COVER STORY: Putting the Power Back Into Your Steering and Chassis Parts Components Sales and Marketing
The steering and suspension business has come a long way since the energy-absorbing steering column marked a major advance several decades ago. It has come so far, in fact, that it is becoming harder to see how the steering wheel and the front wheels are connected While we are some ways off from true "drive-by-wire" technologies, the advent of steering angle sensors, stability controls, and electronic variable assist steering systems like General Motors' Magnasteer have added complexity to a parts market already dogged by issues of parts proliferation, price pressures and a reticence by consumers to commit to big-ticket repairs on older vehicles For jobbers, it is requiring them to be creative and aggressive in how they market to installers
Given the past winter that has been inflicted on many parts of Canada, never before have the roads been so bad. Whether you are able to fully capitalize on that potential depends on more than just the ability of your customers to perform the work.
“Some of those potholes need to have elevators in them,” says Joe Belanger, national director of sales for UAP/NAPA, Federal-Mogul Canada. “You hit a pothole like that and you can create wear that would normally take months.”
Belanger says that step one in getting your customers to order parts is to know that the work needs being done in the first place. He says that running cars through a quick ride height check is a proven method of determining if components like springs are no longer performing as they should. Ride height checks are, of course, only possible when the car is resting on its tires. When it’s already on the hoist, technicians should be looking for other things.
“You can’t check chassis parts when the wheels are hanging, so they should also be looking for tire wear. What happens in the market is that there are still an awful lot of installers without alignment racks. Consequently, there are a lot who don’t focus on alignment parts.
“Jobbers need to coach their installers from the perspective that not having a rack does not exclude them from being in it.”
Once installers have determined that work needs to be done, though, they often run into another barrier. Since some chassis work, and particularly steering component replacement–rack and pinion units start at about $300 and can go up from there–tend to be classified as high-ticket repairs, installers often have trouble communicating the need for these repairs to the consumer.
“The problem they have is selling estimates,” says Jacques Landry, technical trainer for chassis, Dana Canada. He says that this reluctance often leads the installer to suggest white box products, without full knowledge of why those products cost so much less than the name-brand units. “They just close their eyes and don’t realize that they’re putting on junk.”
They also don’t realize the true cost of using parts that don’t last.
“If you lose one customer you lose him and his friends forever.” It’s not that he is without sympathy for the installer though. “What they’re telling me is ‘This customer comes in to say that they’re going to get rid of their car in a year, or it’s too expensive.’ Then the shop owner cries for him, but if the owner does half a job, the customer will come back unsatisfied, and then he’s going to want the job fixed on warranty. So, in the end, you didn’t really do him a favor.
“I remember when I had my garage business with a partner. We had the problem, too. So my partner and I made the decision to take a selling course.” He says that the goal was not to learn how to pressure the consumer into making a decision, but to learn how to communicate, how to talk about quality. “You should have seen the impact on our business. It was fantastic. Before I was able to sell 20% of the estimates. After taking the course I was able to sell 80% of our estimates.” Landry says that a sure sign an installer has missed a critical point in his discussions with the consumer is when the consumer says, “I’ll think about it.”
“You try to go back and find out why the guy is hesitating, where you didn’t explain something enough. Focusing on that will sell jobs.”
Robert Bean, product development and quality assurance, Mevotech, says that he has seen this situation for years.
“The guys on the front line, the majority of them, don’t really know how to sell their services and wares. The minute the customer raises a price objection they run for cover. They’re so scared that he would go down the street, they’ll just drop their
BACK INTO YOUR
AND CHASSIS PARTS
SALES AND MARKETING
The steering and suspension business has come a long way since the energy-absorbing steering column marked a major advance several decades ago. It has come so far, in fact, that it is becoming harder to see how the steering wheel and the front wheels are connected.
While we are some ways off from true “drive-by-wire” technologies, the advent of steering angle sensors, stability controls, and electronic variable assist steering systems like General Motors’ Magnasteer have added complexity to a parts market already dogged by issues of parts proliferation, price pressures and a reticence by consumers to commit to big-ticket repairs on older vehicles.
