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What would you recommend?

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What would you recommend?

n the high performance/ultra-high performance segment of the market, having well-trained sales personnel is critical. When we talk with tire dealers throughout the year, they tell us that their salespeople are highly trained and great with customers. But how do they compete with the big chains that can dedicate hundreds of thousands of dollars to training? And how do they stack up against one another?

New challenges in the HP/UHP market are emerging all the time. Today’s retail HP/UHP tire customer is just as interested in performance, value and safety as 30 years ago, but today’s customer also can go online and get all the pricing and technical information he or she wants.

Independent dealers also have to compete with companies that sell complete tire and wheel packages online.

How can the independent dealer compete on a level playing field as customers’ options and access to information increase? Just how good are the people doing the selling?

Do they know enough about high performance and ultra-high performance tires and fitments to take the customer through the process of a professional sale and produce an outcome that meets the customer’s expectations?

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To find out, we decided to perform research as a “secret shopper” at six different retail tire outlets near New York City.

We were looking to see if the tire salespeople we met could perform the following steps to identify opportunities and make the sale:

• acknowledgement and introduction,

• listen, question and analyze,

• develop a strategy to make the sale,

• product presentation(s),

• price presentation,

• price and product justification,

• overcome customer objections, and

• close the sale.

In each scenario, we used the same vehicle: a 2005 Toyota Corolla CE with size 185/65R15 snow tires and steel wheels. The car also had a lowered suspension (1.5 inches in the front and two inches in the back), a modified cylinder head, a custom exhaust system and a modified air intake system.

I gave this information to each salesperson during my first interaction with them, along with the phrase:

“I’m looking for something that will allow me to use my car’s horsepower and improved suspension. What would you recommend?”

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Before I share what I discovered, bear a couple of notes in mind: This secret shopper program was conducted during the second and third weeks of December 2007. If you live in a northern state, you are well aware that few people buy UHP tires and custom wheels in the winter, unless they are buying a Christmas present.

For these visits, I dressed in corduroy pants, a black long-sleeve pullover shirt, and a nice winter coat. (It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside.)

I never talked about price or the brand and size of tires until the salesperson offered what he thought was right. Here’s how each scenario played out.

Scenario #1: Sears

First I went to Sears, as it was the closest to my home. After waiting about five minutes to be acknowledged, I was approached by a salesman. He was helpful and quick to offer me the lowest-cost all-season touring tire he had in stock. This continued even while I explained my entire situation. It appeared as if he wanted me to just buy the tires or go away.

I reiterated my car’s level of modifications and again stressed that I was looking for performance. He asked me what size tires and wheels I had on the car at the moment. I told him. He didn’t ask me what tires and wheels I used the rest of the year after winter was done beating up my car. If he did, I would have told him the Plus-Two size and the brands of the tires and wheels.

At this point, he offered 15-inch custom wheels and Goodyear brand tires. He gave me a catalog and had me look through it. I finally told him, “I think my Corolla is a high performance model with 16-inch tires. Could you please look it up?” He found the Corolla S model that came with size 195/55R16 tires and 16-inch wheels as original equipment — to his surprise.

With this in mind, he re-did his estimate for me with 16-inch tires and wheels that are available in 15- and 16-inch diameters. He printed out an estimate and basically walked away. He didn’t ask me if I wanted them mounted and installed nor did he invite me to come back in the spring. He misjudged me as a “lowest price buyer” and sent me out the door.

I’ll admit his prices were good (he had me out the door at $883 plus $153 in taxes, the lowest price I received during the whole project), but he never allowed me to discuss them or take the sale any farther.

Analysis: This Sears store was in an outstanding location, was well-stocked and had professional-looking salespeople. But my assessment is that it needed to train its employees in sales. Not asking for the buy is a mistake many salespeople make. They erroneously assume that if they put the information in the customer’s hand, the customer will automatically buy from them.

