Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2012   by Steve Pawlett

Quality Counts for Safe Undercar Repairs

With more cars and light trucks crowding our roads every year, safety comes into question when a vehicle isn’t stopping or steering at its best. Reducing a vehicle’s stopping by just a few centimetres can make the difference between a minor scare and a major fender-bender.

Crowded roads aren’t the only concern. The roads themselves are often in a sorry state of repair. Our wonderful freeze-thaw cycle is a great pothole generator, and is excellent at enlarging cracks and heaving pavement. Heavy cargo loads and years of neglect have also taken their toll on our roads.

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, brakes, and steering components. It’s simply a matter of time.

The best way to avoid costly repairs is preventative maintenance, but most consumers don’t even know what parts are under their car, let alone spend time thinking about the condition they may be in.

Given the fast pace of life these days and the convenience of drive-through oil and lube shops, it’s rare when a customer brings in a vehicle and asks to have the undercarriage inspected.

“If a customer is coming in asking about the undercarriage of his vehicle, it is in reaction to a steering or suspension problem, so it is reactive rather than preventative,” says Randy Jones, of Bay City Auto Parts in Barrie.

One of the reasons for this lack of attention 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 at the installer level, an improperly aligned vehicle will have specific wear patterns on the tires, alerting the observant installer to the alignment issue.

When a vehicle is in for regular service and the technician does a thorough check of the front end and the braking system and he finds things starting to wear before serious damage occurs, this is a prime opportunity for the front counterperson 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 name-brand components and second-line parts that may appear to be comparable to the customer.

“Brand name is the way to go,” says Jones. “We carry Moog chassis parts, and they are probably the strongest out there, and I say that because I have availability to all parts. We choose Moog because we feel it is one of the best product lines on the market.”

The technician and/or front 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 into 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,” explains Mark Boyle, director, steering and suspension products, Federal-Mogul.

“Warranties, in my opinion, are no longer warranties,” adds Jones. “When we were growing up, a warranty was a guarantee against manufacturer defect, so if you bought a high-end product and it was defective in 90 days, they replaced it.

“Then we got into these lifetime warranties, which, in my opinion, are more of a marketing tool for second-line manufacturers. With a cheaper line they know they are not going to sell as many parts as a name-brand company, so they do a mathematical calculation on how many warranties they are going to get back and build it into the price so they can match the name-brand warranty. This applies to all goods, not just automotive,” explains Jones.

“This move has blurred the line between name-brand product and second-line product because now the warranty isn’t necessarily a statement to the quality of the product line and the durability of the product, but the consumer doesn’t necessarily know that. If the customer sees a $100 control arm and a $50 control arm and they both have a lifetime warranty, which one do you think the customer will buy? They think they are getting the durability and life expectation of the first-line product, and that is just not the case,” adds Jones.

Moog recently conducted a side-by-side testing of dozens of Moog steering components and the corresponding parts from numerous other suppliers. “In one of the other suppliers’ ball joints for a popular application, neither the ball nor the stud had been induction-hardened, which reduces the part’s strength by nearly 50%. On the Moog part, both the ball and stud are induction hardened, making it significantly longer-lasting.

“On a popular tie-rod application, one of the other suppliers’ parts wore so quickly that the customer may experience socket looseness in less than one year of service, compared to more than five years of a premium performance from the Moog part. The other supplier uses an old socket technology that is known for poor durability, while the Moog socket features our coated metal ‘gusher’ bearings and full-ball stud, which provide excellent durability and low socket torque. These are differences that aren’t apparent to the naked eye, so the customer relies on the counterperson for this information. The low-priced part becomes a whole lot more expensive when it fails and you’re facing an unhappy customer across the counter,” adds Boyle.

“It’s extremely risky for an installer or customer to purchase low-end product, as most of the second-line products are under quality and performance standards and could pose a serious danger to the vehicle owner,” explains Ramzi Yako, president of Promax Auto Parts Depot.

“Take brake pads, for example. Low-quality brake pads will not provide the stopping power required on a vehicle. They will fade and not stop the vehicle at a safe distance. Low-end rotors and drums that have entered the market in recent years have also caused safety issues,” adds Yako.

“We are back to the 1980s again, when the business was about not only filling the parts orders and keeping ahead of the curve, but educating consumers,” explains John Thody, president XRF Inc.

While most OEM control arms are now manufactured without replaceable ball joints, XRF designs control arms with replaceable ball joints. “Some shops try to sell OEM control arms thinking they are increasing sales volumes, when in many cases they are finding the sales are going down because customers are walking out and going to the next guy who can sell them just the ball joint, so they don’t have to replace the entire arm. Things are changing so rapidly and consumers are looking for cost savings. You have a customer saying, ‘Gee, I don’t have $400 in my pocket for a control arm, but I do have $60 for a ball joint,’” adds Thody.

