SIOUX CITY, Iowa — When it came to tires and auto service, Jim Langseth came for the cars and stayed for the people.
"Basically, I like the customers and helping them make decisions," said Mr. Langseth, manager of one of the two Tires Tires Tires stores in Sioux City (there is a third in Sioux Falls, S.D.). "There are a lot of nice people out there."
Mr. Langseth was a car-crazy 18-year-old in Sioux City when he found out the local muffler shop just down the street from his house was hiring.
That was 43 years ago, and he worked at the muffler shop until it changed hands, and Mr. Langseth found he didn't see eye-to-eye with the new owner.
Fortunately, this was when Dan Nothdurft, founder and owner of Tires Tires Tires, gave Mr. Langseth a call. That was 13 years ago, and Mr. Langseth has been a manager at Tires Tires Tires ever since.
"I've only had a couple of jobs since I started," he said.
Throughout his years in the tire business, Mr. Langseth has been touched by the gratitude some of his customers have shown him.
"We're a college town, so when parents call you or send you a card to thank you for helping their children, it means a lot," he said.
Part of a tire salesman's job, Mr. Langseth said, is to show customers that a tire isn't just a tire.
Even so, he added, customers are starting to show him a thing or two.
Mr. Langseth said he was "old-school" regarding social media, but the Internet is changing how he deals with customers.
"Customers are a lot more knowledgeable about tires than they had 10 years ago, and that makes it nice," he said. "They come through the door, and they know what they want. Sometimes they know more about the specific tire they want than you do. But if you have something better, you can help them find it."
To Mr. Langseth, customer service is tire retailing's absolute reason for being.
"Everybody who walks into the store is important," he said. "You need everyone who comes through the door."
Mr. Langseth said he has had difficult customers — customers with complaints, or ones who think their online research has told them everything there is to know about tires.
"They think you're trying to sell them something they don't need," he said.
But the way to deal with that, he said, is to see what you can do to cure their complaints.
"I've never had one I couldn't talk to and work something out with," he said. "People are appreciative if they see that you're sincere. They can tell if you're not. You can't talk down to them."
The biggest change Mr. Langseth has seen in the tire industry is the proliferation of sizes.
"In the last 15 years, it's grown from about 16 sizes to 200," he said. "Now there are so many speed ratings, all of them built to the specification of a particular vehicle. I wonder how it will go with driverless cars."
Mr. Langseth said he has another seven or eight years before retirement. But when he retires, he said, cars will still be a major part of his life.
"I have an '82 Caprice I'm working on," he said. "We'll see what comes of it."