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Will your customers be ready when the temperature drops?: Dealers in cold regions – and even warm weather areas – know how to sell and market winterization services

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Will your customers be ready when the temperature drops?: Dealers in cold regions – and even warm weather areas – know how to sell and market winterization services

Winterizing has been an important facet of automotive service in cold parts of the country since the days of the Model T. This has included snow tires (usually on all four corners and mounted on an extra set of steel rims), antifreeze checks and safety inspections. Today things have not changed a lot, but diagnostic technology for safety and system testing has improved significantly.

What about the warm parts of the country, where winter is usually the rainy season and temperatures never get to the hard freeze level? Can customers still winterize? How do the services that warm climate tire dealers offer differ from those in cold climates?

To compare and contrast, we talked with dealers in California, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington. Dealers in consistently warm climates included:

* Randy Deamaral, partner, A&R Stock to Performance (Concord, Calif.).

* Jerry White, CEO, White Tire Supply Inc. (Beaumont, Texas).

* Mark Lewman, owner, Five Points Tire Imports (Redwood City, Calif.).

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Dealers in colder climates were:

* Anthony Carlone, owner, BTS Tire & Auto (Providence, R.I.).

* Scott Williams, president and COO, Jack Williams Tire Co. (Moosic, Pa.).

* Phil Welch, vice president, D&D Tire Inc. (Friendly, Nev.).

* Randy Liberty, owner, Liberty Tire & Automotive (Spokane, Wash.).

We found there are many significant differences in the services they offer and how they go about promoting and selling them. We asked each of them the same five questions.

Pre-winter is a major promotional period for dealers in all climates and provides an opportunity for servicing dealers to save their customers money and time. Major service areas, after tires, include:

* Coolant testing and flushing.

* Belts and hoses (inspection and replacement).

* Safety inspections: brakes, suspension and chassis, exhaust systems.

* Alternator, starter and battery testing.

* Wiper blade and washing system checks.

* Heater and defroster testing and repair.

* Antifreeze check and fill.

* OEM recommendations for preventive maintenance and service.

Here’s a look at what the aforementioned dealers sell and how they promote winterization in their respective markets.

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1. Best Practices: Besides tires, what winterizing services do you offer?

Williams says his chain is in the Snow Belt and gets a regular beating with snow and ice. “We do not sell winterizing. Instead we provide preventive maintenance services as recommended by the vehicle manufacturers all year long. We do emphasize the importance of winter preparation in the fall and early winter.”

Welch eagerly discussed winterizing. While his hometown averages temperatures in the low 30 degrees Fahrenheit at night, they can climb into the mid-50s during the day; thus whatever snow falls does not stick around too long. Welch listed cooling system checks and flushes, switching to a lighter viscosity oil to make start-up easier, charging system inspections, and brake and suspension system checks as important winterizing services.

Liberty says his area is a unique winter environment. Lying east of Washington’s High Desert in an area close to ski country, the area receives little snow but lots of ice. Winterizing is an important part of his business, though, as customers pass through his area on their way to the snow areas of Washington and Idaho, often up mountainous terrain.

Liberty pays a lot of attention to cooling system problems because experience has shown it pays big dividends. He does complete cooling system flushes and will even perform heater core flushes if the heater core happens to be plugged up. He notes this is a risky service because heater cores can fail at the inlet pipe if extreme care isn’t taken.

The objective of winterization, he says, is to assure customers that they are as safe as modern technology and service can make them.

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Best Practices: How do you promote and sell winterizing services, including overcoming objections?

The dealers who answered this question say they promote winterizing using a myriad of media and delivery methods. Some are highly creative and others use traditional methods like word-of-mouth advertising.

Welch uses direct mail, flyers, and other forms of advertising based on his own client list. “We offer package deals on services and tie them in with winter tires,” he says. “By offering a package on services, we make it easier for our customers with a lower overall cost than what other dealers offer. A good safety inspection is the key to sales.”

Carlone has discovered that direct mail to existing customers and other residents within five miles of his shop works well. He also emphasizes the importance of a complete safety check in generating sales of other services.

Williams says his store managers use a soft sell approach to customers based on OEM recommendations. “We simply inform the customer of their specific vehicle’s factory service recommendations. We also emphasize safety issues and always do a safety check of the entire vehicle.

“When we find things that need attention and repair, we prioritize them so the customer can do them on multiple visits if budgets are tight. Our clients respond to this approach and appreciate that we give them enough information to make informed decisions.”

Liberty believes seasonal and safety services should be sold all year long, though he starts selling winterizing services in September. He uses direct mail and local advertising to get customers into the store. He says service reminders based on auto manufacturers’ recommendations also are a valuable tool.

White calls his winterizing services a “trip check” because he operates in Texas’ warm weather climate. However, because of that, he emphasizes safety 12 months out of the year. White says battery, alternator and starter testing with the latest equipment sells itself.

“We also promote regular service based on manufacturers’ recommendations. Having two ASE Level Two master technicians in the shop, we can handle electronic testing and code service requirements, just like a car dealer. Promoting our business by word-of-mouth has been the most effective method of advertising, but we do some direct mail also.”

