By Larry Carley
Selling Braking Systems Parts
Different kinds of customers expect different kinds of service.
When it comes to selling brake parts, all customers expect at least four things from you:
1. That you’re familiar with the basic components in a brake system. In other words, you know what a brake rotor is, what a drum is, what a master cylinder is and so on. Nobody likes to deal with an ignoramus. So unless you started working yesterday and have zero knowledge about brakes, you should know what the basic brake system components are, what they look like and what they do.
2. That you know how to look up brake parts in your catalog or database, and you know how to find the correct replacement parts for the customer’s vehicle. In many instances, this requires more information than just the year, make and model of the vehicle. You may also need the engine size, vehicle identification number (VIN) or even the OEM part number from the old part to accurately identify the application.
3. That you know how to find the part on the shelf, and if the part is out of stock that you know how to order it from your WD or another source.
4. That you remind the customer of any additional parts or products they might need to complete their repair job. For example, anyone who’s buying brake parts should be reminded to buy fresh brake fluid. Old brake fluid should not be reused because it absorbs moisture. This breaks down the corrosion inhibitors in the fluid and promotes internal corrosion in the brake system. It also lowers the boiling temperature of the fluid and increases the risk of fluid boil and pedal fade if the brakes get too hot. You should also recommend new brake hardware when drum brakes are being serviced and discs too. So you have to keep in mind any related sales opportunities that might be appropriate.
That sums up the basics of selling brake parts or any other kind of automotive part. Beyond these basics, there’s more to dealing with brake customers.
Walk-in DIY customers expect a lot more from you. They expect you to know everything they don’t know. They also think you can instantly diagnose any problem that they describe to you, and that you’ll be able to explain to them what they should replace, how to replace it and why. Maybe they should just ask you to pick the next winning lottery numbers or tell their fortune. It would probably be easier.
Although such expectations are obviously unrealistic, you’re probably asked to do the impossible at least once a day. Even so, diagnosing brake problems should not involve guesswork. No professional technician would attempt to offer a diagnosis without first inspecting the entire brake system, and neither should you. You can always offer an opinion as to what you think might be wrong. Just make sure you stress the fact that it’s only a guess and nothing more Ñ and once a part has been installed, there are no returns.
HELP ME MR. WIZARD
Let’s say a customer tells you his brake pedal slowly sinks to the floor when he’s sitting at a stop light. Sounds like a classic symptom of a worn master cylinder, doesn’t it? But can you be sure? Air in the brake lines can sometimes have the same effect and will make the pedal feel soft and spongy. Or, there might be a fluid leak in a hose, brake line, caliper or wheel cylinder that’s allowing a gradual loss of pressure when the brakes are applied. There’s no way to know for sure until somebody looks at the entire brake system.
What about the customer who says his brake warning light is on? Did he forget to release the parking brake, or does he have a serious brake problem? Loss of fluid pressure in either side of a split-hydraulic system should trip the differential pressure switch and cause the brake warning light to come on. But if the vehicle has a fluid level sensor in the master cylinder reservoir, a low brake fluid level may also turn the light on. Either way, a brake warning light is not something to ignore. The cause needs to be investigated immediately because the vehicle may be unsafe to drive. If you tell them anything, be sure to tell them that.
Here’s another one. A customer says his brakes are pulling to the right. A brake pull usually indicates uneven braking side-to-side. One front brake is working harder than the other, or one front brake isn’t working at all. The cause might be a sticking or frozen caliper on one side; a leaky caliper or hose; a plugged brake line; a low fluid level in one side of a diagonally-split hydraulic system; or the disc brake pads on one wheel might be contaminated with brake fluid, oil or grease.
Another overlooked cause of brake pull can be mismatched friction materials from previous brake repairs. If somebody replaced a leaky caliper on one side of the customer’s vehicle with a loaded caliper assembly, it’s quite possible that the friction material in the loaded caliper is different from the pads that were already on the vehicle. A difference in friction coefficients between the two different brands or types of pads may be enough to cause a pull towards the side with the more aggressive linings. The way to prevent this kind of situation from happening is to replace the pads on both sides of the vehicle at the same time with identical linings.
