Focusing on people helps tire and repair shop mark 30 years

Kirkwood, Mo.—Walk into Combs Auto Service and Tire Center on Big Bend Boulevard in Kirkwood and you might notice that something is missing in the shop’s reception area: tires and displays of other parts typically found in the lobby of most auto repair facilities.

The absence of those products — tires especially — is intentional, Scott Combs, shop president, said.

“We don’t like to have tires in the showroom. We think it gets cluttered,” he said. “And we don’t like the smell.”

Most customers don’t miss the tire displays, Combs said, in part because they’ve already done their homework online. Yes, customers may have questions, but often, because of the Internet, they know what they want and how much they want to pay, which, Combs added, facilitates the sales process.

“Our best customer is an informed customer,” he said.

And if a customer wants to see the product?

“If you want to put your hands on a set of tires, we’ll walk you into the back, and we can feel the tires, touch the product,” Combs said.


A full-service shop

Back when his family bought the shop 30 years ago, about 80 percent of the business was tires, with the remaining 20 percent being standard automotive service and repair. Today, those numbers are reversed, Combs said. In addition to tires, the shop offers the gamut of basic services, from engine repair and diagnostics (about 20 percent of his business, Combs said) to brake, suspension, and alignment repairs, exhaust replacement, fluid services, and state safety and emissions inspections.

“About the only thing we don’t tackle is major internal transmission work,” he said. “We will sublet that out.”

The shop’s bays are equipped with Rotary lifts, as well as Snap-on and Tech 2 scan tools and Hunter tire-changing and alignment equipment.

“We love the Hunter people,” he said. “They’re local, as you know, and we think they’re the best at what they do. It’s world-class equipment.”


Maximizing resources

As a small family-owned shop, his business doesn’t have the resources available to a big chain store or wholesale club, Combs said. But because of easy access to – and with the help of – major wholesalers in the St. Louis market, the shop can remain competitive and offer its customers every tire “known to man, from Michelin to Nexen to private label to the China-built stuff,” Combs said.

“With a phone call or a press of a button, we can order any tire that any customer most of the time would want and within a two-hour window have it here in the shop,” Combs said, adding that “99 percent of the time” customers call ahead.


Educating customers

While most customers know when it’s time to replace tires, often they are wary when it comes to replacing other components such as struts and shocks, even though they may realize that such components wear out eventually, Combs said.

“It’s an education process that we go through with the customer,” he said. “It’s a lot of hand-holding and a lot of educating the consumer on why they need to replace them, whether it’s going to be a run-out on your tires or uneven wear on your tires – or just more wear and tear on the suspension, or before they start hurting other components on their car.”

A new and not infrequent wrinkle in the “education process” is dealing with tire-pressure monitoring systems, Combs added. The systems trigger warning lights for a variety of reasons, from simple changes in temperature over time to battery failures, but often the net result is questions from car owners about the system, why the light came on, and the eventual cost to correct the problem.

To diagnose such problems, Combs said the shop uses an ATEQ VT55 scan tool.

“It’s a new, interesting part of the job,” Combs said. “Sometimes we have to explain to customers that it might take a half-hour to diagnose and correct the problem and that to correct the problem requires us to use an expensive piece of equipment.”

As with tires, when shocks and struts are required, Combs said he and his staff try to tailor the replacement product to the needs of the customer.

“We use Monroe products, which come with a good warranty,” he said.


Family values

“At the end of the day, any business, I think, no matter what you’re selling, is about people,” he said. “Our business really isn’t about auto repair. It is auto repair, but it’s about people. We’re helping people, on a daily basis, maintain and keep their cars running safely.”

To that end, he and his staff treat their customers like family, Combs said.

“If you have a problem with something we’ve fixed, or something has gone awry, we truly are going to sit down with you and try to do everything in our power to make it as right as we can make it,” he said. “When we make a mistake, we own up to it. It’s how you fix it moving forward when problems occur that sets you apart from everyone else.”

Parts & People

Parts & People is published monthly by Automotive Counseling and Publishing Company, Inc., a Colorado corporation, P.O. Box 18731 Denver, CO 80203, 303-765-4664. President-Lance Buchner. Founded by Lance Buchner and Dave Lucia.