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Editor's Notebook

Killer Instinct: Lessons Dealers Must Learn From an 800-Pound Gorilla


Bill Ihnken thinks the TBC Retail Group can be a “category killer” in the tire and service trade. The 800-pound gorilla that no one can ignore in every town it has a store.

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To reach that lofty goal, that pinnacle of retailing, the head of TBC Retail Group’s company-owned stores – Tire Kingdom, NTB and Merchant’s – is pushing the simplest tool in the toolbox. Vehicle inspections.

You might call them “Courtesy Checks” or “VICs” or “Safety Inspections,” they are a staple of Tire/Service Retailing 101, and should be the basis for any and all sales you make.

TBC’s inspection program is “non-negotiable,” he says, “It must be consistent, accurate, timely, informative, comprehensive and done 100% of the time.”


And Ihnken is dead nuts on.

Now TBC Retail Group executive vice president and COO, you can tell that Ihnken was once a trainer. He speaks with that level of enthusiasm and conviction, working off-the-cuff as he punctuates each point with a real life example. No lofty business book gibberish here, just a nuts-n-bolts focus on the pathway he sees to measurable success.

“You have to make it part of the culture,” he says of the safety inspections, as natural an action as breathing. And it starts before the customer even reaches the door.


A proper safety inspection, Ihnken says, begins by greeting the customer as they are exiting their vehicle. Not only does the customer get a friendly “We’re Glad You Are Here” greeting, you get a chance to do a quick once-over on the type, age and condition of the vehicle. Are there children’s car seats? A big coffee mug? Does it look like a rolling garage sale, or is it neat-n-tidy? Are there obvious service problems?

The inspection continues with a brief interview. Why did the customer come in? What problems or quirks are they experiencing? How is the vehicle used, and how much is it used? This information will help pinpoint specific areas to do a more thorough look-see.


Once in the bay, the rest of the inspection starts. Don’t have a formal inspection form? Better get one. Your tech should go over each vehicle with a fine tooth comb, looking at everything: tires, filters, A/C and heat, alignment, battery, belts and hoses, brakes, shocks/struts, CV joints and boots, headlights and tail lights, all the fluids, wiper blades – anything and everything that requires regular maintenance.

What are you looking for? Number 1: To build a stronger relationship with the customer by caring about the condition of their vehicle. Number 2: Immediate sales opportunities. And Number 3: Future sales opportunities…because if they don’t fix it today, they will have to some day soon.


How simple is that? Trustworthy expert advice, simple explanations and future maintenance planning creates a positive shopping experience for the customer, Ihnken says. That means more business today, and more tomorrow.

Why don’t more dealers do this? Probably fear. Not wanting to appear too aggressive, as if they are trying to sell something the customer doesn’t need. Maybe they are just too overwhelmed to take the time. Or the techs aren’t buying into the process.

Only a fool would leave those kinds of opportunities on the table. Regardless how busy you are, you owe it to yourself, your employees and your customers to make complete inspections mandatory. For every customer on every visit. It has to be as automatic as, well, breathing.


If the customer balks, find out why. Cost issue? Focus the customer on the “Must Dos” and schedule them to handle service problems that can wait. If they think you’re trying something, just walk them back to the vehicle and show them exactly what’s wrong. If they still don’t get it, thank them for their patronage and move on to the next job.

Most of TBC Retail Group’s 1,220 stores do these inspections. Ihnken wants to get to 100% participation 100% of the time – because even small improvements can add up to greater sales and higher returns.


What is a small improvement? If you see 20 cars a day, but only manage inspections on 80% of them, how much more business could you write if you hit 100%? If your average sales ticket is $245, those four additional vehicles means another $980. Each and every day.

Need another $980 per day?

“The competition is retrenching, they are not playing offense,” Ihnken told his charges (see the story on page 12). “We have to seize the moment.” The inspection program, he says, “is a tool that you need to meet the customers’ needs and deliver higher profits.


“We don’t want to give the competition one tire sale,” Ihnken said. “We don’t want to give them one customer. That’s what it takes to be a category killer.”
He’s talking about you.

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