Auto Service World
Feature   July 1, 2005   by Paula Ellis

Black Gold

Belt and hose service is a legitimate maintenance upsell. Will consumers buy into the concept?

Promoting belts and hoses as preventative maintenance can be a tough sell. The natural tendency is to think, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Most consumers are on a budget, which usually means anything that can wait, waits. Add to that the overplayed image of the ripoff artist selling ghost repairs to suckers, and car owners are likely to say ‘NO’ before you’ve even explained yourself. Afraid to alienate customers, most installers are resigned to waiting for the catastrophic failure before they price a belt or hose job. But there are compelling reasons to make the effort.

The Automotive Industries Association of Canada estimates that unperformed vehicle maintenance represents $2 billion every year. That’s a lot of revenue that could have been made, but wasn’t. Also, it is estimated in the United States that a staggering 5% of all vehicle accidents result from unperformed vehicle maintenance. In Canada, the aftermarket industry estimates close to 200 deaths per year, plus thousands of disabling injuries and a financial cost in the millions from unperformed vehicle maintenance. Anyone who’s had a belt go on the highway would not be surprised at these figures. But what are independent service stations doing about it?

“No installers are doing a great job on the preventative maintenance side,” says Bill Hay, V.P. Sales, Dayco. “I think everybody’s in a ‘fix-it if it has to be fixed/breakdown’ mode. No one’s doing the job the way it should be done. Some are, but generally, it’s a problem.”

When you consider the lost revenue and safety issues from unperformed preventative maintenance, it’s a bit disturbing that installers are at a loss to promote these jobs. But it’s also understandable. Jim Karas, owner of Automotive Experts in Markham, Ont., explains the position most installers are in, and why their hands are tied.

“With belts and hoses, the customer waits till it goes, always, always. Unless you’ve got a customer with a hole in his pocket that says, ‘just do everything’, but that’s rarely the case. I don’t push it because I know their situation. They’re in here for $300-$400 worth of brakes, and you don’t want them thinking you’re trying to ‘ream’ them. So I tell them we’ll do it next service. Then the next service comes around and something else happens.”

Replacing hoses preventatively is even tougher to promote than belts. The installer can show a customer where a belt is showing signs of deterioration, but unless a hose is obviously leaking, they’re taking it on faith that there’s a problem. And the job isn’t small enough to entice most customers to toss a few dollars at it before it goes.

Says Hay, “Taking a curved hose off some of these small engine compartments these days is a pretty big job, and I think installers are a bit worried that consumers will thing they’re gouging.”

The Information Gap

The lack of information available to consumers is a large part of the problem. Most car owners don’t realize that a serpentine belt becomes drastically more vulnerable to failure after 80,000 kilometers. And you can bet they don’t know that coolant hoses generally deteriorate from the inside-out in a process called electrochemical degradation, something impossible for the car owner to detect visually. If they aren’t willing to replace the hose preventatively, at least every four years, they might be towing the car in when it’s spewing steam through the grill.

Belt and hose manufacturers could be helping installers get the message out, says Karas. “I wish the rep’s would give us some reading materials to give to the customers. They don’t really supply us with any of that. It would be nice to have a stack of pamphlets in the waiting rooms so they could read-up while they’re waiting and ask me about it.”

Consumers put a lot of stock in what they read and see. They also feel secure with name brands. Having a branded ‘authority’ outside the installer, explaining the wisdom of replacing belts and hoses before they break, would take a lot of pressure off installers, who aren’t willing to lose a brake job to sell a preventative belt job.

Interestingly, Karas finds his female customers are more open to preventative maintenance of belts and hoses than his male customers. “After they get to know me, they’re willing to trust me,” says Karas. “Women say, ‘go ahead and do it’. It’s the men that say, ‘don’t worry about it right now’. Maybe the men aren’t afraid to get stranded, but women want to make it safe. They don’t want any problems.”

Women are the principal car maintainers in 34% of households, and more inclined to opt for technical installation than men, so it’s worth the effort to promote preventative maintenance of belts and hoses to female customers.

With many complex molded hoses and belts going out the door at 40, 50 or more dollars per unit, plus another $60-$100 for a tensioner and labor, and a belt job becomes significant. A decent job for the installer, but will hard-to-convince consumers be willing to shell-out?

It depends how you explain it, says George Douglas, Manager of Amherst Auto Supply Inc. in Amherst, Nova Scotia. “Since they switched to the serpentine belt the prices have shot way up. For someone who hasn’t bought a belt in a long time it’s a bit of a price shock. But rather than three belts at fifteen dollars each, now you have one $45 or $50 belt, so it’s about the same.”

Installers like Karas also have to deal with stiff competition on price from dealerships, which sometimes price belts cheaper than the jobbers. Consumers are savvy about pricing even relatively small jobs on their cars and they talk to their friends.

Says Karas: “Sometimes the dealer is cheaper on belts than the jobber is, especially GMs and Chryslers. Customers prefer the OEM part, as well. Word of mouth gets around — ‘hey, I got my belt changed at the dealer for X amount of dollars’, and the other guy says, ‘my mechanic just did mine and it cost me more’. But you’re not comparing apples to apples. If the mechanic actually called the dealer he might have gotten the belt for less than what the jobber sold it to him for. So, for my customers, I always price out three different sources, a dealer and two other jobbers, to cover myself.”

Selling the Whole Package

Most car owners have to budget for repairs, so it’s worth quoting them for the whole job-that means a tensioner as well as a belt.

“Tensioners are a big-dollar item,” says Mike Lehmkuhl, Manager of Distributor Marketing, Goodyear Replacement Products. “We’re going into shops and saying, if they’re at a 16:1 ratio of belts to tensioners, what type of margins do they think they could make if they got their ratio down to 8:1, one tensioner for every eight belts? The ratio gives it more emphasis.”

Lehmkuhl points out that tensioner sales are well-outpacing the sales of hoses, an indication that installers are starting to promote the complete job. Replacing the tensioner at the same time as the belt more or less doubles the price of the job. For a few extra minutes spent explaining the value of replacing the tensioner, the customer has peace of mind that the whole system is new and reliable, while the installer gets a profitable work order.

If the typical customer is not going to replace the belt on impulse, they may as well budget for the whole job and get it done right. It works for Karas: “Because you’ve mentioned it to them three months ago, they have it in their mind that it’s going to cost a couple of hundred bucks for the job, and they budget for it. They think of the belt and the tensioner, because that’s the way you’ve explained it to them.”

Selling preventative maintenance of belts and hoses requires above all else, good customer relations. Installers have to be good communicators as well as technicians. It takes more time, and it can be trying explaining the value of a doing a job right to wary consumers. But it gets them back into the shop, and they leave feeling secure.

Says Hay: “Installers ne
ed to market themselves a little better. The customer has to be educated before he can even begin to make a reasonable response. The installer has to completely and thoroughly create an understanding with the consumer as to what may go on and why. He has to explain what the OE manual recommends for their vehicle, without pressure, but that they also don’t want to get stuck on the side of the road.”

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