Ask anyone in the industry today and they will tell you ride control products and service are one of the most undersold jobs in the independent market. Service writers and technicians have no problem recommending and then selling a brake replacement, replacing worn tires or exhaust systems. But when it comes to ride control, service writers and technicians become reluctant to make those same recommendations and sales.
Doug Rockefeller, director of sales for Canada for Monroe shocks and struts and Walker Exhaust (Tenneco) in Monroe, Mich. says the reluctance stems from the fear of the customer walking away and the resulting loss of revenue for the shop.
“An installer may have already done a $1,200 repair on a vehicle and they may be a little gun-shy to tell a customer that they need their shocks and struts repaired,” he says. “But you have to remember, and it’s recommended by the Motorists Assurance Program (MAP), that by 80,000 km an OEM shock has seen better days and should be replaced.”
Rockefeller gives this example to illustrate his point. Within that 80,000 km lifespan, a typical OEM shock will have moved on average up and down some 88 million times. Now instead of a shock, think of it as an engine piston. If that same piston moves some 88 million times, there would not be any second- guessing that one should replace the engine oil regularly to maintain it properly or to replace that piston if it is showing signs of damage. If it is not replaced or maintained, then the piston will soon cause damage to the engine and affect performance and safety.
Rockefeller says the problem is many technicians and service writers become tongue-tied because they cannot really explain to the customer what the ride control system does and why the various parts need to be regularly inspected and replaced.
“Technically, a shock absorber, for example, helps keep your tire on the road,” he continues. “But what exactly does that mean to the customer? Their tire is always on the road, isn’t it?”
Educating the customer on ride control
So let’s take that simple example of the shock absorber. Telling a customer shock absorbers keep the tires on the road, is technically correct. But they do more than that: they help maintain, within the whole ride control mechanism, the drivability and safety of the vehicle. As a shock absorber wears out, along with the strut and other components, a driver will begin to notice certain things. First, the smooth ride and handling of the vehicle just is not there anymore, it lacks that firmness and comfort that the car had when it was first driven off the lot. More importantly, and critically, is that as the various mechanisms wear, they begin to affect the stopping distance of the vehicle. So it might be a good thing to ask the owner if they have noticed that when they apply the brakes, does the nose of car dip forward? If so, then the technician can explain that this is a symptom of worn shocks and struts, and that nose dipping is also causing more forward momentum and increasing the braking distance, which is a safety issue.
Steve Cartwright, systems curriculum manager, chassis with Federal-Mogul Corp. in St. Louis, Mo. says car owners should be made aware of, and which will make selling ride control products easier, is the wear on tires failing ride control systems can have.
Wearing of the ball joints, where the play within them increases over time to over 1/8-inch, can cause excessive wear to one side of the tire. If there is diagonal wear on the rear tires of a front-wheel drive vehicle that would indicate an improperly set rear toe; a diagonal wipe could be signs of worn bushings, grommets or the ball joints; and worn or failing tire rods can cause inner or outer tire-edge wear.
“The problem that technicians will have is that when a customer comes in with such problems (the customer) sometimes think that an alignment will fix the wear,” he says. “A technician can tell whether the wear patters he sees is being caused an alignment issue or if it is, in fact, a result of a ride control issue.”
He says the technician or service writer speaking to the customer then has to take that information and explain that an alignment will not fix these problems with the tires. In fact, leaving the ride control issue uncorrected, and just replacing the tires, will have the car owner coming back complaining of the same wear issues and fuming that they have to once more buy a new set of tires.
This is why Cartwright goes so far as to suggest taking the customer into the bay and showing them the wear on the parts, or even going so far as to give them a glove or cloth and move the tire-rod to see the amount of movement.
“The technician knows that a loose tie rod can cause problems, but the customer thinks they are fine, or it does not seem to move all that much,” he adds. “The technician needs to be able to tell the customer, to show them directly, that while that 1/8-inch amount of movement seems small, in reality anything over 1/16-inch of movement is too much and it will cause the wear issues they are seeing and also impacts safety as well.”
Cartwright says technicians should also pay particular attention to some of the new changes happening with ride control system designs as they pose significant challenges. Right now, he finds more vehicle manufacturers are moving to using aluminum parts. While this has an advantage of reducing vehicle weight and thereby improving fuel efficiency, aluminum is fragile.
“So technicians who have grown used to using hammers, ‘pickle-forks’ or air chisels when working on various parts will have to think again,” he says. “Using a ‘pickle-fork’ to separate a tie-rod end from an aluminum knuckle will damage the knuckle; and you would never think of using a torch on aluminum; or running down the knuckle with an impact wrench as it would split the aluminum knuckle.”
Both Cartwright and Rockefeller say ride control parts manufacturers have been moving for some time to creating education sales and technical programs that can help make the education and sale easier, and to keep technicians up-to-date on new technologies. Rockefeller points to Tenneco’s 4 More program that provides technicians not only diagnostic and training on ride control issues, but ways to better communicate with vehicle owners and then secure a sale for ride control repair and parts. Cartwright says Federal-Mogul offers a variety of training programs that also emphasize proper diagnostic and customer communications and sales strategies.
In the end, both agree that training on diagnostics and customer communications are going to be key to getting that ride control sale.