At Your Service

| December 12, 2008

Certified mechanic and owner-operator Grant Sheldon says the emergency tire service he’s received meets his tough standards.

Owner-operator Grant Sheldon of Henderson, Ky., hauls Kenworth parts on a weekly expedited run between Ohio and Seattle. “I don’t have half a day to get a tire repaired,” Sheldon says. “I really have only a matter of minutes. There are zero excuses for being late.”

Sheldon therefore has learned a phone number by heart: Goodyear’s 4-TIRES NOW hot line. During a walkaround in Iowa, for example, he saw he had picked up a bolt in a drive tire.

“It wasn’t near my normal shop, so I called the Goodyear emergency line, and they referred me to a shop in Omaha, Neb., right on my way,” Sheldon says. “It worked very well. I drove right in, got it repaired properly, and drove right out again. I bet I wasn’t there a half-hour. It was almost like a pit stop.”

Sheldon’s experience pleases Goodyear spokesman Al Cohn. “Our goal is, up and running in two hours or less,” he says. “We can’t always meet that standard, but unless the guy is in the middle of Montana or something, we’re pretty good.”

Among the tire brands most popular with owner-operators, a couple offer toll-free numbers that owner-operators can call from the road not only to find the nearest authorized dealer but also to line up emergency service. Other tire makers are looking into launching such owner-operator services, perhaps by starting new programs or expanding existing fleet programs.

Bridgestone/Firestone launched its National Preferred program in 1996, designed to give even one-truck owner-operators the round-the-clock help of its fleet support center, says Dave Kolasinsky, manager of truck tire marketing. “A caller just tells us the location and who he is, and we do the rest.”

The service has grown at a strong pace since 1996, Kolasinsky says. “We have thousands of customers enrolled, from one-truck operations to a couple of hundred trucks, and every single day we’re processing applications. More and more smaller fleets are coming to us.”

Goodyear fields hundreds of calls a month to 4-TIRES NOW, which Cohn says was the first such service in the commercial tire industry. “It’s one of those programs – knock wood – that really doesn’t seem to have any issues,” he says. “Lots of people use it, and they’re happy with it, and we’re happy with it.”

Tire manufacturers offer emergency service to owner-operators partly to establish a direct relationship with a group of buyers who traditionally rely on truck stops or hometown suppliers, rather than dealer networks, says Continental Tire spokesman Clif Armstrong. “It’s really hard for manufacturers to get to the owner-operator with any sort of institutional service, and these plans offer one opportunity to do that.”

Continental’s own Truck Fix roadside assistance program isn’t set up yet to help smaller owner-operators, but anyone can locate the nearest Continental dealer at this site, Armstrong says.

Likewise, Michelin North America has not yet expanded its fleet service program, OnCall, to the owner-operator market. “Michelin is, however, currently working on a launch program for individual owner-operators, with more details to come,” says spokesman Christian Flathman.

“We would, of course, prefer to see suppliers of every vehicle component offer more services specifically for owner-operators,” says Todd Spencer, spokesman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “But tire makers obviously believe they’ll generate the majority of their revenue from their fleet customers.”

Tire makers that do offer emergency services to owner-operators say they aren’t motivated just by altruism. “We hope to sell more tires and gain new customers,” Cohn says. “We don’t want an owner-operator to be buying a tire from the competition when he has an emergency.”

One of Cohn’s devoted customers is Sheldon. “I’m a certified mechanic, and I’ve been repairing my own tires since 1974,” says Sheldon, a former Overdrive Trucker of the Month. “So when I go in for a repair, I’m very demanding and very precise. I’m well aware there are right ways and wrong ways to repair a tire.”

The service he has received nationwide through Goodyear’s 4-TIRES NOW – for a scraped steer in Portland, Ore., a late-night trailer flat in Louisville, Ky., a punctured steer in a Wyoming blizzard – meets even his exacting standards, Sheldon says.

He doesn’t remember the exact fees he paid, “but they were fair prices, within the industry standard” – probably $75 to $100 for the roadside call, plus the tire. “Anytime you get someone up in the middle of the night, it’s not going to be cheap.”

More importantly, the plan helps him hold tire costs per mile to a minimum, Sheldon says. “Next to fuel costs, tire costs are the most expensive an owner-operator faces,” he says.

