Badge of Honor: Tire/Wheel Certification Offers Customer-Capturing Credibility - Tire Review Magazine

Badge of Honor: Tire/Wheel Certification Offers Customer-Capturing Credibility

What is your impression of someone who has a professional certification? Admiration? Perhaps respect for the achievement or recognition?

When you’re being treated for a common cold, do you go to a first-year med student because it isn’t a life threatening illness? Of course not! You see a licensed professional, such as a doctor or registered nurse.

Let’s say that you aren’t sick. You want to be in the best physical shape possible. If you don’t know a great deal regarding cardiovascular exercise and strength training, you would ask a certified trainer to assist you so that you don’t perform an exercise incorrectly or attempt to lift too much weight.

Fifteen years ago, if you mentioned the word “massage,” the negative association of prostitution came to mind. Now if you mention the word, you’re talking about someone who is board certified, licensed and billing you for $70-$130 per hour to relieve muscular aches and pains so that your body will function properly.

When your vehicle needs its tires repaired or replaced, would you want someone who has no credentials and little experience working on the most critical part of your vehicle? Well, guess what? That happens every day.

The days of slinging 75-series tires onto steel rims using a centerpost tire changer are gone. Today, the people that you have selling and installing tires and wheels can make or break your business.

Think about it: We have to be certified to work on an air-conditioning unit so that we don’t harm the environment, but we’ll let anyone with a business license and a front door sell tires and wheels. If a technician doesn’t repair the A/C correctly, the consumer returns with a complaint. If a technician doesn’t install a $0.25 lug nut correctly, the wheel could fall off, possibly leading to a wreck, injury or, heaven forbid, death.

If you think that I’m making this sound worse than it is, pick up your local paper or watch the news. It happens all too often and, in most cases, it is completely avoidable.

Now, for the first time in our industry, you and your techs can become certified through SEMA as a Custom Wheel and Tire Specialist. If you haven’t heard about this certification yet, read on. I’m going to give you the inside details about what the certification program is all about and how it came to be.

Program Beginnings

The tire industry as a whole has had some very good training programs over the last few decades. Beyond the basics, though, independent dealers are pretty much left to fend for themselves. Over the last decade or so, ideas for industry-wide advanced training came and went like the wind. National tire dealers typically installed their own training programs to suit their needs, most of which focused only on tires they sold and was delivered only to store management.

Fast-forward to 2001. The negative light that focused on our industry during the Ford-Firestone debacle finally lit the fire under our industry’s proverbial butt.

SEMA, under the direction of Ellen McCoy, was approached by tire manufacturers to produce a certification test that would address the issues faced by every tire and wheel dealer. McCoy, who had directed other associations through their certification test writing, produced four SEMA certification tests before working on the CW&TS certification.

To clarify, the CW&TS program is a SEMA certification test written under ASE guidelines. Based on this format, members of our industry gathered together in 2002 to begin developing the specifications for the test. In early 2003, that group (including myself) met in Washington, D.C., to begin writing the test questions that would be used.

The companies represented were a “who’s who” of our industry: Bridgestone/Firestone, Falken, Konig, Panther, Hunter, McCourt, Keystone, TIA, SEMA and several others with hundreds of years of experience in tires, wheels and installation. After two writing sessions, the basis for what would become the first professional certification program for passenger and light truck tires and custom wheels was created.

The first test was launched in May 2004, and the second followed in November 2004, one week after the SEMA Show. Through the two test sessions, the average passing rate was 57% – an alarming statistic. If the techs taking the tests in those sessions thought they were prepared, imagine what the pass rate percentage would be if thousands take the test, many of whom definitely aren’t prepared?

This test progam is called the Custom Wheel and Tire Specialist certification. If you have sold tires for 20 years, but haven’t addressed the other side of the coin – wheels – you will probably not fare very well on this test. Conversely, if you have sold custom wheels for years with little tire exposure, you will probably struggle, as well.

A Preview

This test is designed to weed out those who don’t have a well-rounded background, technical knowledge or don’t strive to educate themselves and improve their knowledge and skills.

To give you a taste of what to expect, here are some of the questions that are on the test. The answers appear at the end of the article. See if you can answer them without peeking.

The offset of a wheel that is stamped 8.5 inches wide and has a backside setting of 3.75 inches would be:

A. – 25.4 mm

B. – 20 mm

C. – 12.5 mm

D. + 24.5 mm

This one question has generated more controversy than any other, mainly because so many people don’t understand offset or backside setting.

