Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming a hot topic within the tire industry. In this MTD exclusive, Jason Rook, president and CEO of the Independent Tire Dealers Group LLC (ITDG), discusses the benefits of AI within the tire industry and shares examples of how tire dealers are utilizing this new technology. (The following interview consists of excerpts from a full-length interview that was originally conducted as part of The Modern Tire Dealer Show, MTD’s podcast, which you can listen to here.)
MTD: What does AI look like in the tire industry and what are its benefits to other tire dealers?
Rook: I do have the luxury of being able to talk to a lot of dealers. Fast access to hard information has been a game-changer for some dealers already. For example, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) repair info or step-by-step repair instructions are available at the push of a button — or in voice-activated systems, these days - which makes a huge difference.
I was managing an auto repair shop about 20 years ago and half of my tech time was probably spent looking up the correct parts and things like that. With a vehicle identification number scanner that puts that hard information in a place you can access quickly, (it) makes a big difference.
AI also can also be used for information look-up on the back end. If you inventory tires (and) if you inventory parts, it can help you with purchase processing on the inventory sellout side. It can help with scheduling.
I talked to one dealer who has taken the ... process beyond, where it’s a suggestive, sell-based process, and the AI makes the first move. So if a customer walks into a tire dealership and needs an air filter change and they refuse, this system is going to keep that information for later. In the old days, you would have to inspect the air filter again the next time the customer comes in, taking up more of your tech's time.
Now, with AI, the customer comes in and the system says, ‘This person needs an air filter. They needed one three months ago,’ and you can get your schedulers to then initiate those things.
MTD: What is the overall feeling from other tire dealers about AI?
Rook: I think if you talk about AI on the surface, hesitancy is there. Now, the tire industry, in general, as an industry — we are used to change and we are used to volatility. We are constantly adapting, but we are not always the early adopters. Once we see the benefits and we see those proven, that’s when we get on board.
When I say there’s hesitancy on the surface, it’s because if you ask a tire dealer what they think about AI, they are probably going to tell you they are waiting to see how well it works out before implementing it.
MTD: Are there any drawbacks to using AI?
Rook: Yes, there are drawbacks to this, too. AI is not all-incredible and I think everything can be overused.
There's no 'set it and forget it' in a safety-based service industry like tires. And I’m sure there will be someone who attempts this — who puts (information) in the AI systems and then just lets it run customers around and not close deals.
AI won’t ever close a deal, I'll tell you that.
I’ve played with it enough and tried to get AI to sell me stuff and it does not sell me stuff. It tells me everything I want to know, but it won’t sell me anything.
You still need a tech turning that wrench. You need a salesperson to stand at the counter, take the (customer's) information and use emotional intelligence to know that the customer who just told me they lost their job and is down on their luck right now should not be upsold. AI doesn’t have that emotional intelligence yet.
MTD: Do you know many tire dealers who are using AI and having success?
Rook: This whole conversation started when I was at a function … and having dinner with Darrin Mallet, president of Texas-based Kilgore Tire Center. This kicked off the conversation (about) AI.
Since then, I have talked to other dealers. Garth Williams, president at Direct Discount Tire in Stillwater, Okla., is in ITDG and he has been using autonomous inspection tools for three or four years, at least. I remember seeing them in his shop. He is in a small town in Oklahoma and runs a big business and you drive into his shop and your car gets scanned as you drive into the bay.
You sit down in the waiting room and on the screen in the waiting room, it will tell you everything about your vehicle. He has a screen in his waiting room and it will say the customer's name and it will tell you the information that came up on (the customer’s) car.
It's not a hard sell. It just says. ‘Hey, you need an alignment. This is what your alignment is now.’
Dennis Dossett, owner of C & D Tire in East Tennessee, has always been an early adopter and he has been leading the ADAS (advanced driver assistance system) charge for years. He’s one of those guys out there who is putting it into practice. He’s calibrating people’s cameras — he is doing all these things... (and) he’s taking advantage of it.
I talked to Fat Boys Tires & Auto in Wyoming. They are one of our long-time members and they automated their appointment setting to the point where they have done presentations on how to help other tire dealers automate appointment settings.
The more people adopt (AI), they’ll see they are not just making more money, but servicing their customers better, which really goes hand in hand when you are an independent tire dealer.
MTD: What do dealers need to keep in mind about AI?
Rook: I think that if AI were an employee, it would be a generalist — a person who is good at a lot of stuff, but maybe isn’t great at anything.
AI is not going to replace salespeople or technicians or tire dealers. But I do believe that salespeople, technicians and tire dealers who use AI are going to replace the ones who do not use AI and that’s just because of the incredible efficiency.
Log on to a chatbot or an AI and try to have it sell you a set of tires. It will tell you everything you need to know about whatever you’re talking about, but it does not have the emotional intelligence of saying, ‘Maybe it’s time to get a new set of tires.’ It doesn’t color outside that line.
And generalist employees are good to have, too. I am not knocking them. There is an assistant manager in every store who is so incredibly able to do a million tasks and they are capable of all those things. That type of generalist is going to become, I think, a more valuable employee as things moves on.
As the generalist role becomes a more popular type of employee, obviously, AI, as a generalist, is going to become more popular, too.
I am excited to see what the future holds for dealers with this.