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Getting Every Last Drop: Vendors Offer More Than Just Product – But You Have to Take the Time to Benefit

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You have five “urgent” phone calls that “must be returned immediately,” an HR crisis that can’t wait, and a customer who demands “you” take care of them. Your insurance carrier thinks you should update your coverage and the bank just called because there is a “problem” with your account. Let’s not forget the fire inspector needs to check your sprinkler system and extinguishers. All this even before lunchtime.

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Time! Where do you find the time to review everything vendors have to offer? It’s easy to say you’re missing out on opportunities right now because you probably are. But where do you find the time to dig deeper into vendor support opportunities, let alone work with your suppliers to help create value-added options?

When it comes to truly getting the most out of your vendor-partners – those value-added opportunities above and beyond placing and delivering orders – lack of time is probably the single biggest reason small business owners leave that opportunity money on the table.

And we’re talking about more than just your tire suppliers. Everyone from banks and insurance firms to wheel and accessory companies to newspapers and TV stations, right down to the little bakery where you buy the morning donuts, are all concerned about “customer retention” (so are you) and are deploying an even wider array of “relationship marketing” tools (you probably are, as well) to keep you, keep you happy and help you grow.

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But are you taking advantage of these opportunities? Do you even know they exist? Maybe, maybe not. We talked to several vendors and dealers to get their take on that question, and they offered some assessments on commonly missed opportunities.

All it takes is a little more time, but who has it these days? Well, perhaps even your vendors can provide some precious hours, as you will see.

Pick a Program for You

Ron Sinclair with American Tire Distributors knows full well that the number of supplier programs can be overwhelming to the independent tire dealer. “It’s a true challenge for tire dealers to pick and choose among the many programs available and determine which ones are right for them.

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“Tire dealers work six days a week, starting at 7 a.m. and leave for home at 6 or 7 p.m. How can they possibly study and research every program they encounter? Answer: They can’t, they just don’t have the time,” he says.

One obvious (if not cynical) answer is: Well, make some time. But we all know that is easier said than accomplished.

Time management takes time, but one technique often suggested is simple – and efficient: Set aside specific blocks of time each day to tackle very specific issues. Some matters may only require one hour per week, others may take two or three hours.

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By setting these specific blocks of time aside, you accomplish three things. One, you can devote 100% attention to the matter at hand. Two, you end up “training” employees and vendors alike that they will get your total attention at a specific time. And three, you will free up time during the day to attend to other spur-of-the-moment issues.

For example, establish a one-hour period each and every Tuesday to address tire supplier matters. Unless it is a dire emergency, save all of your phone calls or face-to-face meetings for that one period. Maybe take three hours each Wednesday to handle HR issues, or two hours on Friday to deal with insurance and benefit matters, or another hour on Monday to review advertising and marketing.

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While that doesn’t answer the core question of whether you’re getting all you can from vendors, that technique could provide ample time to address that very question.

Another part of the equation is your attitude. “It’s just not that important,” probably isn’t the best answer, especially if you are leaving dollars on the table.

Sometimes long-term gain does take an upfront investment of time and money. Consider off-site training programs that are offered free of charge by many tire industry suppliers. This is a typical value-added program many dealers squander because they see a short-term loss instead of a long-term gain. Sending a couple of your people to an all-day TPMS session, for example, should not be considered lost or wasted time. While you do need to weigh the “cost” required, don’t lose sight of the long-term potential.

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Your cost is basically two man-days’ salary plus work lost to accommodate the training session plus any cost to attend plus travel and meals. Now, balance that against the long-term gains in man-hours saved, increased productivity and the harder-to-measure customer satisfaction quotient. It is not a cut-and-dried equation, to be sure, but what happens if those techs do not attend the seminar?

New Banking World

It is easy to spot your opportunities with industry suppliers, especially those you are most familiar with. But what about non-tire vendors, like your own bank? Beside piles of loanable cash, banks offer a wide range of tools – often free – that can make your life easier and your business more successful.

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For example: Are you familiar with what one major bank calls a “sweep account?” Let’s say you want to set aside some money for a planned equipment purchase and you want the maximum interest available and a liquid account, as well.

“Sweep accounts allow you to have a liquid account in place for operating funds and a maximum interest, maximum yield account for the long haul,” says Sean McCenna, senior vice president for National City Bank’s Business Banking Group.

