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Knowledge is power

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Knowledge is power

When the editors of Modern Tire Dealer asked me to revisit the subject of electronic tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) relearn tools, I originally set out to author a comprehensive review of the latest technology with all of the features and benefits. Then I had an epiphany while addressing the Tire Dealer Association of Canada (TDAC) convention attendees in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Actually, I looked at the complete list and came up with another idea because it would be boring to write and boring to read.)

Having the right scan tool is only part of the solution to the TPMS equation. There are a number of things that must happen in order for tire retailers to turn TPMS into a profit center, and most of it starts at the sales counter.

Before you just skip the rest of this article because you thought you would read about scan tools, I’m still going to address some of the tools that are currently on the market. I just want to establish the conditions where I believe they will be most effective.

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As I mentioned earlier, my epiphany occurred while I was speaking to about 100 Canadian tire dealers. I realized that the best tools in the hands of people who don’t know how to use them to their fullest advantage are simply wasted money. And if TPMS is misrepresented by uneducated or misinformed sales associates, then it won’t take long for customers to eventually find out they were ripped off.

As I just mentioned, everything starts at the sales counter because TPMS service is definitely something that needs to be sold if dealers are going to make the in-vestment in tools and in software updates. So the customer must recognize the value in a system that uses a dashboard light to alert the driver when an underinflated tire is in operation. When educated drivers heed the warning and have their tires immediately checked following a TPMS warning light, in many cases the problem can be fixed without replacing the tire or the sensor.

But most consumers have no idea such a system even exists, and when they find out there is an additional cost to maintain it, they will be naturally resistant at first.

Besides the obvious safety advantages and the fact that fuel mileage is negatively affected by tire under-inflation, one of the most important benefits that TPMS can provide is extended tread life. Properly inflated tires wear more evenly, especially when they are rotated regularly. By maintaining the TPMS and acting on a dashboard light, drivers will undoubtedly avoid run-flat situations and premature/irregular tire wear. Tires are only going to get more expensive as time goes by, so if a $50 sensor can save a $150 tire for 10 years or 150,000 miles, $5 a year seems to be a wise investment on the part of the vehicle owner.

TPMS profit center

In order to make TPMS a profit center so companies can pay for tools, sales associates must communicate the value to the consumer so they are willing to spend the necessary money to maintain it. This is another place that relearn tools can be very effective. The more advanced tools have the ability to print out a status report on all of the sensors that the driver should receive before and after the service.

When a customer arrives with a TPMS light on, it’s probably a good idea if the sales person finds out why the indicator was illuminated in the first place. If it’s a malfunction indicator lamp, or MIL, then the driver must be immediately notified before the vehicle is pulled into the bay for service. Either way, the status of the illuminated TPMS indicator light should be communicated to the customer prior to service. Without an advanced relearn tool, it’s next to impossible to guess.

Based on the status of the diagnostic check at the beginning of the process, the sales associate will then know exactly how to proceed. This is the point where communication between the counter and service bay is critical. First of all, it’s helpful if the technician knows when he’s dealing with a flat tire or an MIL. In the case of a simple flat tire, then most technicians should be able to handle the job. But if there is a malfunction or a bad sensor, the job may need to be completed by a different technician. And most importantly, if it’s a job that requires programming or manual sensor initialization, the sales associate must know the capabilities of the service department or the dealership risks accepting a vehicle it cannot repair.

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Sales people don’t need to know how to perform advanced diagnostics. But they should be able to run a simple status check and print the results so the consumer is aware of the TPMS condition before the vehicle reaches the bay. This will also prevent the inevitable instances where customers believe the dealer somehow “broke” the TPMS when they pulled it into the garage. When the driver is handed a TPMS status report and the vehicle still hasn’t left the space where it was parked, those claims will be much more difficult to prove.

The final condition that must be in place is a technician who is able to use the full functionality of the TPMS relearn tool. Most of the advanced tools on the market are capable of handling any situation, including the programming of new sensors in certain imported automobiles. But it takes a skilled technician who is familiar with menu-driven hand-held electronic devices to locate and follow the necessary procedures.