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Scenario #2: Company-owned store

My next stop was a Bridgestone Firestone company-owned store. It was in a mall area and had plenty of space and service bays. I was acknowledged by the store manager, to whom I presented my scenario. I took it slow so he would be able to hear me clearly as the shop was a bit noisy.

He was very professional and obviously knew tires as well as plus fitments. He didn’t try to up-sell me to 17- or 18-inch tires, just 16-inch tires as Corolla has from the factory. He decided to give me three different tire/wheel combo options, including one in the 16-inch range and two that were 15 inches. (But he had to look under the counter for a rag-eared custom wheel catalog.) He gave me a general wheel price of $225 each. The 16-inch tires, which were V-rated, were offered at $131 each.

His pricing was reasonable, but I was disappointed that he didn’t try to up-sell me. He didn’t ask for the sale and did not ask me to return in the spring. If I wanted the tires and/or wheels, I would’ve had to take out my credit card.

Analysis: The manager of this store should have recognized me as a UHP customer as soon as I explained my vehicle. The fact that he didn’t take me to the tires he offered also was a mistake, in my opinion. He never asked for the sale and didn’t offer to have everything ready in the spring. I was surprised by this outcome. I’m sure this shop was successful; they were very busy in the middle of the week. But I’m not sure it’s ready for the true UHP tire buyer.

Scenario #3: Independent dealer

Next I decided to try an independently owned Goodyear Gemini store. The salesperson was the owner. At first he was very willing to sell me standard replacement tires based upon the car I was driving. After listening to a description of the car, he offered me Plus-One replacements and gave me a wheel catalog. I picked a set of wheels and he said he would call me and give me pricing over the phone because he couldn’t get through to the wheel manufacturer to obtain their current prices.

He let me walk. It seemed like he wasn’t too interested in selling UHP tires, but he asked some of the right questions. (Though he never called to up-sell me to a Plus-Two fitment, which is what I use during the nine months when we don’t have snow and ice.) However, he later called me with a quote. Once again, I learned what “going Plus-One” would cost me, but I was never offered anything larger than my car’s OE size.

Analysis: After the visit and phone call that followed, I began to question myself. Was I dressed too poorly? Did I project an image of not having much money to spend? But I wasn’t dressed poorly, and I began to recognize a trend: every shop I visited up until this point tried to keep me in he OE size circle and made pricing the only issue. There were no presentations of specific tires, no taking me to see them, no promises and ultimately, no sales.

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Scenario #4: Independent dealer

My next stop was another independent tire dealership, Ganin Tire, which has a number of stores in the New York metropolitan area.

The store manager wasn’t there, but I was approached by a young salesman named Mike DeCaterina. He tried to show me stock tires before he realized I wanted a performance tire. Switching gears, he recommended a Plus-One tire and wheel fitment.

He walked me through the entire sales process, though it was apparent he didn’t have much experience with it. But he had the technical knowledge about tires and wheels, as well as fitment guides on hand. He managed to get me into the Plus-One fitment, recommending specific tire and wheel brands.

He pieced together an estimate and told me he knew I’d be buying in the spring. His pricing was middle-of-the-road but I asked, “That’s a little expensive, don’t you think?” (This is the same question I asked all of the salespeople during my secret shopper visits if they reached the price quote/closing point.)

He reviewed the quote, told me about the quality of the products and asked me to tell him what I thought was too pricey. I thought that this was a smart approach. It made me identify my objections and gave him time to think about how to overcome them.

I asked him if I could get a discount and he said he’d talk to the manager when I came in to buy, another smart move; he held out a carrot that I would have to come back to his store in order to reach.

At that point, I told him I was there as an MTD secret shopper. I told him he had done a good job with the sales process. His face broke out in a big smile. This allowed me to see the person, not just the salesperson.

Analysis: He wasn’t a perfect salesperson but he showed that he cared, presented his price and tried to close the deal by giving me reasons to justify the purchase. I would probably buy from him.

