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The Crisis of Trust

For tire dealers, your business – and your livelihood – is based on trust. And though trust is essential to success, it can be a fragile thing.

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Trust is like a sheet of paper; once crumpled, it can never be perfect again no matter how well you try to smooth things out.

For tire dealers, your business – and your livelihood – is based on trust. It’s the glue that holds relationships together, the connection between you and your customers, as well as between your business and your suppliers. And though trust is essential to success, it can be a fragile thing.

The hard truth is that today’s consumers have serious trust issues when it comes to having their vehicles serviced or tires replaced. And why shouldn’t they? Local news reports highlight stories of consumer fraud with undercover investigations and emotional tales of shops overcharging “unsuspecting” customers. Tire dealers end up looking like the bad guys when the mom in the minivan is told it costs close to $1,000 to replace her OE run-flat tires (something the car dealer “forgot” to mention).

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The high numbers of consumer complaints associated with our industry are well documented. According to the most recent data from the U.S. Better Business Bureau, in 2015 “auto repair & service” ranked No. 7 in the number of negative inquiries (2,217,783 total) and “tire dealers” ranked No. 115 with 257,002 inquiries. Note that more than 5,000 total business categories are tracked. That means the BBB received more than 2 million complaints about tire and auto service businesses in 2015 alone. That’s a lot of unhappy people – individuals who counted on a shop to provide good work at a fair price, and whose trust was violated.

In fact, in Spring 2014, a survey conducted by AutoMD showed 83% of consumers feel overcharged in the auto repair process. The same study showed that both men and women ranked the experience of getting their vehicle repaired on par with going to the dentist – with more women preferring the dentist!

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At the heart of the issue is a lack of trust between shops and consumers. The greater concern stems from the fact that trust is directly correlated to your prosperity. In other words, businesses deemed the most trustworthy are often the most successful.

So let’s explore how tire dealers can work to increase levels of trust with consumers.

Trust and Transparency

Americans today are losing confidence in once-trusted institutions that affect their daily lives. According to Gallup, as a nation we no longer trust schools to properly educate our children; houses of worship for spiritual guidance; Congress to protect our nation’s interests, nor the news media to keep us well informed.

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On the bright side of the numbers, Gallup found that the majority of Americans do have confidence in small business. That’s great news for independent tire dealers; it implies that people want to support you – provided they trust you and you perform at or above their expectations.

But meeting or exceeding expectations on a daily basis in each interaction is a real challenge.

More often than not, a “trust fail” is likely the result of poor or missed communication – a lack of understanding that leads to lack of trust. Often this is has to do with price.

The solution can be found in transparency.  “Not knowing what a job will cost” ranked as the No. 1 reason consumers dislike the repair process, according to the same AutoMD survey that found so many people preferring the dentist to the repair shop. When asked what might improve their opinion of the repair experience, the 84% of respondents said that knowing exactly what they would be paying up front for the work needed before they go into the shop would make a difference. In fact, having a clear price in advance ranked much higher than customer service and speedy repairs as to what they valued most, according to the study.

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One shop owner who has built a business on trust is Peter Shrake Jr., owner of Budget Tire with locations in Lincoln Park and Brownstown, Mich. As an independent tire dealer, one whose sole focus is tires, the value of trust is paramount to his success.

Budget Tire offers “out the door” packaged pricing. If the costs run over, Shrake does his best not to pass that onto his customers. This prevents him from breaking the trust based on the original price quoted. “Sometimes you just have to take one for the team,” he laughs.

“Building trust is super important to us,” Shrake adds. “You need that word of mouth advertising. Once they trust you, they tell everybody about you. We’re not here to take advantage of people – that won’t give you a good reputation.”

And if he discovers that a person had a less-than-ideal experience, he does his best to be proactive.

“I usually call them myself to get any information from them and to get their side of the story, and to smooth it over. I’ll do anything I can do to fix things.”

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Shrake makes sure new employees are well trained when it comes to customer interactions, making use of customer conversations and sales training available from manufacturers.

“I tell them that this is a family business; we live on our reputation so not to take advantage of people or be pushy,” he explains. “That means you don’t recommend anything that you wouldn’t do on your mother’s car. We make sure that people feel that they can trust us and we’re not trying to oversell them… We want to take care of people.”

As Shrake mentions, help is out there. Resources are available to help you better train your team and make adjustments to your operations to encourage trust with consumers. Many are provided as part of partnerships with supplier manufacturers and dealer groups to which you may belong, so you may already have access to the building blocks to learn new ways to increase trust, once you take advantage of them.

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According to Phil LePage with Jim Lewis Tire and Wheel Tire Pros in Jefferson City, Mo., speed and sincerity can go a long way to repair a trust that’s been broken.

