Following a record-breaking winter where the aptly named Polar Vortex brought hydro-killing ice storms, record snowfalls, and forced the mercury to nose-dive to its lowest point in two decades in many parts of the country, our roads – which have already taken a pounding – are expected to worsen when the frost finally leaves the ground and potholes begin springing up as thick as dandelions. There is no question that driving a vehicle on a daily basis over a moonscape of cracks and potholes is going to take its toll on the suspension and steering components this spring. It’s simply a matter of time. “Once spring arrives, we expect to see a spike in chassis parts business as potholes appear,” says Philip Murphy, manager of Colonial Auto Parts, St. John’s, Newfoundland. The east coast was hit hard with minus-40° C temperatures during the entire month of December. “A long cold winter is always good for business,” observes Murphy. Generally, when a customer comes in complaining about a problem with the undercarriage of his vehicle, it is in reaction to a steering or suspension problem, and this spring it will likely be caused by a pothole. But this is a reactive response by the vehicle owner, rather than a preventative effort to maintain the vehicle in optimum condition. One of the reasons for this general lack of attention by vehicle owners to chassis problems is the simple fact that wear is usually very gradual. Steering alignment being slightly off is barely noticed and soon forgotten. But to the technician, an improperly aligned vehicle will have specific wear patterns on the tires, alerting the observant tech to the alignment issue. When a vehicle is in for regular service, and the technician does a thorough check of the front end and suspension system and finds things starting to wear before serious damage occurs, this is a prime opportunity to explain to the customer why the work needs to be done now – before further damage is done and the cost of the repair escalates. The next step in the sales process is to explain the difference between premium components and second-line parts that may appear to be comparable to the customer. The technician and the counterperson should have the product knowledge to explain to the customer why a name-brand tie rod or ball joint is really the safest and most economical choice. Selling higher-quality parts requires knowledge of the characteristics that make those parts better. For example, a do-it-yourselfer might wonder why one tie-rod end or ball joint for a given application is priced higher than a corresponding part that comes in a white box or is from a secondary brand. The difference between those parts can be significant – and they can affect the customer’s safety and long-term satisfaction. “You always get the guy with a $7 latte in his hand asking the price difference between two ball joints, and the counterperson says, ‘$3,’ and the customer says, ‘oh that’s too expensive,’” explains John Thody, president of XRF Inc. “Customers who don’t understand the difference in quality and reliability between the two parts will often put their family at risk by choosing not to spend the price of a cup of coffee on a premium name brand because they can’t see any difference in the two products. This is where the sales staff need to take the time to educate customers so they can make an informed decision.” “Many consumers are much more aware of their vehicle’s steering and handling characteristics, and they expect their cars to ride like new after a repair. Most quality-focused shops understand that hitting that target means using high-quality parts,” says Mark Boyle, director, steering and suspension products, North America, Federal-Mogul. “Consumers also expect the service provider to use parts that have been engineered to prevent a repeat of problems that might have been associated with the OE part. And, of course, the consumer’s safety should be our overriding concern in every selling situation. Steering and suspension components directly impact driver and passenger safety in all operating situations. Choosing a lower-quality part that may or may not feature the right design or materials or been properly heat-treated for adequate strength is a risk no customer should take without having the facts clearly and carefully explained. That’s the responsibility of the jobber counterperson, shop service writer, and technician. In many respects, they are the last line of defence to help the customer avoid creating a potentially dangerous decision,” adds Boyle. “With parts proliferation what it is these days, we carry a branded line and a private line, and sales have been pretty consistent this winter, but the season is not over and when the spring thaw comes and the potholes start popping up we expect a spike in sales,” adds Murphy. “We carry two quality lines and one is branded. It’s a little better quality and [carries a] better warranty than our second line. That’s why we offer both. As long as there is warranty on a product, it doesn’t necessarily have to be lifetime, but you have to offer more warranty on your branded lines as opposed to your non-branded lines and the customer picks the one he wants. When he picks it he knows what he is getting,” explains Murphy. “Strut sales are moving up and I am seeing an increase in the sales of the loaded ones,” says Brody Rice, co-owner with Allan MacDonald of AM Auto Parts in P.E.I., a Carquest store. “The price difference between rebuilding a strut and complete strut assembly was quite wide in the beginning, but they are starting to come down to where I can now upsell the customer. Before, the sky was too high,” explains Rice. “Many customers don’t factor in the labour cost until the job is done, and then they realize they could have had a complete strut installed for about the same cost – and a month later they have a squeak coming from the same strut because the top is worn or the spring is weak or it broke. By buying a complete strut assembly you know exactly what you have. So the closer price point now gives me more opportunity to move them towards a better product,” he adds. “Not only that, but from a consumer standpoint, if I have a spring that breaks the customer is going to get a whole new strut assembly, so it works out for the better both ways. It’s much better for customer relations for both the repair shop and for the customer if there is a problem,” concludes Rice. Jobbers need to explain the safety and warranty details of products to customers in order to upsell higher quality that provides safety and dependable performance. Educating the customer is the key to selling more name-brand product, but it is up to the technician and counterperson not to make the decision for the customer. Quite often, customers are looking for guidance in their decision-making process, and this is precisely the time to explain the differences between first-line and second-line parts and then step back and let the customer choose. With customers asking for premium-quality products at competitive prices, brand names and warranties are other key factors in the decision-making process. Most leading brands have an implied warranty in the minds of many service professionals as well as many consumers. “Poor-quality parts are always out there, but we’ve always tried to be a branded house and carry premium parts, and that is shining through these days. Auto repair centres can’t afford to have comebacks. They want to impress upon their customers that they are getting good-quality workmanship and that goes along with using quality parts,” explains Ron McMorris, division manager at Lordco. “Cars are better quality today, so if you put an inferior part on them you will notice it if it’s not up to an OE spec. When you use a premium part on the vehicle, you achieve that,” adds McMorris. When it comes to steering and suspension components, many technicians and jobbers have relied on premium products for years, because those parts have helped to protect their reputations and customer relationships. Today, gaining customer loyalty is tougher than ever, making the importance of selling quality premium components even greater. Helping customers understand the safety risks associated with using low-quality steering and suspension components will lower your liability exposure and help build a loyal customer base.