Like all jobs in the shop, some people will be better at TPMS diagnostics than others. The key to success is to give the simple TPMS work to the technicians who understand the basics and the more advanced work to the technicians who know the intricacies of each different automobile manufacturer.

As I mentioned in my previous article on this subject, my regular job precludes me from making any recommendations or providing any ratings. But it appears the relearn tool market has basically narrowed down to five companies (in alphabetical order): ATEQ Corp., Bartec USA LLC, K-Tool International, OTC/SPX Corp. and Schrader-Bridgeport International Inc. All of these manufacturers offer a complete line of tools to accommodate technicians of every skill level in any application. They range from the simple one-button “go/no go” designs where the light turns a different color to the advanced menu-driven diagnostic tools that can perform almost every service necessary to handle the TPMS on all makes and models.

Selecting the right tool is all about what’s best for the market and the education level of the technicians. I’ve said it a thousand times and I’m going to say it again; if technicians cannot program cell phones or operate time clocks, the menu-driven tools are a complete waste of money. That being said, if the market is predominantly imported vehicles (particularly Japanese), the dealer must adapt to the fact that a higher level of technician quality is necessary to service the TPMS on these vehicles because the advanced tools are more frequently needed.

I asked Sean MacKinnon, director of automotive training development for the Tire Industry Association (TIA), to compile a quick chart that addresses what we think are some of the main points regarding TPMS tools. Sean is becoming TIA’s resident expert on these tools and works closely with TIA’s Senior Automotive Instructor, Matt White, to track their performance in the field. Together, they’ve used almost every tool on the market and conduct training classes all over North America to educate technicians on the procedures for servicing TPMS including the use of relearn tools. For more information, contact training@tireindustry.org.

Rather than run down the whole list of tools, I’ve selected the best tool from each company to feature. I personally believe every retail tire dealer should have access to at least one diagnostic tool to prevent the customer from making unnecessary trips to the new car dealer, so that’s all that is addressed at this point. While I could have comments on every column of this chart, space is limited so I’m only going to talk about a few features.

The first is power. There are obvious advantages to rechargeable batteries from a cost perspective as long as technicians remember to recharge the batteries. If someone forgets, the technician is dead in the water. On the other hand, battery operation can get expensive if standard batteries are used, but technicians are also a quick trip to the convenience store away from getting back up-to-speed.

Next, the update process must be considered. Most of the tools featured in the chart require an Internet connection to update.

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Locations without Internet access are going to have a difficult time working on the latest makes and models unless a regular update plan is in place. While that might lead some dealers to immediately disregard these tools, it’s important to note that the need for an Internet connection to conduct business will only become more important in the future.

The two final areas that are most important have to be printability and Asian vehicle model relearn ability.

As discussed earlier in the article, consumers who are sold on the value of TPMS and given a written printout of the current status are much more likely to pay for system maintenance.

Again, if the dealer cannot offer such a printout and makes no effort to sell the value, the TPMS becomes an expense instead of a profit center.

And finally, the ability to reprogram ID numbers on Asian vehicles after sensors break or fail will likely separate the experts from the guessers. It takes some time and a lot of extra work on the part of the technician to perform this and other advanced functions, but the ability to perform this service will definitely be a defining characteristic of the companies who are going to make TPMS profitable.

Automobile manufacturers have invested too much in TPMS technology and it’s even more unlikely for the government to rescind the current position on monitoring tire inflation pressure.

TPMS is here to stay and the new car dealers have a distinct advantage over the tire dealer in that they only have to work with a limited number of manufacturers. Since tire retailers must be able to service the tires on all makes and models, there is an increased risk that customers may think they have to turn to the new car dealer for their maintenance and repairs -— and tires.

High energy costs are already leading to fewer miles driven so there will ultimately be fewer vehicles in need of tires and other services.

The industry has no concept of how the battle for customers will play out, but one of the key weapons will be an advanced relearn tool in the hands of a technician who knows how to use it.

If you believe that war drives technology and whoever has the best technology wins the war, then retailers should assemble an army of well-trained troops with updated relearn tools and ensure that they can fully utilize them to win the battles in the streets over TPMS.

Kevin Rohlwing is senior vice president of training for the Tire Industry Association. He can be reached at (800) 876-8372.

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