“You have to have to make it right as quick as you can – don’t let the sun go down on it,” says LePage. “You want to smooth the waters out as fast as possible. When you do that, you’ve shown that you’re human. Everybody is going to make a mistake. Every store is going to make a mistake. Every person has made a mistake.

“The problem right now is that with so many on social media, everybody knows. That is a double-edged sword – every aspect of it. You don’t have the ability when they put it out there to bring it back. Even if it was an unintentional mistake and nothing deliberate – your salesman had a bad day, for instance. Those things are hard. You’ve just got to build back up. Even if you don’t win them over, you need to let them know that you’re sincerely sorry for what was done.”

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Though not a tire dealer, Gina Schaefer sees many similarities between her industry and ours. She is founder and CEO of 11 independently owned Ace Hardware stores across the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas and gives talks on trust and customer service around the country.

“You know what the frustrating thing is that [independent business owners] are held to a very different standard than a big box store,” Schaefer explains. “If someone gets annoyed at a Home Depot, they cannot call the president of Home Depot, but they know they can call me because we make ourselves so visible as local business owners and that means super accessible. If they walk into a Home Depot and have a bad experience, I don’t think that trust erodes because I don’t think they expected to have it anyway. But if they walk into Phil’s location in Missouri, they expect to have that trust. Every single time they walk through that door, you have to make a first impression, which is the challenge. In fact, it’s that double standard that makes me crazy,” she adds.

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Jackie Barker, owner of Barker Tire Pros in Princeton, W. Va., agrees with LePage and Schaefer, especially when it comes to social media.

“We are a small town so if you do one thing, they tell everybody, especially with Facebook and all that,” Barker says. “It’s their opinion. Me, personally, I don’t interact with it. If they’re saying something about me – if it’s a problem I’ll contact them personally, but if they’re just saying bad things, I don’t argue with them. I’ve seen other shop owners do it but I don’t think its right. The way I look at it is that if it’s somebody who complains a lot, everybody knows that. Their friends know them, their family knows them so I think they take it with a grain of salt. I leave it alone and most of the time they’ll come back, especially if you don’t do them wrong.”

Corporate View of Trust

The crisis of trust is an industry-wide concern, one that drives much of the strategy behind in-store design and dealer tools at Bridgestone.

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Erik Seidel, president of consumer replacement tires with Bridgestone Americas, sees trust as an ongoing issue due to the infrequency of these big ticket purchases, a lack of technical understanding by consumers, and an overwhelming amount of conflicting information available from a myriad of resources.

“I think it’s recently becoming a challenge because consumers are becoming more ‘educated’ as they have more and more information and more and more choices,” Seidel says.

“More choices of where to buy tires than they used to; more choices as to what tires to buy; more complexity with more offerings, more brands, split fitments. They’re getting bombarded. Even though you give them more information, there is more conflicting information, which leads to a lack of trust – especially when you compare it to other [product] categories that they’re using on a much more frequent basis.”

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His data shows that 80% of consumers are going online as part of their tire-purchase journey, most checking out multiple sites across multiple dealer networks. The inconsistency of information available to consumers adds to the sense of suspicion, not knowing what to trust. This was the motivation for Bridgestone to develop digital tools for their 3,000+ independent dealers to better serve the customer across phone, tablet, computer and in-store.   

In addition to digital, the concept of transparency in customer interactions is the driving force behind in-store retail innovations. Manufacturers that sell directly to consumers through company-owned locations continue to test ways to increase the level of intimacy with consumers, adding large windows into the bay areas, and removing the counter, replacing it with kiosks or pods where the service manager can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the customer, further enhancing trust through openness in each interaction.

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“Taking away the counter, it could be a tablet that they have or a screen where they’re both viewing the information at the same time, standing side by side and letting them go through the process. That’s the environment that shows the transparency of information and that helps to build trust,” Seidel says.

“We’ve seen it in our pilot [Firestone] stores and in pilots with our independent dealers as well. One quote I’ve used that was from our dealer advisory board. The shop uses our side-by-side [kiosk counter] tool, and it still gets me today that this consumer literally shook the salesperson’s hand and said ‘Thank you. For the first time in my life I felt like I was buying tires versus having tires sold to me.’ Because they could see the information, it was much more transparent and they could get the sense that their needs are being met.”

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Solving the crisis of trust can be as complex as the personalities that walk into your shop each day. Consumers may base their trust on a number of considerations, from “they gave me a fair price” to “they listened to me” to “they solved my problem” to “wow, they didn’t rip me off.”

At the end the day, Seidel and others agree that building trust is more than shop design and a warm smile – it’s really about creating a culture where the consumer is number one and serving their needs is a top priority.

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