should be the cornerstone of a service business.
That said, properly performing the vehicle's required maintenance may not set off any fireworks for the typical motorist. In many—if not most—instances, the car owner doesn't perceive any major improvements in the vehicle's operation after you perform the necessary maintenance.
Yes, the customer has more peace of mind knowing that the proper services have been done. But in most cases, the routine maintenance doesn't generate raves because the customer doesn't perceive any major improvements in performance, smoothness, etc.
Now consider an older vehicle that needs diagnosis and repairs. It may be better economic times or worse ones. What matters most here is that money happens to be very tight for this motorist at this time. He or she needs to spend money very, very carefully on this car. By the time you're asked to inspect the vehicle, several other service facilities already may have dismissed the job out of hand.
My field experience taught me that all too often, this vehicle happened to be very fixable. I know this because I've checked it personally and consider it a "homework" vehicle. Of course, tire dealers or service shop operators can't know if this vehicle's a legitimate opportunity until they secure a diagnostic fee and inspect it. (As I've emphasized in many previous columns, some service writers couldn't sell ice water to someone in the Sahara—let alone sell diagnosis to a needy motorist.)
So imagine that you diagnose and fix a problem here. You also prepare a list of other potential problems you find on this older vehicle. In the spirit of a thoughtful professional, you prioritize which items must be addressed first, second and so on. Plus, you explain clearly that you can guarantee only the repair you've just performed.
At this point, you've achieved a challenging goal: You've greatly exceeded that customer's expectations. In most cases, that car owner will remember you when his or her money situation improves. What's more, that customer will generate the positive word-of-mouth advertising that all businesses crave.
Way back in high school I learned something while working in a traditional, full-service gas station: You can't always judge a book by its cover. Rather, every customer and vehicle potentially is different from the last one. Recognize that and work accordingly.