You may be saying to yourself, “What’s the big deal about knowing offsets?” Knowing vehicle offset requirements and matching the wheel to it can make the difference in whether or not you get to close a sale and send the customer safely on his or her way.

The previous sample question tests core knowledge. The next one tests diagnostic skills.

When diagnosing a vibration complaint, which of these is LEAST likely to be a problem?

A. Center bore

B. Wheel alignment

C. Lug application

D. Mounting surface

Not for Novices

Just to be eligible to take the exam and receive certification, candidates are required to have two years of real-world experience. Why is this important? Just look at the above questions; a novice would not have the background to handle them.

Tire and wheel techs aren’t the only ones who benefit from this certification program. Dealers and performance shop owners do, as well, because having certified techs means they have documentation on their training program for each employee. Should you ever have to defend yourself against a liability claim, you can provide this documentation, thereby proving that proper procedures were followed.

It may not prevent a judgment against you, but it could significantly diminish any overall settlement amount.

Customer Leverage

The best way for a business to get its money’s worth from the certification is to promote it as part of an ongoing consumer awareness program. Mention that you have certified employees in your “on hold” message or ads. SEMA provides window stickers for employers who have certified techs. If you have a Web site, post the names of your certified employees and the Custom Wheel and Tire Specialist logo, which is available from SEMA. Hang a copy of the employee’s certificate in your waiting room.

This leads to the next key advantage of the CW&TS certification program: employee retention and satisfaction.

An employee who strives to be the best and attains this certification should be rewarded. I know that some employers offer an incentive to employees who pass the exam. This makes sense because, at a cost of up to $80 per person to take the exam, an employer wants to have people certified on the first try, not on the second or third.

Getting Ready

Apart from your own accumulated knowledge and experience, there are a few reference tools available. Various articles have been written over the years dealing with many key issues. Tire Review has provided numerous monthly articles, as well as information delivered annually in this Performance Tire & Custom Wheel Guide supplement. You will find a wide assortment of technical and service articles available in these back issues.

The Wheel Industry Council (WIC) has a full-color poster – available in English and Spanish – outlining many installation procedures, torque ratings and general how-to tips. The Tire Industry Association (TIA) offers a Basic Automotive Tire Service Training and Certification Workbook, developed to provide self study. TIA also has more advanced, hands-on training available, as well.

TIA is also working on a Tire Pressure Monitoring System training course, scheduled to be issued this summer. Kevin Rohlwing, TIA’s senior vice president of education and technical services, says, “In order to ensure that independent tire dealers have access to the recalibration and installation procedures for all types of TPMSs, TIA is developing a technician training program to complement the Automotive Tire Service (ATS) Program.”

If you haven’t seen or heard of the new TREAD Act TPMS requirements (all 100-plus pages of it) let me give you the two-second version: All vehicles under 10,000 pounds GVWR, except vehicles with dual rear wheels and motorcycles, will be arriving with a TPMS installed. The phase-in period starts this September, and 100% of all new passenger vehicles must have TPMSs by September 2007.

“Since there is no standardization among vehicle manufacturers,” says Rohlwing, “tire dealers will be faced with multiple protocols and recalibration procedures. Additionally, the valve stem sensors used on many direct systems represent a significant expense for the dealer if they are broken or damaged during the demounting or mounting process. The sensors also have specific installation torques and grommet/o-ring configurations that must be followed or the valve stems will leak air.”

Graduation Day

So what happens after you and your techs take the exam? The names of companies and employees who pass the test are posted a few months after it is given. Not only are single-store owners striving for certification, some of the biggest retail chains in the country are sending their best, as well.

Tire Kingdom had several people pass the test. With more than 600 stores under its umbrella, Tire Kingdom is investing a great deal toward having its employees certified. Big O Tires, another TBC Corp. group, also had several people pass the test.

Here is what one dealer has to say: “As a business, we use every level of certification. We feel this is part of ongoing education. You have to be at the forefront of the industry and educate employees and consumers. We had all of our store managers take the test, and they are working toward having all employees take the test.”

Expect to devote a few days worth of training time researching resources like tire and wheel manufacturers. Or, you can purchase training aids from sources listed by SEMA.

Every corner of our industry is pushing to have people certified. It’s not an option; it’s a requirement. You must develop and budget for ongoing training and certification. Those who start now will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t.

For more information and test schedules, contact SEMA at 909-396-0289, ext. 158 or TIA at 800-876-8372.

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