Loaded brake calipers are a great product because of the installation time they save. A loaded caliper assembly has everything your customer needs in one box. They have to be installed properly. So if a customer only needs one loaded caliper to replace a leaky caliper on the vehicle, he should also buy the same brand and type of pads that are in the loaded caliper for the opposite side, too. If the vehicle has a lot of miles on it, it would also be wise to replace both calipers at the same time even if the other one isn’t leaking yet. If one caliper has failed, the other is probably not too far behind. It’s only a matter of time until it starts to leak, too. So why do the brake job twice? Advise your customer to replace both calipers at the same time.
Unlike your walk-in DIY customers, your professional installer customers won’t ask you to diagnose brake problems. That’s their job. Nor will they ask you to explain how a caliper works, what kind of brake fluid to use or why a set of perfectly good rotors with only 100,000 miles on them need to be replaced.
What they do expect you to know is what products fit which vehicle applications. They may need your help to accurately identify certain brake parts or components for "oddball" applications or older vehicles that may no longer be listed in your catalog or database. If you can’t provide the instant answers they need, you need to know where you can go to get the answers. This includes using resources like manufacturer hot lines, calling the "answer man," looking for manufacturer technical service bulletins and so on.
Your professional customers will also expect you to be up on the latest new products as well as the latest vehicle applications. If there’s a new brake lining out for a particular vehicle, or a new friction product line, or a new brake tool that solves a particular installation problem, or a new brake design on a 2003 model-year vehicle, they expect you to know about it. This means you have to keep abreast of new products from your suppliers as well as changing brake technology.
Professional customers also expect you to be able to get them the parts they need in a timely manner Ñ like NOW! A vehicle that’s sitting on a rack waiting for parts is a vehicle that isn’t making the shop any money. Delays are expensive and nobody likes to wait for parts.
When parts are in stock and you take an order, make sure the parts are delivered as promised Ñ or it’s you they’ll call and blame for the delay. When parts are not in stock, find out when they can be delivered so you can promise a delivery time or date. And if your main WD or supplier is out of stock, try as many alternative sources as you can so that you don’t lose the sale Ñ or your customer.
Equally important is keeping the customer informed. If you’re having trouble locating a particular part, let him know what’s going on and assure him that you’re doing everything possible to find the part. All too often busy countermen get distracted by other calls and drop the ball. That costs you a sale and possibly the loss of a good customer if it happens often enough.
Being able to provide advice and guidance is an absolutely essential element of being a good parts professional. DIY customers will often ask for your advice as to which replacement parts they should buy. For example, if a customer needs a master cylinder, and you say, "We have a new one for $149.95 or a reman for $89.95," they may not understand the difference between new and remanufactured parts. You may have to explain why a reman may be a better value, or why a new one may be the better choice if they plan to keep their vehicle a long time. Or, you may have to explain why a particular part may only be available as new or reman.
You may also be asked which brand or type of brake linings you recommend or think are best. Be honest, and do your best to provide accurate guidance.
For example, you might think Brand A brake pads are the greatest pads in the world. They stop on a dime, they’re quiet and they don’t wear out as fast as Brand B or Brand C. You even have them on your own truck. Plus, if you sell 50 boxes of Brand A pads this month, the company will send you a plastic beer cooler autographed by a big name NASCAR driver. So naturally, you recommend Brand A brake pads.
Brand A pads might be the greatest pads in the world, but if they cost twice as much as Brand B and the customer only needs an economy or standard grade lining, Brand B might actually provide better value in this case. That’s why brake pad suppliers offer economy, standard and premium replacement linings. They give consumers a choice so people can buy a grade of lining that best suits their budget as well as their braking needs.
Premium replacement linings are currently a hot topic. Most brake suppliers have introduced some type of premium product line in the past year or two to capitalize on the trend. Many of these products are targeted at the still-growing light truck/SUV market.
Premium linings typically provide the best combination of performance, noise control and wear. They are more expensive (and more profitable) than standard or economy grade linings, but they sell well in spite of the higher price because many people want the best. Besides, the cost of the brake linings is only a small percentage of the total cost of a complete brake job. Most of the cost is labor.