Normally, operating accounts aren’t known for generating interest, if only because of their fluidity. Sweep accounts give you the best of both worlds – high liquidity for daily needs, and longer term yield. But few know about such products.

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“We serve eight states and we are not seeing small businesses, including tire dealers, taking advantage of sweep accounts,” he says.

Technology is also on McCenna’s mind. Although “remote deposit” technology (not to be confused with “direct deposit”) isn’t a brand new idea, few small businesses are using it to their advantage. “Why should the small business owner take the float?” says McCenna.

“If an independent tire dealer installs one of our on-site check clearing machines, that dealer knows instantly if a customer’s check is good,” he says. “Even more important, the check will be entered in the tire dealer’s account in less than one hour. This is real-time banking and we’d like to see more of our small business accounts take advantage of the service.”

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Many banks also offer packages that bundle credit card and check clearing services, with a substantial savings in discount and processing fees. Best of all, because those transactions aren’t routed through third parties, cash flow improves. It’s worth looking into, to be sure.

McCenna also says his bank doesn’t charge for online banking. “It’s free because we want our customers to be our business partners. We can customize their banking programs to fit their needs, including payroll services, and teach them how to take real time advantage of cash management. It’s a good match-up.”

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Some banks have stopped taking over-the-counter payroll and business tax payments, forcing dealers to find timely payment alternatives. Mailing payments is one option, but timing is an issue…as is delivery. Some banks now offer secure online federal and state tax payment options free of charge.

McCenna wonders if small business owners are taking full advantage of other bank programs. “For example, tire dealers can redeem points from a Visa CheckCard program to reward employees with items like gift cards or save points for a much needed vacation for themselves.”

Teamwork & Time

There’s that word again: time. But Bill Jarvis, owner of Midwest Tire and Auto based in Schereville, Ind., has found a way to double his. In effect, Jarvis is taking advantage of his chief vendor’s programs to take advantage of vendor programs.

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It is true that if you don’t succeed, neither will your vendors. Jarvis has put at least part of his success directly in the hands of his main business partner: American Car Care Centers. “If I had not partnered with them, the only way I could have remained successful would have been to extend my business day,” he says. “I would have spent lots of time on the business and sacrificed my personal life.”

With four locations to tend to, Jarvis is stretched thin as it is. ACCC, as with many other marketing and affinity groups, helps take the load off a tire dealer by basically doing all the front-end legwork and investigation. ACCC, for example, has one person who sits through all the vendor presentations, selects the best options for the group members, and negotiates pricing and packaging. Everything from tires to uniforms to tire equipment to insurance is screened and set before it even gets to the dealer’s desk.

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Sure, the “deal” has to be considered and a final decision made, but the process is much streamlined. Time is saved, and all the value-addeds are ferreted out.

“I simply don’t have the time to review all of these presentations so they do it for me,” Jarvis says. “She (Denise Rawls of ACCC) watches vendor presentations that would take me hours and gives me her personal recommendations. This is invaluable help in a world of overwhelming information. That’s why I consider ACCC part of my team.

“They have lightened my load and for that I am grateful,” Jarvis says. “I’m plugged in and hooked up to the programs and services I need, and I am saved from taking the time to understand all the legal jargon, the ins and outs of things like health care or those things I need to do in the 21st century to help my people compete.”

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In Jarvis’ view there aren’t enough hours in the day for an independent tire dealer to be successful as a truly independent business. While the battle cry of all independents is to remain independent, the lines have blurred.

Jarvis refers to his partnership with ACCC as vital. In his words, it saves him time and money – which makes him money. Other groups do the same.

“In my view, if an independent tire dealer doesn’t have this kind of help he or she will go out of business,” he says. “My partner helps me stay current with TPMS, how to work on crash avoidance systems, how to clear and reset onboard computers. Those kinds of things are important to our customers, but take so much valuable time to sort through.”

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Without that kind of help, dealers like Jarvis would likely make do and invest the time in the legwork. But that’s time taken away from other important things – like customers and family. “That’s an advantage to choosing a business partner who will make you look smart,” he says. “They do the homework for me, they save me time and they give me more freedom to live my life.”

Time Savers

Being the biggest independent tire distributor in North America has its advantages. American Tire Distributors leverages that for its tire dealer customers, allowing them to spend their time growing their businesses.

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“We take the time to do what a dealer cannot,” says ATD’s Sinclair. “It’s our job to help the dealer choose what’s best for them. Our ability to succeed is based on our consultants being known as trusted advisors. We know full well that if our dealers are not successful we will not be successful.”

