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Top Shop Honorees Share More Keys to Success

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I have written this column for several years now, many times discussing various aspects of performance, whether it is tires, wheels or suspensions. And I’ve tried to focus on tangible items we can touch and measure, one against another, to derive the best product for a given application.

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As we head to Las Vegas and the SEMA Show, we’ll be crowning the winner of this year’s Tire Review Top Shop Award. Regarding our nominees and winners, the “performance” attribute isn’t necessarily tangible, but you can see the effects in every facet of each business.

So what are the attributes that have allowed this group and the past nominees to attain Top Shop status? I recently spoke with some of the key personnel of past nominees and winners to shed some light on issues we all face.

TR: If you were to evaluate your employees, what criteria would you use?

Chris Mitsos, vice president of Mountain View Tire in southern California, points to sales ability, leadership, the ability to make an oral presentation to a customer, the ability to clearly communicate over the telephone and the ability to organize themselves and the shop.

John Tidwell, with Gatto’s Tire and Service, located along Florida’s Central Atlantic Coast, echoes much of the same, and added personality, character, work ethic, ability to build long-term relationships (customer retention), trainability, flexibility, communication skills and sales effectiveness.
Take note that your employees’ relationships with customers, as well as communication skills, are key ingredients in each of these responses.

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TR: What type of training, if any, do you offer? What benefits do you see from it?

Mitsos: “We offer online training through Goodyear, as well as on the job, around-the-clock feedback. We visit each location two to three times per week and all incoming advertising-generated phone calls are listened to and critiqued. The benefits are increased productivity and efficiency. You have to be able to give immediate feedback on an associate’s performance on a daily basis.”

Tidwell: “We use any sales, product and management training available, including classroom, Web-based modules and webinars. We use various technical training programs, including classes by Hunter Engineering, ATG, Carquest and Snap-On. This allows us to stay up to date on any new information available, as well as refreshing the basics of our business, to make us more accurate and effective. It creates a better sense of loyalty and makes our people more confident, which results in much better overall customer satisfaction.”

Training is a subject we have covered many times in the past. I want to remind you of a Tire and Wheel Training DVD that covers specifics on wheels, both terminology and installation. More importantly, for every owner and manager is a section on how to correctly calculate load capacity based on inflation pressure. For those dealers in California, you have a new law that takes effect Jan. 1, 2010, that says you MUST check the air pressure of any vehicle that you service, even if it is just an oil change. If you use the stated air pressure listed on the door placard to set the air pressure in a plus-sized application, you may not be inflating the tires to the correct pressure. That makes you liable for every vehicle that you touch. You can purchase the DVD from AutoWare Technologies (autowaretech.com).

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TR: What type of marketing programs do you have? Which ones do you feel are the most effective?

Mitsos: “Our marketing programs run wide and deep, including:
• Comprehensive Web site with on­line appointment and price request abilities.
• A solid presence on Yellowbook.com and a decent presence in search engine marketing via Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.
• We will begin e-mail marketing to our customer database and twittering later this year.
• Monthly direct mail utilizing database management of current customers. We also send out monthly mailers via Val Pak and Valassis.
• We have all but discontinued our display ads in the large phone directories (AT&T/Verizon) and we are spending our money with Yellow Book, which has better results for a much lower cost.
• We are slowly converting all of our showrooms to “Project Refresh,” which Goodyear created for their company-owned stores nationwide; it is a fresh new look for our showroom.”

Pam Gatto, president of Gatto’s Tire, also addressed the marketing question: “Our marketing and advertising plan covers a lot of bases: direct mail, TV, radio, billboards, Internet and yellow pages. While the return on some of these methods is hard to quantify, we believe that the layering of impressions is important to gain ‘top of mind awareness.’ If I had to pick the most effective type of advertising, it would be word of mouth.”
By far, this question alone shows you the depth of marketing programs that help these companies be successful. Managing these programs is a daunting task and requires a great deal of resources. If you are not able to handle your marketing in-house, I would suggest searching out a local firm to help, as well as contacting your state tire dealer association, TIA or SEMA to find out which companies have a good reputation for providing these services.

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TR: What technologies do you believe will emerge in the near future that you will need to invest in to remain competitive?

Tidwell: “Hunter offers a VIN bar scan system that immediately identifies the vehicle you are working on for alignment and wheel balance purposes. This assists technicians by getting the exact information in an instant when performing these services. These advances provide TPMS information in the shop on both the aligners and balancers and speed the process with accurate information. I see our alignment check time down to a couple of minutes and TPMS information at our fingertips. Hunter also has daily updates for alignment specifications available online, where we had to wait months before. As for operating software, we – and a lot of other dealers – are in desperate need of an update. I see many opportunities for the industry to upgrade, and the resulting information availability will save us time, provide the customer with the best information available and ensure they make a well-informed buying decision.”

TR: What type of diagnostic equipment do you have?

Mitsos: “Our diagnostic equipment is limited to handheld Snap-on scanners and AC freon sniffers.”

Tidwell: “Every location has a fully updated Snap-on model. We use Alldata online repair information for cars and light trucks and Mitchell’s tractortrailer.net for medium and heavy-duty trucks. Every location has A/C diagnostic equipment, Snap-on electrical system test equipment and evaporative system smoke machines to test for those pesky driveability problems.”

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TR: What type of tire changers, balancers, lifts, etc. do you have installed? Do you use nitrogen?

Mitsos: “We do not use nitrogen. Our tire machines and balancers are basic Corghi and Coats machines. We have a mix of in-ground and above-ground lifts, most of which are Rotary brand.”

Tidwell: “Every location except one has two tire changers. We have both Corghi and Coats machines and are looking at some of the new Hunter equipment for future purchases. We have Hunter and Coats balancers for passenger cars and light trucks, and Hunter for heavy trucks. We use in-ground lifts as they are more practical and require little maintenance. We have not bought into the nitrogen craze and feel it is equipment manufacturer-driven, rather than customer benefit-driven. If new information becomes available, we will revisit our position.”

TR: What products or services do you offer to differentiate your business from the competition?

Tidwell: “I think we’ve done a reasonably good job of building the Gatto’s brand in the marketplace. We want customers to come to us for a recommendation. We offer many brands of tires, and each workstation in our stores is connected to the Internet so we can provide the latest information available in a flash. For maintenance services we use Identifix and our own Milestone Maintenance to recommend proper procedures that are set forth by vehicle manufacturers, rather than recommend a menu of items that may or may not be appropriate for every vehicle. We also offer road hazard coverage for every passenger and light truck tire we sell, and give it away free on some premium tire lines. We tell customers we want to do business with them and let them know we will provide them with prompt service and a long-term commitment.”

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TR: What is it about the tire industry that gives you a reason to open up everyday?

Mitsos: “We are in the people business. We just happen to be selling tires and service. It’s the love and satisfaction of helping people that drives us everyday.”

Gatto: Thirty-six years ago when I joined my Dad, Mike Gatto, in his new business enterprise, he told me that we were not in the tire and automotive service business. He said we were in the business of making the customers’ vehicles safe. By focusing on that aspect, we feel a sense of accomplishment every day that we’ve helped people and their families travel safely. I do think our people get a sense of accomplishment from making customers aware of how their vehicle works and what happens when something goes wrong. And in this business, just when you think you’ve seen and heard it all…something new comes up. Every day is different!”

The responses provided in this survey were given completely independently of one another. That being said, you can see how each has replied to certain questions nearly identically. For those shop owners, managers and technicians who want to be nominated for the 2010 award, I hope the information contained within this article allows you to strive to be our next “Top Shop” award recipient.

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