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Scenario #5: Independent dealer

I decided to visit another independent dealership. After waiting 15 minutes for someone to acknowledge me — there were two people behind the counter talking to one another — I walked out. To me, this was simply not acceptable.

Analysis: Even if you are too busy to talk to the customer, at least acknowledge that person, and maybe they will be willing to wait. Ignoring a prospective customer is one practice that will quickly sour him or her on buying from you.

Scenario #6: Independent dealer

My sixth secret shopper location was in a part of town that had once been a playground for New York’s wealthy, but has since fallen victim to urban blight. The exterior of the store was an old-fashioned storefront that belies the depth of space and five service bays in the back of the building.

The inside of the store, C&C Tire & Auto Center, was fresh-looking and delivered an image of quality. It contained HP and UHP tire displays as well as custom wheel displays. Right away, I felt comfortable in the shop and had a chance to look at the available tires.

It only took a moment before a salesman, Richard Casnocha, approached. He wasn’t overly friendly but he was very professional. It was a busy day yet you would not have known it by the tone of his voice or his demeanor. He was calm and accessible, and also highly knowledgeable.

The first thing he did was ask me what kind of vehicle I drove and what kind of tires I wanted. He led me to the wheel wall and gave me a new custom wheel catalog. When I showed him a wheel that I liked, he noted that it came in 15- and 17-inch configurations only, ideal for my Corolla. From that point, he started explaining the differences between the stock 15-inch sizes and Plus-Two 17-inch sizes. He made sure I understood there would be less sidewall on the 17-inch tires and even though ride quality would suffer a little, handling would improve a lot.

He also explained that UHP tires perform better at the expense of wear as their softer tread rubber tends to wear out more quickly than standard touring tires. He was selling me up, but he made sure my expectations were based upon reality.

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He prepared a quote for me; it came in right at $2,000.

“That’s a little pricey, don’t you think?” I said.

He deliberately walked back to the tire he recommended and discussed its quality. He then walked back to the wheel and reiterated its quality. He explained that the price he gave me included mounting and balancing with invisible wheel weights, plus new lug nuts and washers. He then asked me if I was ready to buy or planning to buy in the spring. He added that he would need a couple of days to get the rims. He then said that while waiting until the spring to commit might be the logical thing to do, the design I wanted may not be available then as the rim manufacturer changes its designs regularly. Overall, he was insistent, but gave me reasons why.

I finally introduced myself and let him know I was from MTD. I told him I thought it was outstanding how he covered every step of the UHP tire sales process. He seemed quite surprised and humbled by my comments.

Analysis: This salesman was factual, knowledgeable and a great listener. He was the only one of the five salespeople I encountered who took me through the entire UHP tire sales process. The first three salesmen simply did not listen well or perhaps had been told to stay away from Plus-Two and higher fitments. I also got the impression that they didn’t really know their UHP product lines. (The “sales” force at the fifth store simply didn’t acknowledge me.)

Final wrap-up

Is our small sample a true picture of professional UHP tire salespeople? Are the major chains, with all of their resources, not training their salespeople? Were my encounters at the chain stores aberrations? Do independent tire dealers do a better job than the chains?

If we accept the results of our secret shopper program as factual, it would imply that about 20% of customers looking for true UHP tire and wheel combinations eventually find the right tire and wheel combo.

I’m sure you have noted that we didn’t name all the stores or sales people; that’s by design. One thing is crystal clear: it takes a knowledgeable, enthusiastic sales person to satisfy the needs and wants of true HP and UHP tire buyers.

Matt Strong is a 30-plus year tire and automotive industry veteran. Throughout his career, he has managed marketing activities for a global tire manufacturer, operated a large tire retail/wholesale business, worked in tire and automotive public relations, competed in drag and road racing events, and has contributed a number of articles to Modern Tire Dealer magazine.

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