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Shock therapy: Tenneco advises service shops on talking to customers about replacing components

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MONROE, Mich.—As with many products in the tire and automotive industries, you can call shock absorbers a customer's "grudge purchase." With the age of vehicles on the road continuing to increase, customers are increasingly likely to get shock absorbers replaced instead of waiting it out until they get a new car. Bill Dennie, director of ride control channel management, Tenneco Inc. North America Aftermarket and the Monroe brand, said as the company speaks to installers, they hear ride control is still a "very viable replacement" for them. "The main reason," he said, "is that the age of the vehicle has continued to increase year over year, and it's up a little over 10.4-10.5 years of age right now. "So people are holding onto their vehicles longer and they're willing to maintain them. And shock absorbers (are) one of those (parts) that when they do get them replaced, they do notice an immediate benefit." Mr. Dennie said Monroe-based Tenneco's sales have been "flat to slightly positive" over the past several years "so we're very happy with our unit sales" especially when the price of shock absorbers tends to rise every year due to more vehicles having struts. He said the company recently held a focus group where it spoke to installers about ride-control repairs. While a number of years ago customer feedback indicated that if faced with a work order of $800 or $1,000 or more, many vehicle owners would simply sell their cars and get a new one, that sentiment has now changed, according to Mr. Dennie. Consumers are now saying—partly in light of the still somewhat weak economy—that they'd prefer to fix their cars because that is what they can afford. "The first thing the tire guy has to do," Mr. Dennie said when asked what is the best way to sell shocks to consumers, "is he has to start having a conversation with the customer sooner, rather than later." Shock absorbers wear out slowly over time, he said, and consumers may forget about how bad their vehicle's ride is now compared with when it was new. He recommends starting the conversation when customers come in for their first set of replacement tires—that is, in the 50,000-60,000 mile range—because it's "about protecting their investment." Technicians and service advisers should approach the conversation by asking consumers how their vehicles ride. "And chances are, if they don't buy them that day," they will at least start thinking about it, Mr. Dennie said. Some questions to ask customers include: c How does the vehicle handle when going over railroad tracks? c Does the driver have to slow down when taking a turn? and c How much does the vehicle dip when the driver firmly applies the brakes? "We call that 'brake dive,'" Mr. Dennie explained. "That's a lot of weight transfer where the shock absorbers have worn out and they're not controlling the weight distribution from the rear to the front of the vehicle.... That causes the brake dive, which will increase your stopping distance." Initiating the conversation with customers will help them be more aware of ride control. That may lead the customer to admit at a later appointment that his or her vehicle's handling has been getting sloppy and the shocks may need to be replaced. Another approach, according to Mr. Dennie, is relating the oil in a vehicle's shock absorbers to its engine. Car owners know their engine oil needs to be changed frequently because it goes through a lot of heat cycles, has contaminants in it and has lost its viscosity, he said. With that said, the oil inside shock absorbers goes through the same thing, he said. "It gets a lot of heat, it gets some broken pieces or components in it" and it loses its viscosity. The difference is, with shock absorbers, you cannot change the oil, he said. So once customers start to think about it in regard to an engine oil change, they can better relate to a shock absorber's oil not working the way it was when brand new. "We've done a lot of testing out there, and when a vehicle goes down a normal highway the shock absorbers cycle about 1,750 times per mile," Mr. Dennie told Tire Business. "So if you go 50,000 miles, it means those shock absorbers have cycled over 85 million times," he continued. When ther've worn out, "they don't respond as well as they did when they were first new, and if you're going to replace anything else on your car—specifically tires and/or ball joints or tie rod ends or other suspension parts—shock absorbers can do a lot, in regards to preserving that repair you just put on your vehicle," Mr. Dennie said. If a customer's vehicle is getting any kind of front-end suspension work done, technicians should think about why the work is necessary. Mr. Dennie said chances are something else caused a component to go bad, and a lot of times it can be related to the vehicle's shocks. If the service technician takes the time to explain these factors to customers in ways they can relate to, they may be more apt to go through with the work before damage to other parts of suspension happens. Mr. Dennie said one of the most important things shop owners and technicians can do is be proactive when doing vehicle repairs. He said Tenneco does a "Four More" clinic where the company presents information to owners and technicians about trying to sell four more shock absorbers. Speaking to the customer and keeping it simple is important, he said, but visual inspections should take priority as well. Shock absorbers can be worn out on the inside, even when they are not leaking any oil. Mr. Dennie said he has noticed a lot of shops are not always checking some of the components, meaning if the struts or the shock bushings are worn or missing, they need to get replaced. Or even if the bumper on the struts is missing, or the boots that protect the strut rod are missing, these can all be replaced sooner than later. He said it's the same thing when a vehicle has rear shock absorbers. In the back, there is a compression bumper that will stop the axle from hitting the frame. A lot of those will be missing or they will be cracked. If, for instance, there is a shiny spot on an axle, or even on the frame itself, Mr. Dennie said that is an indication that the vehicle is bottoming out, meaning ride control components should get replaced because they're not doing the job of controlling vehicle body movement. Looking for these signs and doing some quick visual inspections can boost sales, he noted, and open the conversation earlier with the consumer about shock absorbers replacement. As far as future developments with shock absorbers, Mr. Dennie said there haven't been any big changes in the field as of late. Tenneco has been focusing on trying to add some technology so someone who has a four- to six-year-old vehicle can get it riding like new. He said the company has developed some new technologies in its OE Spectrum and Reflex lines that can compensate for worn suspension parts. Mr. Dennie said a noticeable trend in the auto industry is vehicle manufacturers engineering weight out of their vehicles to increase fuel mile-age. On the OE side, he said Tenneco engineers are working on light-weight units—such as using different types of plastics to try to decrease the weight of each unit—but production has yet to start. When a consumer does come into a shop for shock absorber replacement, Mr. Dennie said Tenneco advises replacing them in pairs. Although he'd like to recommend doing all four corners to give the vehicle the best balanced ride, he admitted not everyone can afford that all at once. Starting the conversation with consumers earlier in the vehicle maintenance process can help them understand the importance of replacing shock absorbers before their failure starts affecting other parts of the suspension. To reach this reporter: jkarpus@crain.com; 330-865-6143.

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TB Reader Poll

Previous | Published March 18, 2019

Where can you expect to see the most growth in 2019?

Tire sales
45% (34 votes)
General automotive service
15% (11 votes)
Brakes, shocks and other undercar services
7% (5 votes)
Add-on business
15% (11 votes)
Anywhere we can get it.
19% (14 votes)
Total votes: 75
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