Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2010   by Andrew Ross

Give Your Ride Control Sales Bounce

Inventory - Training - Promotions

Ride control sales are driven by need and want. A comprehensive strategy involving inventory, training, and promotions is required for your efforts to be most effective. Fall short on one, and the entire category will suffer.

When it comes to ride control, the perennial challenge for the trade has been most consumers’ lack of awareness of what shocks and struts really do, and the difficulty the industry has had in communicating the facts.

As any automotive professional knows, barring total structural failure of a ride control component–a rare circumstance indeed, although it certainly occurs in the light truck, commercial sector–the degradation of ride control components can be invisible to the naked eye.

And even a total loss of performance on the road can be dismissed as an inevitable consequence of an aging vehicle. Few car owners understand the real function of ride control as a safety element: properly functioning ride control keeps tires on the road and dampens vehicle weight shift to ensure proper handling and braking performance. And even technicians sometimes need to be reminded of just how big an impact worn-out ride control components can have on the safe operation of a vehicle.

For this reason, training focused on the technical aspects of ride control and on providing communications tools to help the aftermarket talk to consumers has become an important component of overall ride control strategy by every successful player.

The same is true for inventory. As the old saying goes, you simply cannot sell from an empty shelf. However, get the wrong inventory in place and you can have a very full shelf indeed and not be able to capitalize on demand. (See our Training Component and Inventory Component sidebars for more on these.)

One component which should neither be overlooked nor left solely to your supplier is the promotion. With apologies to our friends at Tenneco–who coined the Monroe Safety Triangle (steering, stopping, stability)–promotions represent the third facet of the ride control sales triangle.

Sheryl Bomia, North American programs manager for Tenneco Inc., which supplies the Rancho brand of performance ride control products in addition to the well-known Monroe product line, says that the company’s promotional activities have been very successful, particularly in the fall.

“Our ‘Shocktober’ promotion, which is offered through the Tenneco Expert Plus dealer loyalty program, is by far the most popular and effective ride control promotion we have ever offered. Year after year, jobbers and shops see significant increases in traffic and sales as a result of aggressive nationwide advertising and merchandising combined with a creative and entertaining theme. We have shops that go above and beyond in decorating their waiting room areas around Halloween. And consumers really respond to it, because they are saving money and they recognize the value of ride control replacement, particularly before winter hits.

“We also see a great deal of interest in promotions that include both standard automotive and performance ride control,” Bomia continues. “Many of our promotions feature both Monroe and Rancho products, for example, because these are two distinct market categories with similar buying seasons.”

Jo Piland, aftermarket marketing manager for Ride Control LLC, makers of the Gabriel brand, says the equation surrounding ride control promotions is a simple one.

“Particularly in the current economy, consumers are looking for a price break; they are looking for value. Giving them cash back seems to be the most effective thing for us.

“Basically we build our promotion to go to the end consumer, but it creates pull-through for the entire chain.”

Piland draws a parallel with tire sales. “A lot of people will replace two tires, but we all know that it is best to replace all four. Yes, it is just the front that needed to be replaced today, but for your maximum performance you want to purchase all four.”

Viewed this way, it is easy to make the connection among the three components of a successful ride control strategy.

Training provides the communication tools to make the consumer understand the service need; promotion provides both a focal point for the activity and the opportunity to maximize the sale (building from two to four, for example); and inventory provides the capability to fulfill that sale. Simple stuff, right?

Except that sometimes a promotion might sit on a jobber’s shelf, or miss the mark with customers.

“Sometimes promotions don’t make it to the field,” says Piland. “What we find is that professional installers are talking to us for materials.”

“Getting branded items and educational materials to people in the business is still very popular, but flexibility and customization are important,” says Kyle Freund, marketing and operations coordinator, KYB America, LLC. “Just because a promotion works in one area or with a few customers, it doesn’t mean the promotion is a magic pill for everybody. Needs vary geographically or by business model, and as such we must be flexible in how we implement and administer successful promotions. We task our field sales team with getting us information on how to best approach upcoming promotions and how we can help make it more successful. This is where jobbers can help themselves by telling manufacturers what they need or what their customers are asking for.”

“It’s crucial to offer real value to the consumer; don’t offer promotions that are designed simply to boost sales,” says Bomia. “Make sure your theme, promotional offer, and all related materials and messaging emphasize the bottom-line value to the customer, such as increased driving safety through improved steering, stopping, and stability. If you have the supporting literature to back up this message, customers will come away impressed that you’re looking out for their well-being.

“Promotions shouldn’t only help jobbers sell more product,” says Freund. “An effective promotion should also provide an opportunity for jobbers to start questioning manufacturers on what their products and promotions are meant to do. The communication needs to go both ways. This is especially true when it comes to ride control components.”

Promotion or not, he advises, it’s all about communication and asking the right questions. “Listen to what they have to say. Many sell on price or a spiff alone, and this isn’t necessarily the correct approach. In the end, if the consumer is unhappy with the product put on their vehicle, we all suffer. With so many colours and names out there, it can become quite difficult to determine just what a shock is supposed to do. That is why we ask the question: ‘Would the customer like to restore their vehicle’s original handling and control, or add more ride control capabilities?”

Timing is important too. In Canada, with the increasing popularity of winter tires, the changeover period is becoming an important service opportunity.

“Tire changeover is the perfect opportunity to have ride control inspected,” says Piland. “The spring and fall selling seasons are important. But education is one of the things we focus on too; not only the consumer but the installer, and how much of a role ride control plays in the longevity of the other components.”

Bomia continues, “If your ride control supplier offers creative and compelling promotions, shops will respond in a big way because they understand that these programs drive sales and help attract new customer relationships.

“One of the benefits of Expert Plus is that it involves the jobber and distributor in enrolling the shop in the program, so it’s viewed as a benefit that comes through your business. That breeds a great deal of loyalty.”


The Training Component

Plenty of training is available both for jobber personnel and their customers. There are online options from suppliers, as well as organized road shows that can provide a point of focus to bring out your
customers and get them comfortable with talking about ride control to consumers.

There are also clinics from major suppliers available that can enlighten both you and your customers on the benefits to the driving public from replacing their worn ride control and on the financial benefits that can also accrue from improved ride control sales.

Talk to your suppliers about their programs. Get your staff onboard first with clinics and online training, and then get to work to get your customers onboard.

Be aware that most service providers are reluctant to be seen to be selling services; training programs available today all focus on identifying the need, and then communicating it.

Successful customer service involves providing consumers with the information, and then helping them make an informed decision. Ask your suppliers how they can help you accomplish that.


The Inventory Component

Since inventory drives much of what you do, it is important to recognize that there are a number of approaches to inventory when it comes to ride control.

The standard approach is to identify the vehicle population in your vicinity using R.L. Polk data (your supplier may have this data), and then cross-referencing it with the sales popularity list.

This can be relatively effective, but it is important to identify which vehicles your customers are actually working on. If your area is full of import vehicles, for example, but you are singularly ineffective in securing any of this business, you need to consider this in making inventory decisions. (Actually, if this is true for you, you need to consider quite a few things to turn it around!)

You also need to decide which levels of product–good, better, best, commercial– you are going to keep in inventory, and which ride control assemblies you need to keep on hand. Again, work with your supplier rep and your own salespeople to create an inventory that will work best for you.

As an added point, if you are planning a promotion, you need to consider which numbers you may have to add and how deep your inventory might have to be, to ensure you don’t disappoint customers who respond to the offers you are putting out in the field.