For the past two years, Tire Review has brought you Dealer Diary, a monthly series that focuses on typical tire dealers and the ins and outs of their business.
This year, we’re excited to be profiling a unique and well-known dealer – and someone whose primary focus is customer service – Barry Steinberg, owner of Direct Tire and Auto Service, headquartered in Boston. By making the customers the focal point of business, Barry says, and treating employees well, everything falls into place from there.
We’d love to hear your comments on the series. Drop us a line or send us an e-mail at [email protected].
Direct Tire Lives the Adage That the Customer Comes First
A case could be made that tire dealers are no longer in the tire business. After all, no dealer simply sells tires. There’s auto service, wheels, batteries, other add-ons, warranties, credit cards and let’s not forget customer service. And customers want clean, bright, exciting stores, not the gloom and grime of by-gone days.
It could be said that dealers are now in the people business. Winning over an audience and building a customer base has become more important that focusing on the sale of products.
"I try to get across to all my employees that this is only the tire business. We’re not reinventing the wheel here," said Steinberg. "If you treat every customer like it’s your grandmother, you won’t make a bad decision.
"If an employee makes a decision that sends the customer out of the store happy, then it can’t be a bad decision. Even if I don’t agree with the decision, as long as the customer is happy, that’s what counts."
With that type of attitude, it’s easy to see how Steinberg has thrived in the tire business since 1969. "I came out of the Army and thought I’d go back to tending bar and running a club," he said. "But then a friend of my uncle, who was president of Duddy Tire Distributors Inc., asked if I wanted to come to Boston from New York and sell tires. They offered me $200 a week – which was a lot in 1969 – so my wife and I moved to Boston with $134 in our pocket, a U-Haul and an old Chevy."
Steinberg’s first job was selling tires over the phone to gas stations in Ohio. He was handed a phone book and a Dunn and Bradstreet report and was told to get to work. "I had to sell 12 tires to every gas station in Ohio that met certain credit requirements. Eventually I worked my way up to sales manager."
But after four and a half years, it was time to leave and Steinberg wanted to set up his own operation. Direct Tire was born in 1974 in Watertown, Mass. And right from the beginning, he believed in doing things differently.
"I felt I wanted to try it out on my own. I’d learned everything about the business and met a lot of people," Steinberg said. "I knew the commitment it would take, but I wanted the challenge.
"I never approached the business from the price arena. We’re in the service arena. I like to think of us as the Neiman-Marcus of the tire business."
With that mentality, Steinberg’s business steadily grew, and he began branching out. A second location in Norwood, Mass., then one in Peabody, followed by his fourth in Natick.
All the stores are networked together and work with each other to provide the best possible service to customers. Direct Tire carries multiple brands and is known for always having OE sizes and hard-to-find ultra-high performance sizes, according to Steinberg. The company has around 16,500 tires in inventory at the four locations at all times, and sold approximately 70,000 tires in 2000.
From his modest beginnings, Steinberg now employs nearly 100 people: 34 tire technicians, 24 sales people, 22 service techs, six drivers, five warehouse personnel, four store managers, two office staff and one general manager. Direct Tire’s four locations already have 50 tire and service bays, plus Steinberg is looking to add a fifth location in the fall of this year.
But it’s the way he handles his business and his employees which sets Steinberg apart. That feeling of never being able to provide too much service is very prevalent. Maybe that’s the biggest reason his locations work on 275 to 325 cars per day.
"I want to benchmark myself against the high-end companies that provide excellent service and that people know. I think people perceive service as important," he said. "We try and take ourselves out of the tire business and put ourselves in the service business."
One customer service that Direct Tire offers is a free loaner car. For 15 years, Steinberg has been giving out loaners to customers who come in for service work. But sometimes giving a temporary ride can be difficult for a dealer. That’s why Direct Tire has 36 loaner cars in its fleet.
Another tactic Steinberg employs to maintain a high level of customer service is to send his employees shopping – but not for automotive things. He sends them to a Best Buy, Sears or others and tells them to study how the salespeople in those stores operate.
"I’ll send one of my guys shopping once or twice a month," Steinberg said. "They have to go and try to buy things like a vacuum cleaner, or electronics – nothing in the tire industry. Then they have to tell me what they thought the salesman did right or wrong and why they liked or disliked the approach."
An interesting method. Steinberg says it’s better than sending his employees to shop other dealers, mainly because in department stores and the like, his employees can watch how sales people handle women and younger customers – two groups that have traditionally had little trust for tire dealers.
The next thing that Steinberg does to keep his business rolling is advertise – almost continuously – be it traditional advertising or a simple public relations event. "I do about 80% of my advertising on radio," he said. "I’m on seven stations and have spots running every week of the year. I also do television spots, mostly in the winter focusing on driving safety. We’re on cable and the local affiliates. My spots run during the early CBS Morning News and during the Late Night With David Letterman show, with a couple thrown in during the day.
"But one thing I never do during any of my advertising is talk about price." Steinberg believes that’s the key. Talk all you want to about specials and giveaways, but don’t mention price in the advertising.
He also appears at about 20 to 25 public relations events a year. Things ranging from television interviews and panel discussions to event marketing. Admittedly, they are minor, but events like these do a good job in keeping his face and company name in the public’s mind.
In the end, Steinberg has succeeded because of his customer’s opinions of him. Direct Tire has thrived in a high-profile market. It plays to its customers’ needs – such as loaner cars and working to find out why a customer would want the cheapest kind of tire. The word is tenacity. The mentality is: Do what it takes.
"I love having a good time. You have to be serious because this is an important industry, but I want my guys to go home and say they did a good job and had fun," Steinberg said. "I’ve run into thousands of customers in public and I’ve never been embarrassed by something someone had to say about us.