Most premium linings are "application specific" or "application engineered," which means different friction compounds are used for different vehicle applications within the same product line. Some tout special ingredients such as ceramic, titanium, etc., while others put most of their marketing effort on their performance characteristics such as quiet operation, better fade resistance, stopping power, etc.
What’s most important here is being familiar the various friction product lines, not just the ones your store carries. You should know what their major features and benefits are and how the various brands compare.
Many premium pads have chamfers and slots to minimize noise. Chamfers are angled or have beveled edges on the leading and trailing ends of the pad that reduce "tip-in" noise when the brakes are first applied. Chamfers also reduce the surface area of the brakes slightly, which increases the clamping force applied by the pads against the rotors. This further helps to dampen sound-producing vibrations. Slots are grooves cut vertically, diagonally or horizontally in the pads to reduce noise by changing the frequency of vibration from an audible level to a higher, inaudible frequency beyond the range of the human ear. Slots also help reduce brake fade by providing a passage for gasses and dust to escape at high brake temperatures.
Some premium pads also incorporate built-in integrally molded shims for added noise suppression. Making the shim part of the lining eliminates a potential source of play, corrosion and vibration. Others use stainless steel shims to improve corrosion resistance.
Some premium linings also have special surface coatings such as titanium dioxide, copper, graphite, etc. to help break-in the linings and dampen noise during the first few hundred miles of operation.
To further dampen noise, the friction compound may be modified in various ways. Some brake supplies use low-metallic, ceramic or nonasbestos organic (NAO) formulas in their product lines. Noise is caused by vibration. Hard, semi-metallic pads tend to be noisy because applying the brakes rubs steel against steel. Reducing the metallic content of the compound and/or substituting other nonferrous (non iron containing) ingredients such as brass and copper for the chopped steel wool fibers can reduce noise. The use of various carbon compounds and ceramic fibers are also ways to make linings quieter without affecting stopping power or pad life.
Some premium pads are "preburnished" to eliminate many of the problems that can occur if the pads are not broken in properly. When brake linings are manufactured, the resins that bind the ingredients together are not fully cured. When the linings are later installed on a vehicle, the heat produced by normal braking bakes the linings and cooks out the residual chemicals from the resins to improve the friction characteristics of the lining. But if the brakes get too hot before the linings are fully cured, it can "glaze" the linings causing noise and performance problems. So to eliminate the need for a break-in period, some brake suppliers are now adding an extra manufacturing step to fully heat-cure (burnish) the linings.
We could keep going about all the changes that are taking place in friction products and braking technology, but we’re out of space. Your job is to learn as much as you can about brake parts so that you’ll have what it takes to be a top-notch counterman. Don’t just be an order taker. Be a knowledgeable and helpful sales advisor regardless of what kind of customer you are dealing with.
Counter professionals may very well be missing out on a significant sales opportunity if they forget to recommend new brake hardware to customers who are doing brake jobs.
There’s hardware for drum brakes and hardware for disc brakes and most professional technicians will replace drum hardware religiously. Many, however, overlook disc-brake hardware when installing a set of pads. There’s really no way to know how long the brake hardware has been on a vehicle or if it has ever been replaced. That’s why the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) says hardware should always be replaced when changing the pads on disc brakes that have floating calipers.
Failing to change disc brake hardware can result in noise, uneven wear and comebacks. The shims, clips and springs that are part of many disc brake systems perform several purposes. One is to hold the pads in place and dampen vibrations. Another is to allow floating calipers to slide back and forth so they can center over the rotor. If a caliper hangs up because of rusted, corroded or worn out hardware, the pads can wear unevenly and braking effectiveness will be reduced. It’s also important to replace the rubber boots that cover guide pins, too, because the boots keep out dirt and moisture that can cause corrosion and sticking.
Hardware kits for Japanese cars are relatively expensive compared to the pads because the Japanese typically use more parts than domestic vehicles. But selling a customer a hardware kit in addition to a set of pads can add another $20 to your sale.