“When comparing our sales based on name brand, performance, and price, we still see more of the national brands being sold, but we are also seeing a lot of second- line product sold on price, so price is a concern. Second-line product just isn’t as robust as name-brand components and tends to fail prematurely, so in actual fact, the perceived savings by the customer just aren’t there,” says Jones.

“You have a guy standing there sipping his Tim Horton’s coffee; he’ll have four or five of those a day, but will he pay an extra $2 for a name-brand ball joint? Sometimes it leaves me shaking my head,” says Thody.

“We have two kinds of customers out there,” explains Thody. “The guy from the taxicab company or used car lot who is only interested in the cheapest part for the job. He only looks at the price of the part. He’s not looking at the life of the part or the downtime of the vehicle. So you have the guy who can’t see beyond the part in the white box, then you have the customer who understands the value of a name-brand part. He may be working three jobs now to replace the one he lost, but he is thinking differently than the taxicab guy. He needs his vehicle to get to work and he needs it to be reliable so he is going to spend the extra few dollars on a name-brand part to make sure his vehicle is dependable and safe for him and his family,” adds Thody.

Educating the customer is the key to selling more name-brand product. But, it is up to the technician and counterperson to not make the decision for the customer. Quite often, the customer is looking for guidance in his 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.

For example, say a customer’s brakes are down to the rivets and payday is a week away. This person is desperate for a quick, cheap fix. It’s easy to fall into his line of thinking and offer him a low-end solution when you know a slightly more expensive name-brand product is going to perform better, last longer, and ensure his safety. By educating the consumer, you can equip him with the product information he needs to make an informed choice.

“We have had customers put second-line components in commercial vehicles and when it wears out prematurely, they come back for warranty. So it gets sent back for warranty and a new, brand-name part is usually installed the second time around. We want to keep the customer happy, so we warranty it even though we shouldn’t,” explains Jones. “Then labour is a toss-up. If they are a big account you’re going to do a courtesy credit on labour for them, which you don’t really want to do. It doesn’t happen too often, but it does happen.”

Key questions to ask about second-line products include: What do you know about the quality of steel that was used in the part? What durability tests, if any, were used to validate the part?

“We have encountered many components from other sources that experience physical failure or breakage during side-by-side testing with Moog parts. Imagine what could happen if a vehicle’s ball joint or tie-rod end breaks during operation. These are safety parts above all,” stresses Boyle.

“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. Product safety should be an easy upsell to consumers. I don’t think anyone would like to put an unsafe product on the family minivan,” adds Yako.

“Promax’s brake program offering provides extensive product features [including] quality, warranty, product liability insurance, competitive prices, customer service, and a wide range of product offerings that covers 95% of vehicle coverage in Canada. All these features and information we provide help jobbers to educate customers on the quality and reliability of our products,” adds Yako.

Explaining the safety differences between first-line and second-line products is a good way to educate your customers. “Let them know that, in many cases, the premium part was manufactured from stronger materials that were also enhanced through sophisticated hardening processes. Then explain how the better part is engineered and tested to last longer,” advises Boyle.

Federal-Mogul recently introduced a sales tool that demonstrates how Moog’s “gusher” bearing technology helps enhance the durability of its parts. This type of tool is helpful in explaining to customers how one technology is clearly better than another.

“And finally, remind the customer that a broken steering and suspension component can put both the consumer and installer at risk. Given these facts, the relatively few extra dollars spent on the better part is a wise investment,” adds Boyle.

XRF Inc. has a jobber training program called “The 10 Minute MBA.” “It’s an informative presentation that makes participants scratch their beards and say, ‘Oh, that’s something I can improve on,’” explains Thody.

“Customers these days are asking for the best quality products at the most competitive prices,” explains Yako. “Brand names and warranties are key factors in any product. I am not sure any customer would waste time to purchase any product without warranty. At Promax, we have established an excellent brand name for our product, and we offer a competitive warranty program and that is how our customers believe and trust in our brand.”

Federal-Mogul’s Boyle agrees. “A leading brand itself is an implied warranty in the minds of many professionals, because they have had years, if not decades, of experience with brands like Moog. Given the proliferation of product sources—overseas and domestic—shop owners and technicians are aware of the huge difference in part quality represented in today’s market. Relying on a trusted brand is the best way to protect yourself and your customer from a potentially dangerous failure. Warranties are also important, but even some lower-quality parts are offered with warranties. Choosing one of these lower-quality parts is still a risk because the shop may have to absorb the labour cost associated with doing the job over again, as well as the loss of customer goodwill.”

When it comes to steering and suspension components, many technicians and jobbers have relied on name brand 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 name-brand components even greater. Helping customers to understand the safety risks that come with the use of low-quality components in steering and suspension repairs will lower your liability exposure and help you build a loyal customer base.