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An insider's viewpoint: Tire Barn personifies personal service

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An insider's viewpoint: Tire Barn personifies personal service

My family has been in the tire business for more than 50 years, and while many things have changed over that time, our dedication to the

business has stayed the same.

Located in Gainesville, Ga., a town of 50,000 in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Tire Barn Inc. has grown with the area and taken an active part in the community.

The building is in the shape of a big, red barn, complete with a wind vane, giving customers a familiar association with trusted values. Inside, customers find family photos, antiques and old road signs, all designed to continue the "welcoming feel" of the barn.

Bill Roper, my dad, and Jack Roper, my uncle, are co-owners of the business. When you watch them work at the sales counter, the first thing you notice is they spend time talking to the customers about their families and jobs.

Among the "thank you" notes displayed on the wall are also pictures customers have sent of their children and grandchildren. There is not only a business relationship between the Tire Barn and its customers, but also a personal relationship. Customers are referred to by name, not by their car.

Dad, Uncle Jack and some employees have been working here since the 1970s, and many of the customers have been coming that long. Many customers tell me that being able to see the same friendly faces keeps them coming back.

Each time someone comes in, he or she can see Uncle Jack's smile surrounded by his long, brown beard or hear dad's one-of-kind, infectious laugh. People like to know with whom they are working, someone who is not just "a guy behind the counter."

The Tire Barn tries to run its business by treating customers as guests. There is complementary coffee. There are private desks and customer phones in the store because, according to my dad, the customers have business to take care of as well.

The makeup of the Tire Barn's customers has changed over the years. Women customers now comprise a sizeable segment of the tire and automotive sales, about 40% of the Tire Barn's business. So the service and store environment must not only be acceptable to male customers, but also females, too.

Meeting these gender standards can be difficult. A customer's first impression of a business is its appearance. No tire store looks like a five-star hotel, nor should it. However, customers, women especially, expect a clean, comfortable environment.

The Tire Barn's waiting room has comfortable seating, snack machines, a viewing window to the working area and magazines for men, women and children. For children there is also a short table supplied with crayons, markers, coloring books and paper. The artwork produced while work is being done on the family car is saved in photo albums or displayed on the wall so customers can see it when they come back.

Many kids draw pictures of the Tire Barn and write things such as, "My dad says the Tire Barn is the best." What an endorsement!

Clean restrooms are a top priority at the Tire Barn. They are not only clean, but also politically correct -- both the men's and women's restrooms have diaper-changing tables.

An annual tradition at the Tire Barn is the Frisbee-like flyer give-a-way, which caters to kids. Every year, the flyer is a different style and color and marked with the Tire Barn logo and year. Playgrounds around town are full of them.

My younger brother, Will, likes to play with the Tire Barn's interactive tire and wheel kiosks. They have computer programs that help our customers create their dream cars by displaying various combinations of cars, custom wheels and colors.

Another convenient service the Tire Barn provides is a customer shuttle. If customers want to drop off their vehicles and go, Susie Bell, the driver, can take them back to their work or home.

Susie is one of several female employees at the dealership. Seeing women employees in this traditionally male environment seems to make women customers feel more at ease.

Radio receives the greatest percentage of the Tire Barn's advertising budget. Susie does many of the radio commercials for the company. The commercials are relaxed, friendly and direct. In one commercial, she tells how she, too, was a customer for years before she came to work at the Tire Barn, and how the dealership kept her pickup truck running great.

The Tire Barn also stays active in community service. It holds blood drives, collects can tabs for Ronald McDonald House Charities, and sponsors school events and sporting teams. My dad has spoken at high schools about automotive careers, discussed car safety to senior citizens and held ladies' clinics.

The clinics, which feature training on how cars work, are held at the Tire Barn after hours. Snacks and door prizes also are provided. Sometimes, local law enforcement officers speak to the guests about driving safety.

The clinics are part of a very conscious effort by my dad, uncle and employees to educate their customers. They go out of their way to explain exactly what the problem is with their vehicles when they bring them in for service; they don't just hand them the bill.

As a consumer of tomorrow, I look for these things when I shop. It seems to me friendly service and hospitality is much easier to find at a well-run independent store than at any chain.

The Tire Barn receives many "thank you" cards from impressed customers for going the extra mile. And going above and beyond what is expected keeps customers coming back.

31 years and counting: Customer service only gets better at the Tire Barn

The Tire Barn has evolved a great deal since Bill Roper Sr. started the Tire Barn as a retail and wholesale retreading operation in 1971. In 1976 Roper added new tires, and hired his son, Bill Jr., as a full-time salesman. Another son, Jack, also joined the company.

Since then, the Ropers have dropped retreading. Automotive services now comprise 40% of the Tire Barn's $1.8 million in annual revenues. "It slowly increases every year," says Bill, who took over as president when his father died in 1990 (Jack is vice president and co-owner). The company even has a new Web site, www.thetirebarn.com.

Customer makeup also has evolved. "Twenty-five years ago, virtually none of our customers were women," says Bill. "Today, 40% are (see main story)."

Not everything has changed, however. "We like to keep customer service very high, and we can really do a good job in one store," says Bill. "We don't plan to expand. I don't think we would do as good of a job giving our customers personalized service with more than one store."

Robin Roper, 18, is a freshman communications major at Berry College in Rome, Ga.

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