Sinclair understands that independent tire dealers are not lacking in the effort department. “It’s a lack of time that can cost them,” he says. “Do they know when a spiff is in play? Do they know most suppliers sell online? Do they have the time to follow these activities? I know they don’t.”

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One way ATD helps save time for dealers is through online tools like its dealer Web site (atdonline.com). “Embedded in this Web site is something we call ‘ServiceBAY’ which interfaces with lots of suppliers. Our customers can quickly check ServiceBAY to find new products. Or they can use another section called ‘Quick Ship’ to check available inventory at our distribution centers. We think of it as a tool to sell our products, and our dealer partners think of it as a tool to sell their services and reputation. None of is taken lightly, it’s darned serious business.”

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For Sinclair and ATD, it’s all about setting up a specific time to do the much needed legwork for its tire dealer members. “Henry Ford once said that the most difficult job in the world is thinking, which is why so few people engage in it,” says Sinclair. “We’ve learned from that lesson that a critical part of our job is to ‘think’ for our independent tire dealer members.”

In that interest, ATD has 140 full-time “consultants,” who are well-versed in every aspect of the independent tire dealer business. “We represent all major flag brands, all of the top private branders, the top equipment suppliers and all the programs they offer,” he says. “Our consultants are in the field daily to help our dealer members sell tires. They help in the showroom, they help in training, and they help with the product screen for specific markets. It is a long-term relationship we have established with our tire dealer partners and it’s working.”

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ATD uses the Internet in other ways to bring added value to the distributor-dealer relationship. “Last year we launched wheelenvizio.com, a Web site that gives the independent tire dealer the ability to select the proper wheel based on strict specifications,” Sinclair says. “This is a value added program we think of as everyday help to our dealer members. Although this is not exactly new technology, every dealer must have a program like this to stay in business. The wheel business is that important. We like to think of it as immediate assistance to our dealer customers.

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“In this way we can help the dealer reach out to acquire new customers, retain the customers on his books and profit by improving the mix along with peace of mind for the customer. These are the requirements being placed on a tire dealer’s reputation and anything we can do to shore up that relationship is good for us and our dealer members,” says Sinclair.

“Conducting business in this fashion is now part of the culture in this country. We always start by asking good questions. When dealers cooperate with us and vice versa, we are able to establish a partnership that would have been unheard of years ago. It’s what doing business today is all about and we like to think that we are at the ‘head-end’ of this business trend.”

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Educational Failure?

Training, training, training. The industry at-large thinks tire dealers and techs need more training, and most dealers themselves agree. No doubt that consumers would appreciate working with tire shops that are at the top of the knowledge class.

So why do some dealers fail to take advantage of the educational opportunities tire companies offer?

John Peer, director of dealer sales at Goodyear, wonders about that, too. “Both Goodyear and its independent tire dealers have a vested interest in earning the customer’s trust,” he says.

Goodyear has two brick-n-mortar “tire selling” academies for tire dealers, one in Orlando , Fla. , one in Rancho Cucamonga , Calif. The academies use extensive role-playing exercises, with students playing both the customer and the salesperson, to improve the sales interaction process for dealers and retail salespeople.

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“Tire dealer students are recorded from the time they enter the academy to the time they leave,” he says. “One student is placed behind the counter, and their job is to take care of the customer, pleasant or obstinate, until the sale is concluded. The one-week-long school is getting real results and if a tire dealer owner doesn’t think it was worth it, we will pay for the entire week,” says Peer. So how can you lose?

“Goodyear also offers dealer-oriented programs with most major parts suppliers and oil companies. And although some tire companies no longer have red meat co-op programs in place, we do,” says Peer. “We have what the dealer wants and needs. They can pick and choose what they want from our menu and we provide it. I wouldn’t say this if we weren’t getting real results from dealers who won’t pay for a program that doesn’t help them,” he says.

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Goodyear certainly isn’t the only tire company that offers basic or even advanced educational opportunities for dealer principals and staff. But the common frustration of all these supplier-partners is the dearth of dealers who take full advantage of their value-added offerings.

Sure, some cost money, and all require a time commitment. And tire companies are not alone. Banks, insurance agents, parts suppliers – you name it – all see dealers passing up the chance to better their chances in a highly competitive market.

Time certainly is money, but are you leaving money behind?

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