Chief among them: alignments.
Dan Garlock and his brother, Darren, own and operate the business their father started as a gas station in 1973. Eventually, their dad shifted gears from selling fuel to a shop offering full automotive services, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that Silver Lake Auto & Tire Centers invested in its first alignment rack. Until then, the company had contracted its alignments to another local business.Even with 30 years of alignment experience, the Garlocks sensed there was more opportunity.
Dan says it was a move to “really making sure that we’re looking holistically at the alignment process and making sure that we’re covering everything. Each car gets triaged to what it needs for an alignment.”
Matt Oldenburg, Silver Lake Auto & Tire Centers’ director of operations, is credited for pushing this new way of thinking.
“The way we used to approach alignments is we had three or four different prices for alignments and every vehicle had to fall into one of those buckets,” says Oldenburg. “And that just didn’t work. It wasn’t fair to our customers. And it wasn’t fair for us. We were either undercharging or overcharging and at the end of the day, somebody wasn’t being charged appropriately or receiving the right amount of payment for a service.”
Now Silver Lake Auto & Tire Centers offers a complementary alignment check. “We take the measurements on the vehicle and based off what (technicians) find there, we can give (the customer) an accurate price for what adjustments need to be made.
“No two vehicles are the same,” he says, noting two 2018 Toyota Tundra pickups could need different alignments based on their features. “So why should the truck that needs just the toe adjustments get charged the same price for the truck that needs the toe and the camber? We try to make it individual to the vehicle. It’s more fair for our customers. It’s more fair for our technicians.
“There’s a lot more things that fall into aligning vehicles these days than there were five to 10 years ago. You have the physical alignment, where you set the mechanical geometry of the vehicle. On a lot of cars these days there’s the electronic alignment, where you have all of these driver assist modules that need to be recalibrated. We refer to that as the electrical alignment and that’s a whole other side of things.”
Seeing more of those electrical systems with alignment needs is what spurred Oldenburg to suggest the dealership’s new approach.
“That’s where we hit pause and said we need to reevaluate how we’re approaching this and really treat each car with a personal touch, from an alignment standpoint.”
Dan says on top of the new opportunities in alignments, changing the tire dealership’s strategy also required technicians to change their habits.
“I think package pricing was also creating some bad habits in our organization from our technical team,” he says. He thinks some technicians weren’t looking as deeply into some situations to figure out what a vehicle needed and as a result, missed problems that needed addressing.
“This helped kind of pump the brakes on that and slow that down, so we can make sure we’re not creating bad habits in the industry and (ensure) we’re being more intentional about how we’re fixing cars.”
Dan says he knows there’s pressure to provide customers with speedy service.
“I know in a lot of volume scenarios, it’s about getting the car back in the customer’s hands as quick as possible. Missing one calibration from one of the cameras or one of the radars or missing a steering angle can result in comebacks (and) can result in customer satisfaction issues. And it can start tarnishing the reputation of our brand and the industry.
“It is important for us to just slow down. As this market is changing quickly, we need to put some stopgaps in place to make sure we don’t keep facilitating bad habits and miss (proper) alignments.”
Adjusting the mindset of Silver Lake Auto & Tire Center’s technicians has been a key component to the company changing its alignment offerings and servicing the advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) on modern vehicles. But Oldenburg says it wasn’t a tough sell.
“Our technicians have a lot of pride in who they are, their craft and who they work for. One of our core values is professionalism and another one of our core values is integrity. So we have a lot of conversations throughout the day about our core values and the behaviors that funnel into those,” he says.
“Technicians understand why customers bring their cars to Silver Lake Auto Center. It’s because they trust us to be the professionals and to operate with integrity. When the technicians buy into that, slowing down to ensure we make sure something like an alignment is done properly and that we don’t really leave any stone unturned,” is natural, Oldenburg says.
“The technicians get rewarded with not just a sense of pride in the way they operate, but it’s also beneficial for the technician to find those calibrations because they’re getting more bill time on the alignment, so it’s a win-win for everybody. We’re doing right by the customer. We’re operating under a professional mindset with integrity at the forefront. And at the end of the day, the customer rewards us with repeat business.”
All of that adds up to more profitability for the tire dealership, says Dan.
“Because of these vehicles needing more time and technical acumen brought to the table, there’s a revenue solution there for the organization that comes along with that, too. So as a result of digging in deep on this, we grew some revenue on our alignments.”
Oldenburg remembers his days as a technician when the four pricing tiers for alignments spanned from $99 for a two-wheel alignment up to $169 for service on European models. He says there are still alignments that fall into that $100 to $200 range, but for in-depth calibrations, “to perform them for a price point under $150 isn’t realistic.”
Dan says alignments on some European vehicles are now “running north of $500. We’re seeing alignment prices doubling - or two-to-two-and-a-half times - in a lot of cases, where there’s additional services that need to be done on top of the mechanical alignment.”
Oldenburg says the conversations at the front sales counter are especially important.
“There’s actually a lot more education involved on the front counter between the service advisor and the customer than there was with the technicians,” he says.
Customers have grown accustomed to that basic menu of alignment options and they might remember that their last alignment came with a $120 charge. Silver Lake Auto & Tire Centers explains to customers that this price covered the “mechanical alignment to get the geometry of the vehicle set.” But the extra charge — whether it’s $100 or more — covers the electronic alignment to calibrate the additional, newer systems.
Oldenburg says part of the message is that “it’s really for the safety of you (the consumer) and to make sure that this vehicle operates the way that it’s designed. It’s important that those other systems are calibrated and aligned, along with the mechanical geometry of the vehicle.
“We really try to educate them on where that difference is coming from” and why it’s important.
Dan thinks this is not that different from other transitions he’s seen in the tire industry over the years. He likens it to the proliferation of low-profile tires and the surprise some customers had when it came time to replace them.
“They were used to paying a certain price point and they just had to transition to, ‘I like the way those low-profile tires look and handle and I guess they are more expensive.’ It’s the same type of thing that’s going on with alignments.”
Dan says drivers like the assistance they receive from ADAS. And when it comes to service, tire dealers are “having to retrain them and bring (ADAS) to top of mind.”