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A New Ballgame: With Alignments Today, ‘To Spec’ Doesn’t Cut It Anymore

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A proper alignment job is not necessarily an easy task, but if you have the right equipment and well-trained technicians who know the operational guidelines, it can be a walk in the park. The plan is to give your customers the longest tire life possible.

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But when it comes to delivering a customer-oriented alignment, are you really earning your money?

This is a question posed by one of the largest tire retailers in the country. Although the person in charge didn’t want to rail against tire techs, he did want to challenge them to use proper alignment as a tool to solve a customer’s problem.

“When we see a tire with too much wear on the inside shoulder we often find that the tire/wheel assembly is within manufacturer specifications,” he said. “A tech can tell his boss that the alignment settings are within specs, but if that’s not solving the customer’s problem, passing along such information is useless.

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“As you work toward a solution keep in mind that no two vehicles are alike and even if they carry the same badge, they are likely to be loaded and optioned out differently,” he said. That’s another way of saying don’t ‘set the toe and let it go.’ It doesn’t work that way anymore.

As he points out, it wasn’t too many years ago that 90% of all vehicles had a solid rear axle; techs could only do so much when it came to alignment. Today, many vehicles permit ample alignment adjustment at all four wheel positions.

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“One of the problems we’re seeing now shows up on the modern day alignment worksheet,” he said. “Too often we see a tire dealer reducing an alignment job to 30-minutes instead of the usual hour’s worth of work. While this is a good way of doubling business, it’s a poor way to treat a customer and expect them to come back.”

Not that they are short-cutting, but sometimes techs get alignment settings right to the edge of correct instead of getting them spot on. “Yes, the alignment job may well be within specs, but with today’s vehicles a difference of only 1/16-inch off makes a difference in the way a vehicle handles,” he said.

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“Since most passenger tires are 24 to 25 inches tall, that 1/16-inch over a distance of one mile affects that tire 2,640 times every mile. In this instance we’re talking about a tire that scrubs 100 feet sideways for every one mile it travels,” he pointed out.

Like a pencil eraser on a tax form, that side scrub will wear a tire well before its intended lifespan is reached. The result – no matter the retailer – is one unhappy customer.

Tire Killer

Misalignment, particularly with toe, is a “silent tire killer,” our source said. In one case, a customer got four new tires, and had mounting and an alignment performed at another dealership. Too much toe was applied (independent rear suspension) and “his tires completely worn out in just 10,000 miles.

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“If someone had seen that car at 5,000 miles for a routine tire rotation they could have identified the problem,” he said.

“Another customer with a Scion Xb purchased tires and wheels from me,” the dealer said. “He lived 500 miles from our dealership. By the time he got the vehicle back to us the tires were completely worn out. At that point, we mounted a new set of tires and gave him a 30-day test drive. He came back again after a 500-mile drive home and another 500 miles back to us.

“From our location to his home, this customer tore up two sets of tires in less than 2,000 miles,” he said.

This retailer doesn’t offer vehicle service or alignment, but they were able to ascertain that the customer’s tires were 3/4-inch toed out. The cause: a bent lower control arm that wasn’t spotted by the shop that did do the alignment.

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“After finding the solution to the problem, we shipped him a new set of tires. Still, we were upset with the servicing tire dealer who failed to give this customer his money’s worth by shortcutting the diagnosis,” this retailer said. “That isn’t the way to gain a tire customer for life.”

Alignments truly are an adjustment tool that can be used to solve tire wear problems. Yes, it helps the vehicle run straight and true, and improves handling and such. But misalignment is most evident where the rubber meets the road when a customer’s hard-earned cash gets worn away far too quickly.

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The problem, as this retailer points out, is that setting alignment to spec is not necessarily the best answer, especially if the owner is experiencing odd tire wear problems already. “The fundamental answer that the vehicle is ‘within specs’ is no excuse if the customer is suffering premature tire wear,” this retailer said.

The job at hand is to solve the customer’s problem 100% not some fraction of that goal.

Service Intervals Hurt

Today’s vehicles often call for 7,500 to 10,000 miles before their first recommended service. That’s good for car buyers (who don’t want to hustle back to the car dealer in a few weeks), but tough on new rubber.

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Extended periods also hurt when it comes to replacement tires. Customers grow accustomed to the longer timeframes, and transfer those habits to their relationship with you. Perhaps you also contribute by not strongly recommending a tighter rotation and inspection schedule.

Ten thousand miles is long enough to allow irregular tire wear to occur before a tire dealer gets a chance to correct any problem through proper alignment.

A typical tire rotates eight million times before reaching the 10,000-mile recommended service mark. That’s eight million rotations in one direction before a tire dealer gets a look at it – and that’s already too late.

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The well-informed consumer still rotates his or her tires more often than today’s recommendations and many still change oil every 3,000 miles. I do. In northern states (because of potholes), that same customer will ask for an alignment job every two years; it’s three years in warmer climates.

It would be easy to think customers aren’t the issue, but customers expect true value for their money. And while some may have expensive cars, they don’t have money to throw away on tires that wear out prematurely.

The less-informed (or, perhaps, those on a tighter budget) tend to stretch service intervals out – if they even seek such service at all. They, too, are very sensitive to premature or irregular wear issues.

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With either group of customer,s proper service is a must. If they think your “poor service” – in the form of ‘to spec” alignments – caused the early retirement of their tires, they won’t be back, and neither will their friends.

So don’t set the toe and let it go. Use alignment specifications as a starting point toward solving wear or driveability complaints. Specs are just one tool you should use to turn an unhappy customer into a lifelong customer.

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