Where the rubber meets the service counter

When you start working on a car, you begin to notice things that can sometimes be overlooked.  Last weekend, while trying to figure out why my emergency brake was not engaging, I realized that my new-to-me Miata was wearing 3 different brands of tires.  I had seen that the fronts matched (Hankook Ventus Sport 104’s) when I bought the car, and wrongfully assumed that the rubber in the rear was the same.  What I found was one all-season BF Goodrich and some other piece of Vulcanized rubber from a company called Nankang.  I’m guessing that they were whatever was lying around at the dealer where I bought it.

Nevertheless, all four tires needed to be replaced since the Hankooks were old, dry-rotted, cupped and one had a nail in it.  And those were the ones I liked. 

The problem with knowing something about cars is that you get picky about components, particularly something as important as tires.  This is not something that the folks working the counter at the tire stores seem to understand, which leads to what I was thinking about after a couple of encounters with them.

On Saturday morning, I went off to the local Pep Boys and then to Ken Towrey’s Performance Tire to see what I could get.  My wheels use 195/50R/15 tires.  I won’t get into speed ratings, treadwear or those kinds of painful decision points, but those of you who don’t know, the main number you need to recognize there is that it goes on a 15” wheel which, as I quickly found out, no one uses any more.  Stupid donks.  Anything I want has to be special ordered.  I can’t wait till I have a sidewall go out. 

That’s fine.  I can deal with that.  But, the response to this quandary at each store is what intrigued me the most.  The guys behind the counter would politely tell me that tires would have to be ordered, and then ONLY gave me the lowest-cost option.  This goes against every instinct I have as a marketer!

First, you don’t know what kind of tires I’m looking for aside from the size.  Have you asked if I had anything in mind?  Perhaps I’ve done research and have a particular brand and model in mind.  No one did this and immediately assumed that I would be interested in basing my choice on price alone.  A few simple questions would have helped establish a better understanding of what I am looking for in a tire.  Even a simple, “Are you looking for economy tires or performance tires?” would have put you on the right path.  But they made assumptions as to my motivations, incorrect assumptions that should have been obvious within as little as 2 minutes.

Why?  Look out the friggin’ window at your parking lot!  I just told you I drive an 11-year-old impractical roadster in a region of the country that gets regular downpours and snow during the winter.  It should be evident by my choice of car that I can be talked into things that don’t necessarily make sense for most people.  I’m sure that the lowest-cost tire is what most people want since it involves the least expense of time, money, thought and effort involved to get them back on the road on their way to the next big box store.  Maybe I’m not most people in this situation!  Take advantage of this opportunity!  Since you have to order the tires, no matter what I get, why not try and talk me into something pricier rather than what you (don’t) have on the shelf to seal the deal today?

Lastly, don’t you think you should give me more than one option?  Each store that I visited gave me a print out of a single tire option; the lowest-cost option.  Why not provide me with a range of options so that I can go back, do some research and make my selection? 

I think it comes down to salespeople behaving much like the typical customer that they serve.  They wish to make the sale with as little time, thought and effort involved to move on to the next person in line.  It is an unfortunate situation and one that leaves this type of employee trudging through their job without the accolades or feeling of accomplishment that may come with trying just a little harder.  It doesn’t take that much time to know the product and try to match up the customer with what best suits their needs.  More importantly, it will keep that customer coming back.  I go to my local Advance Auto Parts rather than the more convenient Auto Zone for this exact reason. 

Sure, you may say that the hourly employee doesn’t see another dollar if he or she tries harder and secures that customer.  True, not in the same way that the proprietor or someone on commission would.  However, at a time when unemployment is at a record level, and managers often have to make tough decisions about who to keep and who to let go, good impressions like these are worth more than a raise, they could be worth the job itself.  Also, and this may not sit well in the age of instant gratification, but the employee might just learn a thing or two about how to communicate and how to sell effectively.  That is a skill that is worth far more than a 5% commission and doesn’t stay with the employer.

I still don’t have new tires because I’m trying to decide what compromises I’m willing to make between wet/dry traction, snow capability and cornering grip.  I’m putting together a spreadsheet outlining the brands, models, reviews and prices because I’m going to be stuck with these tires for a couple of years through daily driving, probably some auto cross and, maybe a track day or two. 

It was so much easier when I didn’t care about my car and just went with the lowest-cost option.


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