Lewman does some direct mail but feels word-of-mouth advertising has been the most significant reason for success at his store. “By emphasizing safety in the rainy winter season we sell a lot. We do not push customers; we give them the facts and they make informed decisions. Every vehicle that enters our shop goes through a safety inspection with a print-out, and that’s the best salesman we have.”

Deamaral uses flyers, banners and local advertising, but says word-of-mouth is his best advertising. This is built by delivering great service at a fair price, he says. “It’s like creating a domino falling sequence; as one starts to fall, the movement starts the rest falling -- and they fall right into our store.”

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Best Practices: What special services do you provide that other dealers do not?

Deamaral offers a free 100-point inspection that includes a complete diagnostic check of the cooling system plus the starter, alternator and battery.

Williams believes fluid checks and exchanges are not promoted enough by most dealers. “A large percentage of the business has shifted from repairs to scheduled preventive maintenance. By working with this in mind, customers are educated about preventive maintenance requirements, including when as well as why. They’ve been educated that preventive maintenance will lower their overall cost of the vehicle during its life cycle”

As such, preventive maintenance represents a significant part of Jack Williams Tire’s sales. Their preventive maintenance menu includes transmission flushes and fluid exchanges, A/C system winterizing with new fluid after an inspection check for leaks if Freon appears to be low, and nitrogen instead of regular air for all tires. Williams says cold weather can cause air pressures to vary and this can leave tires under-inflated or over-inflated.

White says his dealership has been doing nitrogen filling for more than 30 years. “We use bottles of commercial nitrogen. With zero moisture, it helps protect rims and tire pressure sensors.”

Carlone educates customers with service tips and OEM recommended service information. These are written down to remind customers of specific services they might require and then invite them into his dealership for a free safety inspection. Carlone also stores customers’ snow tires when spring arrives and stores summer tires during winter. “This free service binds customers to our store and they tell their friends. It’s a win/win for everyone.”

Lewman says his company sells all services all of the time. He adds that a safety check shows what needs to be done and customers seldom argue about need or price when they see the problem.

Welch states that his dealership is unique in his area because it offers one-stop service: tires, scheduled maintenance and repairs. “We believe that offering everything sets us apart from our competition.”

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Best Practices: What is the most important thing you tell customers about winterizing?

White says he does not encounter any objections to his program. “Most of our customers seem grateful that we are providing trouble-free motoring for them. Once we explain the importance of preparing, they get on board. They know we are not interested in a one-time visit to our store. We build long-lasting relationships with customers and they appreciate it.”

Carlone says winter in New England can be very unpredictable. “We try to stress how important it is to keep cars well-maintained and ready for winter. The result of not doing this is dangerous vehicle handling and poor performance that could leave drivers stranded in the snow or on the highway.”

Williams makes it clear that his company’s emphasis is always on safety and manufacturer recommendations. “It’s our job to keep customers and their vehicles safe. This can only be done by following recommended service intervals, handling repair issues and giving customers the products they need.”

Lewman tells customers to remember “how important the safety aspects of winter driving in the Bay Area can be with its heavy rain and snow in the mountains where white-outs and blizzards can happen any time. Deep tread on all tires, chains in the trunk of every vehicle, plus emergency materials (food, water, etc.) in the trunk are essential to safety.”

Deamaral makes everyone in his shop aware of the importance of inspections to ensure that tires are safe for the season. He recommends chains and emergency gear as well. There’s no substitute for safety during severe weather months, he says.

Welch keeps it simple. “The most important issue is safety followed by preventive maintenance. We explain that worn parts, belts and weak coolant can leave customers stranded on the side of the road,” he says. “Our winterizing inspection allows a certified tech to look under the car and hood. If repairs are needed, the customer will be informed. If everything is in tip-top shape, we inform them of the good news, which is usually the result of preventive maintenance.”

Liberty says the old Boy Scouts motto of “Be prepared” is key to winter safety. This includes all car systems plus the drive train, tires and suspension. The heater and defroster also need to be working at 100% efficiency to protect occupants and drivers from freezing as well as to make it easier to see out of all windows.

It’s easy to think, based on this article, that every dealer in the nation is involved in winterizing. This is not the case. Many dealers are still focused only on the tire end of the business. And many servicing dealers can easily make a good living out of repairing vehicle components or system failures without performing preventive maintenance.

But the service business is now based on OEM preventive maintenance practices as well as safety inspections. It’s much more important to prevent failures than to simply fix them. The same sales dollars come in when an alternator is changed before it fails as when that same part fails on the road. The difference, as dealers noted, is that you are protecting the safety of the customer before a failure happens.

Seasonal service and sales opportunities will continue to be important volume builders and bottom-line boosters.

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Best Practices: Tips -- Warm up to winterization

What amount of sales is represented by winterizing products and services?

The general opinion was that seasonal services like winterizing represent 10% to 15% of annual sales, regardless of whether dealers are in cold climates or in arid climates.

Dealers agree that getting customers prepared for the winter season is important and profitable. To one dealer whom we interviewed, it represents more than $20,000 in added sales between September and December. Even dealers who do not promote winterizing recognize the positive impact of winter service sales on bottom lines.

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