If youve been around as long as I have, you may remember the days when gasoline was $0.25 per gallon, and the service station attendant not only pumped the fuel but also cleaned the windshield, checked the oil, checked tire pressure and even checked the radiator and battery to make sure they had the necessary fluids in them. You never got out of the vehicle and you didnt get your hands dirty.
That started to drift away sometime in the 1970s, and by the time we got to the 21st century, it was essentially gone. Self-serve took its place (except in the hold-out states of New Jersey and Oregon), and now its up to the consumer to get out of the vehicle, pump the gas, check the tires, clean the windshield, etc. Well, guess what: Its not happening!
According to AAA, fully one-third of Americans have skipped or delayed service, repairs or maintenance recommended by a mechanic or specified in their owners manual. Its not a good move and is almost guaranteed to reduce the life of a vehicle. Dont forget that after a home, a vehicle is the most expensive purchase most people will ever make – and theyll do it more than once. I have purchased 17 vehicles over my lifetime, and I can tell you that each purchase gets even more painful cost-wise.
In the old days, service was what sold products. The person in the uniform – You can trust your car to the man who wears the star – was the expert who knew how to do all of those things. Even though a lot of them were just kids in high school working for some extra money, at least you knew the essentials were being checked. If your oil was low, the attendant would add a quart of oil to bring the level up to where it needed to be. Incidentally, the oil cost about the same as a gallon of gasoline.
If there were more serious needs, the station had a maintenance bay where oil changes could be done, as well as many other repairs and replacements such as mufflers and tires. They usually had a pretty good mechanic on the payroll who could fix most things.
For more extensive repairs, some owners felt that they needed to take their vehicle to the local car dealer where they bought it. Dealers wanted more of the regular maintenance business, so they employed the so-called doorjamb sticker to get customers to return for regular service. As the name implies, the sticker was placed on the driver-side doorjamb and had dates and miles included to remind the owner when it was time for service.
Another approach was a follow-up system in which the dealer noted the date a vehicle was serviced and what was done. This was entered into a record filed under the vehicle owners name. Thirty days before it was time for maintenance service, a postcard was sent to the owner reminding him or her that it was time to make an appointment for the work.
Over time, it seems like much of this has been lost. Now, doorjamb stickers have been replaced by self-sticking labels that are placed on the windshield. I suspect that many people pull those off because they are a bit of an eyesore. I know thats what I do.
The all-around service bay has been replaced by fast oil change centers. Some of these are sophisticated enough to have a follow-up system, usually an email reminder now instead of the postcard. (As a matter of curiosity, have you gotten a postcard lately?)
New-car dealerships have gone to a more efficient setup in which a service adviser meets you as you drive in and takes the necessary information about your car. Good dealers have a relatively pleasant waiting area, possibly stocked with free coffee and doughnuts. Many arrange for a ride home or to work if the service required is going to take a long time. The downside of dealers is that you really never get to talk with the people back in the bays, who are working on your vehicle.
According to Jim Lang, who publishes the Lang iReport newsletter, there are still some real service stations, garages and repair shops that do this same sort of work. I actually take my vehicle to a local tire-and-repair shop. They do good quality work, are a lot closer than my dealer, and are normally somewhat lower in cost. Their mechanics also are willing to talk to me about what is going on with my vehicle.
If you own a foreign vehicle, especially a European or luxury model, you may find it more expensive to get work done. There is a certain amount of prestige involved, and it is important for a dealer to make the owner feel special. However, Id rather not see it in the form of $200 oil changes.
There are independent shops that specialize in foreign makes. They can have good mechanics who have decided not to work at a dealership. I had one of those when I lived in St. Louis. The shop specialized in VWs and the mechanic did repairs on par with or better than the local Volkswagen dealer, at very competitive prices.
Anyone with a motor oil brand on the market has a stake in how customers care for their cars and what happens at the point of installation – whether thats at a quick lube, a dealership or an independent mechanics garage. Seventy percent or more of oil changes are taking place at these outlets, so lubricant marketers should therefore help installers educate consumers about proper care and maintenance.
Vehicle manufacturers have attempted to make it easier for owners to take the necessary steps to keep their vehicle properly maintained. What we used to call idiot lights alert drivers to the need to change oil, check coolant levels, adjust tire pressure, close their gasoline caps, and several other items. There is a system that reads the on-board computer to determine what malfunctions might have occurred. And when the computer misbehaves, there is even a so-called limp mode that allows you to get your vehicle to a place where the problems can be identified and repaired.
So why is it so difficult to get vehicle owners to do the simple things like fluid level checks, engine oil changes and tire pressure checks? Id venture to say that the pace of life now versus 50 (gulp!) years ago has sped up so much that we are not able to think about oil, let alone do anything about it. Even a quick oil change of 30 minutes or less is too much time to just sit. There must be a better way.
Ive commented before that making an oil change worth the customers while is one way to encourage the behavior. Things like a free car wash (free is always good) or a Starbucks coffee are always appreciated. You need to make the customer feel like shes not wasting her time.
Obviously, a promotion of some sort is helpful. Can you find a way to offer discounts for service; maybe four oil changes and the fifth is half-price? Matching competitors deals and coupons is also effective.
So, now that your engine oil customer is in the store and wants his oil changed, what should you encourage the installer to offer him? Of course, the latest API S Category engine oil is the choice, but should it be synthetic, partial synthetic, conventional oil, green or something else? Should it be long drain or more conventional drain periods? What viscosity should it be?
Heres my take on the subject, with the full understanding that most consumers know only brand name and viscosity grade. First, what does the owners manual say is proper? What is the correct viscosity grade and API Category? At this point, it would be important to explain what the API engine oil licensing system does and what that means for the customers vehicle. The installer can try to determine what kind of driving the customer does. Is he a commuter with lots of in-traffic driving? Is her daily drive a long one or a short one? Does she even have a daily drive? (I dont.) Is the weather hot or cold? Is the vehicle consuming oil (a chance to sell some maintenance)?
The choice of synthetic vs. semi-synthetic or conventional is a personal one. Lots of marketing studies have shown that about 5 percent of consumers believe they must have the best, no matter the cost. The shop should try to identify those folks – their vehicle could be a giveaway – and make sure they get the best oil on their shelves, such as an extended drain, full synthetic. For the customer looking for both performance and value, a semi-synthetic would be a good choice. For the very cost-conscious, conventional oil is a good solution.
Viscosity grade is a less personal choice, primarily because there are really only a few grades that impact vehicle operation. A look into owners manuals shows that single-grade oils like SAE 30 are not a good choice anymore. Some formerly popular multigrades, such as SAE 10W-40, are increasingly outdated and probably arent something any shop wants to carry. Make it a challenge to sell the recommended viscosity and API Service Category, then let the customers needs dictate the particulars.
Whatever you do, make it your goal to be sure that your customers are not part of AAAs one-third. Youll do them a big favor.
Industry consultant Steve Swedberg has over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at email@example.com.