Bridgestone/Firestone’s Kolasinsky agrees, noting that 60 percent to 65 percent of all roadside breakdowns are tire-related.

While emergency tire plans have no up-front costs, they do add an incident fee, $27 to $35, to the cost of each service.

Goodyear’s 4-TIRES-NOW requires no pre-application; a trucker in an emergency need only call the hot line to get service. National Preferred does require a free enrollment process, including credit information.

Whether the applicant is currently running Bridgestone/Firestone tires, however, is irrelevant, Kolasinsky says. “We hope that they are, of course, but even if they aren’t, we hope that this service is one of those value-added things that will help attract the owner-operator to the brand.”

Once an owner-operator customer is accepted into National Preferred, Bridgestone/Firestone offers standardized billing, with pre-established prices on Class 8 tires and road service, Kolasinsky says.

“When you buy tires on the road, pricing is all over the board, and sometimes it’s unfair pricing, especially in emergency situations,” Kolasinksy says. “A trucker shouldn’t have to buy a $700 ‘golden tire’ just because he’s thousands of miles from home and in need.”

The Goodyear emergency plan doesn’t promise standardized prices, only fair ones.

“Owner-operators don’t have a national account price, so that has to be negotiated with the dealer,” Goodyear’s Cohn says. However, pricing and customer satisfaction are among the performance issues that Goodyear’s call center tracks and rates for each service provider, Cohn says. “We have complete records of the transactions. If a service provider gets low ratings, our emergency team is not going to call him back.”

Even without standardized pricing, commercial tire prices nationwide are not likely to vary widely, Armstrong says. “The independent dealer can price whatever he wants, but it is a marketplace, so he has to be competitive,” he says.

If the call center turns up no nearby Bridgestone/Firestone dealer, National Preferred still will make sure the customer gets the tire he needs, even if it’s a competitor’s tire, Kolasinksy says.

“We never abandon him,” he says. “Of course, we’ll have no control over the pricing of that tire, but we’ll get the best price we can.”

Recordkeeping is one advantage of such plans. Bridgestone/Firestone, for example, keeps a record of the customer’s tire preferences, the date, time and nature of all service calls, even the phone numbers of fleets or family members that need to be called in case of an emergency.

This summer, National Preferred expands to cover Canadian locations in addition to the U.S. network, Kolasinsky says. Also this summer, National Preferred will allow members the option of using their current credit card when enrolling.

Not enough owner-operators are taking advantage of these programs, Sheldon says. “Many just don’t understand that there are no up-front costs, for example. Whatever the brand, these are all good, worthwhile programs and can be of benefit to the owner-operator. You need to take advantage of everything that’s available to you.”


OTHER ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS
Tire makers aren’t the only companies that offer free 24-7 roadside-assistance hot lines for owner-operators.

FleetNet America (www.fleetnet-america.com) arranges breakdown service for fleet and owner-operator members within a 60,000-vendor network. Membership is free, but each use of the service carries an administrative fee. The FleetNet America hot line is (800) 972-8872.

Truck manufacturers, too, offer free hot lines staffed by operators who help match callers with nearby dealers and, often, other service providers. Free pre-registration is generally encouraged. Those numbers include:

  • Freightliner Customer
    Assistance Center
    (800) 385-4357

  • International Customer
    Support
    (800) 448-7825

  • Kenworth PremierCare
    (800) 592-7747

  • Mack OneCall
    CompleteCare
    (800) 866-1177

  • Peterbilt TruckCare
    (800) 473-8372

  • Sterling Customer Assistance Center
    (800) 785-4357

  • Volvo Action Service
    (800) 528-6586

  • Western Star Customer
    Assistance Center
    (866) 850-7827

A FLAT RATE FOR FLATS, BY NIGHT AND BY DAY
“Know your costs exactly, before a breakdown occurs,” promises Bridgestone/Firestone’s 18-page National Preferred price list, dated May 2005.

A one-hour roadside service call to repair a flat on a weekday is priced this way:

One R195F free-rolling radial $330
Service $65
Incident fee $27
TOTAL $422

The same one-hour service at midnight is more expensive, because the hourly rate jumps to $85, with a two-hour minimum:

One R195F free-rolling radial $330
Service $170
Incident fee $27
TOTAL $527

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