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 profiling 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.
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Creating a ‘Super Location’
Building the Right computer System Took Time, Worth the Effort
Dealers buy computer systems for their shops all the time. They have become important competitive tools that can make or break a business. Good computer systems make everything flow better – from getting information about a new customer to seeing if an order was completed to tracking vehicle history to sending targeted direct mail to customers to keeping track of current inventories. Computers do so much to speed up a shop and aid in day-to-day operations.
Systems for multiple location dealerships are all the more important – especially multiple stores that are relatively close to each other geographically. There’s so much more information to keep track of in the way of customers, jobs, employees, and products. And if the stores could somehow be linked together, that’s all the more better. Because if that happened, a multiple location dealership would be, in effect, operating as though it were one giant location.
A "super location" is what Direct Tire and Auto Service has built itself into with four shops linked together as one by a computer system called Vision Data. The four shops are connected in real time and the system is used for much more than checking inventory.
"This is the best thing about the system," said Barry Steinberg. "A customer will call in to our Natick location looking for a certain set of tires. But the customer is calling from Peabody and doesn’t know we have a location there. From our Natick location, we can check inventory and schedule an appointment for the customer at the Peabody location.
"Our employees can act as if they’re working in another store and assist a customer at a keystroke. It saves the customer so much time."
The system that Steinberg has handles virtually every aspect of his shop. Vision Data takes care of accounting and payroll. It formulates a general ledger and keeps track of accounts receivable and payable. It generates a profit and loss statement at the end of every month, which "is never as good as I want it to be," Steinberg says. The system even keeps track of the transfer history between the four locations – quite a lot of work.
When Steinberg first bought Vision Data for his company, he didn’t imagine networking four stores together. In fact, he hadn’t even thought of opening his second location. All he was looking for was a system that was designed to help him run one location.
In 1984, Direct Tire paid $40,000 for a computer system to run a single location. Quite a lot of money for a computer system at that time – and quite a gamble. But in the long run, it turned out to be well worth the price.
"I heard about Vision Data either by a mailing or referral," Steinberg said. "Bob Gavazzi of Gavazzi Tire makes the system. He and Bob Knoll are the original developers of this system and they used it in their store. We’d been looking for some form of system and thought this one was totally user-friendly.
"When we sat down to discuss the system, Gavazzi and Knoll had other companies around the country that were operating the system with multiple locations. And this was way before I was looking to open a second location, so if figured if it was good enough for them, it would be able to handle us."
Gavazzi spent four days at Direct Tire hooking everything up and training the staff. But that was then. Now, when a new store has to be connected – which will occur by the end of this year when Direct Tire opens a fifth location – all that is required is a phone line and a multiplex cable, then you plug everything in and you’re open for business.
"We have terminals and printers in all the stores, and there’s a terminal in the warehouse, which is great," Steinberg said. "And everything is connected by a multiplex line which is a fiber optic cable in which information is transferred in milliseconds. It works great and the only real modifications that are made to the building are the wiring and a few surge protectors."
Steinberg was ahead of his time in 1984. Paying a lot of money for a computer system was a bit of a risk. But it’s one that paid off, and has more than paid for itself.
"In 1984, I was probably one of the first dealers on the independent level to have a system like that," he said. "You’ve got to be able to retrieve information quickly for your customers.
"The system is user-friendly, and it’s fast and full of great information. I can go back 10 years and get information on a car. We can see when the last brake job was, buying trends, warranty information. It really impresses the heck out of the customers."
But the system can’t do everything. While Vision Data did cover a lot of ground when it was first introduced, Steinberg wanted it to do more – and wasn’t afraid to ask for it.
"It didn’t quite do everything when we got it, especially after we added more stores," he said. "We’ve upgraded constantly. We’ve had the company create a customer filing system and a zip code report – neither of which were available at first. That’s now included in the system.
"We wanted an advertising tracking program that Gavazzi had to create. He loved that idea and it’s now in the system, as well. We also had a scheduling system for customers created, which prevents everyone from running all over the building looking for pieces of paper."
In the end, the Vision Data system has developed into a computer system that Steinberg and Direct Tire love. It’s integrated very nicely into the business and it’s become like another employee – one that could easily be named employee of the month.
"Everyday we say, it would be nice it if did this and did that. But I don’t think I’d change it. It’s fast and it’s accurate," Steinberg said. "You can track inventory, DOT numbers, practically anything.
"We also use it as a time clock. The guys punch in and out for lunch and when they come in and go home. Plus, they can punch in at any location. Just enter their employee number."
All of Direct Tire’s employees know and understand how to use the system, some are just at different levels. "Some just understand it deeper than others do," Steinberg said.
Every time he’s approached about the subject, Steinberg preaches the benefits of having a computer system – not necessarily a computer system as sophisticated as his, but having any computer system. He can’t understand how some dealers make it without anything but a cash register and a calculator.
"I preach to a lot of guys up here in my area about having a system of some kind. And a few of them have gone out to look at systems and had them installed. I just don’t see how you can survive without them.
"I know that another dealer here in Boston uses the Vision Data system, but they don’t use it to network their stores together. They use it to check the availability of inventory for a single store, but they can’t check any other location’s inventory. But at least they have a system."
Once a dealer gets a computer system they like, Steinberg is convinced they’ll fall in love with it and never be able to work without it.
"You get so used to having this thing, you get spoiled," he said. "When it goes down for 15 minutes, our guys go crazy, like they don’t know what to do."