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Spencer for hire: New England dealer prepares customers' cars for spring and summer with easy-to-perform, high-margin maintenance

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Spencer for hire: New England dealer prepares customers' cars for spring and summer with easy-to-perform, high-margin maintenance

It's common knowledge that cars sometimes require prep work for winter weather. But how many car owners are aware that their vehicles need to be prepped for the spring and summer months?

Spencer Carruthers, who owns Kenwood Tire Co., a single-location dealership in West Bridgewater, Mass., doesn't wait for customers to figure it out on their own. He makes sure they know.

"We have a hand-out that lists summer services," says Carruthers. "Whenever they come in between February and April, we hand out a flyer to anyone who leaves here. A lot of people say, 'I didn't know you guys did this stuff!'"

Here's a look at the services that Carruthers recommends and how he sells them:

* Coolant system flushes. "Coolant flushes are at the top of the list," says Carruthers. That includes more than just draining antifreeze out of a radiator. At Kenwood Tire, they flush the entire coolant system. "We call it 'coolant system service' instead of a simple radiator flush."

Carruthers charges $80 for coolant system service, a bit more than the going rate for a mere radiator flush. So he's careful to sell the service in a low-key manner.

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Kenwood Tire's three auto service techs use strips to test the pH and protection levels of the coolant in each customer's car. (Coolant fluid with high acidity can corrode the inside of a car's coolant system, he says.)

If the coolant is bad, they show it to the customer. "We have these little trays to display fluid. Here's why: If somebody comes in here and we check their coolant and say, 'You need a flush because your pH and protection aren't good,' well, that doesn't mean a lot. But if you show somebody that their current fluid is brown and it should be orange or green, it's a good illustration."

One of Carruthers' salespeople has even ordered test tubes in which to display coolant. "If they can see it, it's a much easier sell."

* Brake work. Brakes typically aren't a tough sell either, says Carruthers. "People realize that if you don't have brake work done, they’re going to hear grinding and it’s going to cost them more money down the line."

In fact, Carruthers sells brake work as a cost-saving measure. How? By using a brake lathe that can turn rotors on the car.

"(Recently) we had a customer with a Ford 500 that had a vibration problem. Most places would probably sell the owner a new rotor. A lot of times you can put a brand new rotor on a car and still have vibration problems.

"With this lathe, you don't take the rotor off and you don't take the caliper off, either. It fits where the caliper is."

Always measure rotor thickness and make sure it's within tolerance. Also make sure it can be turned. "The lathe turns the rotor. In 10 to 15 minutes, the rotor looks brand new."

Carruthers charges $35 to turn a rotor with the lathe versus $80 to $100 for a new rotor. "Obviously, if a brake rotor is really bad, we'll replace it. But most of the time, if a car has 40,000 or 50,000 miles on it and this is the first brake job, you can turn the rotor and it will still work great.

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"It saves customers money and it's better for us because we do not have to lay out the money on materials.

"We had a BMW X5 in recently and did a four-wheel rotor job. The total came out to $740. Now, when you price that out with new rotors, you're looking at about $1,100 because the rotors are $100 each. So if you can sell the job for only $740, the customer thinks it's a great deal."

As with coolant system service, Carruthers avoids any kind of hard sell when dealing with skeptics. You have to tell customers why their cars need work, he says. "We talk to them in percentages. We'll say, 'We noticed your brakes have about 10% left on them, so it's probably a good time to get them done. We have a lathe that can save you money.'

"You have to tell people the way it is. I think people are used to (operations) where you go in for a $100 brake job and end up with a thousand dollar bill. That's the old way of selling and it's not going to work in the future."

* Windshield wiper blades. As parts and labor go, wiper blades are far from being big-ticket items, but they also are appropriate to sell after the weather warms up, says Carruthers.

"People don't think about them much when it's snowing but they do when it's raining."

Kenwood Tire uses a showroom wiper blade display to keep the service top-of-mind.

The test for wiper blade wear is simple, he says. "As soon as we get in the car, we test the wiper blades."

A tech squirts some fluid onto the windshield and sends the blade across it; if the blade leaves a streak behind, a new one is needed.

At that point, the sell couldn't be any easier, he explains. "We just tell them, 'If this was my car, I'd put on new wiper blades.'"

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* Spark plug replacement. Because vehicles are highly complex, "the old tune-up -- spark plugs, wires, cap and rotor -- is gone. Now it's pretty much spark plugs; that's what we do."

Carruthers doesn't promote spark plug installation in his advertising. He sells the service by simply referring customers to vehicle manufacturers' maintenance recommendations. "Every car is so different. A Ford Expedition might only need plugs every 50,000 miles. We had a Mitsubishi in the other day that required new plugs every 30,000 miles."

Carruthers also takes advantage of the opportunity to let customers know they don't have to go to car dealerships for spark plugs and other parts; his techs can do a better job at a better price.

By selling service work that needs to be done and keeping his customers apprised of potential problems, Carruthers has established a tremendous level of trust with his clients.

"A lot of people give us their keys and say, 'Do whatever it needs.' Our main objective is to get people to the point where they totally trust us to do the right thing."

Selling oil changes door-to-door?: Off-beat idea pays off for Kenwood Tire

It's always harder to snag new customers than lure back previous customers, says Spencer Carruthers, owner of Kenwood Tire Co. in West Bridgewater, Mass.

"As far as finding new customers, last year we did something very interesting with a company called Smart Circle. We came up with a package of four oil changes and two rotations for $30." Smart Circle employees sold the package door-to-door. Five hundred were sold, "which was more than I ever thought."

The off-the-wall strategy was expensive to implement but well worth the money, according to Carruthers, who has a history of marketing his dealership in unusual ways. "The thing is, the package was a series of four; it wasn't a one-time coupon where customers came in once and you never see them again. You get them onto a schedule. We finished this project in January, and I've been very happy with the number of people who continue to come back."

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Best Practice: Tips -- Inspection checklist

The following 15-point inspection checklist guides the service techs at Kenwood Tire Co. when a vehicle is brought in for service.

1. tire alignment.

2. tire pressure in all four tires.

3. oil filter.

4. air filter.

5. battery (cold cranking amps).

6. battery terminals.

7. headlamps.

8. brake lights.

9. tail lights.

10. back-up lights.

11. license plate light.

12. directional lights.

13. front wipers.

14. rear wipers.

15. the vehicle's mileage.

"For us, it's mostly about getting information on a vehicle," says owner Spencer Carruthers.

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