For jobbers, it is requiring them to be creative and aggressive in how they market to installers.
prices.” It’s not that he doesn’t understand why the trend is there, but he has also seen those installers who are willing to stand up for their reputation reap the benefits.
“There needs to be more acceptance of formal training, but not so much on the technical side. Most of the technicians are really capable, but many of them should not be in the front of the shop. The people skills and the selling skills are just not there. They have certainly got to start investing in their people and in what to sell and how to sell it.”
Landry agrees, adding that his experience as a shop owner taught him that sometimes it was important to risk losing the customer when it was a customer only concerned with price. Those customers, he says, tend to be the last ones to approve a full, proper repair, and the first ones to complain when it starts to cause problems later.
Bob Rose, national sales, Fenwick Auto-motive, says that there is a disparity between the number of steering racks sold and the quantity of associated items sold. “The hardest part to get into (for the installer) is when you get an estimate that is inflated to get a complete job, so sometimes a complete job doesn’t get done.” He says that this reluctance can stretch right through the completion of the job.
“Many times things will get uncovered that weren’t apparent when the estimate was made. There are a lot of minor things that get done, hoses, boots, other items that don’t get charged for. That’s all done as part of service to the customer. It’s pretty hard to know until you get the job opened up.” It all results in lost profitability for the installer, which perpetuates his view of the profitability of these jobs.
Although he’s getting paid for these parts anyway, a jobber who can convince installers to charge for them is going to win favor. “When I was with Sears, I was able to get service facilities to start charging for shop supplies that they were legitimately entitled to charge for,” says Belanger. “It doubled their profitability.”
Rose says that competition in the rack and pinion market has been fierce over the past few years, but that the life of the OE units is having an impact.
“The push toward quality by the OEMs has caused the replacement instances to stretch out farther. And that applies to everything out there. But what you are seeing with service and repair is that you are getting larger bills when the job is done.”
Rose says that a parallel trend has been the longstanding bane of the jobber’s existence: parts proliferation. While this does apply to virtually all components these days, it has particularly great implications in the rack and pinion category.
“Parts proliferation,” he says, “is becoming almost a nightmare for the jobber, the warehouse and the manufacturer. Unlike the old days, nothing interchanges with anything else.” Consequently, jobbers must dig deeper than they currently do to determine the local market’s stocking needs. “Today, unfortunately, there is a move to instant demand, so jobbers are using the warehouses more and more. Even so, if the individual jobber does not have the right part in stock, the installer may not be willing to wait at all.
“That’s what their challenge is. To get the right inventory you need to make better use of the vehicle statistics in the highly local area. It’s hard to
use popularity lists anymore. What may work in one area as a top seller may not work in another. There’s no doubt about it, there’s a certain amount of price shopping, but the jobber who has the parts is the most likely to get the business.”
John Vanstone, president, Specialty Sales & Marketing, which represents KYB ride control and Autospecialty brake and chassis parts lines, says that jobbers have had success with relying on warehouses for both fill and as a way to expand their ability to offer alternatives.
With such resources at hand, says Vanstone, it enables jobbers to offer alternative brands that can help installers. “It can be applied to the market by jobbers, particularly when you consider that a company like KYB has a huge inventory investment in Canada. That allows the jobbers to pick up what they need so that they don’t have to have huge inventory investments. Cardinal Couriers and the drop box system allows jobbers to attack markets that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
“If the jobber is trying to sell to a specialty shop, then he could be up against a two-stepper. The two-steppers have really made some big inroads in this category. Price is important, but the more critical factor is availability of product and access to product.”
Specific issues on price and quality will always vary by market and by installer, but the broader issue of how to effectively sell the need for the work to the consumer outstrips all others. Anything a jobber can offer the installer, from offering clinics to courses on how to sell his services to simply being a shoulder to cry on, can help them build their business and their profits and, because they will be able to sell jobs based on premium products, will build their reputations too.
And it will carry the jobbers who help them do that right with them.