In today’s AMN Q&A, we hear from KYB Director of Product and Marketing, Aaron Shaffer, who provides us with the scoop on the company’s new training portal that is about to launch. He also shares an inside look at the R&D process at KYB, which has one of the largest test tracks in the world. In addition, Shaffer brings us up-to-speed on new executive appointments and consumer promotions recently announced by the shocks and struts manufacturer.
We understand KYB is launching a new training portal in April that will be available for both parts professionals and technicians. Can you share some details with us about this new portal?
Absolutely – we carefully considered who the audience was, what they likely know and most importantly, what will help them be more successful. We identified a need for two separate tracks, one for the parts side of the business and another for service. These people have very different jobs, each with their own challenges. For parts professionals, we really focused on the purposes of our products, and how to ask the right questions to ensure it’s the correct part and that the performance matches what the customer is looking to achieve.
On the service side, we believe there is a lack of training, especially from a general business perspective. Of course there are technical elements to each of the modules, but rather than just tell technicians how a monotube shock works, we approached it by explaining all of the possible ways shocks can be sold as a performance upgrade, and why a monotube design works so well as a performance upgrade over a twin tube design. Beyond that, technicians can view an entire module on why road testing is so important, how to plan a route, better identify what the vehicle may be telling and then most importantly: how to communicate their findings to the motorist.
We even have a standalone module on selling value over price. We don’t talk about KYB at all in it, but we think it is incredibly important for service writers and techs to have the communication skills to sell premium parts. This module will launch later this month and both service professionals and parts pros will earn a long-sleeve KYB Strut-Plus t-shirt for completing the training.
KYB has made several personnel appointments and promotions in the past 12 months or so, including your promotion and that of new marketing manager Chris Gillund, as well as new customer support department positions. Tell us about the recent growth and expansion for KYB that led to these new appointments.
We had a couple of different things happen. Our friend Mac McGovern recently retired, and that has created some opportunities. Additionally, the business is growing, and we needed to make sure we had the right people in place to support the growth. We have added engineers to work on our Strut-Plus program and we have added people to the marketing department with strong design skills. We are less reliant on outside advertising agencies and have been able to reduce the amount of time it takes us to launch new campaigns and promotions.
Let’s talk about KYB products for a moment. Tell us about the R&D that goes into your products and what new innovations have been developed as a result?
We are fortunate that we have one of the largest test tracks in the world. We have recreated every type of road surface and feature a vehicle may encounter, asphalt varieties, rough concrete, speed bumps, pot holes and elevation changes. Our ride engineers are on the track every day, working on both OE and aftermarket applications, making sure the damping is correct for every condition.
Having such a strong relationship with the OEs is very helpful in developing new technologies. We have developed a strut with one of our OE partners that self-adjusts to road conditions based entirely on harmonic frequencies, with no wires or electronics. We are also constantly working with OEs on effective ways to reduce unsprung weight, to improve handling and performance.
We’ve worked closely with many of our suppliers to help them increase their capabilities. Years ago, when we entered the fully assembled strut space, we could not find anyone in North America who could engineer and manufacture left-hand wind springs for us. A fair number of vehicles use left-hand wind springs from the factory and we know it’s important to match this. Today, we have a supplier in the U.S. that is working directly with our engineers and is able to build left-hand wind springs. We also have made our spring suppliers better by our own testing capabilities. Each one of the springs we use is subject to an intense salt spray test and are thoroughly cycle-tested. Years ago, we saw multiple failures during testing, but with good communication and collaboration, we are getting better springs initially and this is helping to reduce our time-to-market.
What do you feel separates KYB from its competitors today?
I think it’s two things: on-vehicle performance, and a simplified, purpose-driven product line-up. In 2019, anyone can design and manufacture a part that fits, but the reason we have a test track is to ensure our part helps restore the handling and control capabilities to what OE intended and to make sure the spirit of that particular vehicle remains intact. Every manufacturer and every vehicle has very distinct handling, control and ride characteristics. Our OE expertise and testing allow us to know exactly how OE intends a vehicle to feel and perform, and on today’s vehicles with electronic crash avoidance systems this is increasingly important. A Lexus should always respond, feel and drive like a Lexus and an Infiniti should always respond, feel and drive like an Infiniti whether that vehicle is brand new, or has 200,000 miles.
We also understand this is a challenging category with regard to inventory space and knowing what the right part for each customer is. We offer a simple product line-up designed to address these concerns. Our Excel-G and Strut-Plus products are designed to help restore handling and control capabilities and characteristics to what the vehicle manufacturer intended. For trucks, SUVs and sports cars, we also offer high-pressure monotube shocks as a performance upgrade. Our performance upgrade options will always be monotubes, which we think offers the best improvement in performance to the motorist and makes the line easier to understand and sell.
The company recently launched the “Feeling is Believing” consumer rebate promotion. How often does KYB run promos such as this, and how important are they to the company as a tool to connect with customers?
We run “Feeling is Believing” twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall, but we actually have some type of national promotion happening 8 months out of the year. The spring iteration of “Feeling is Believing” ends April 30, and then on May 1 we will launch “Parts Pro Rewards,” which allows counter people to earn money back on selling KYB. “Feeling is Believing” runs again in August and September, and November and December we will run “Truck Months.” This is a unique promotion, we reward both the consumer, as well as the service provider, when a set of 4 KYB shocks/struts is sold and installed on a truck or SUV.
These are incredibly important to us, and we have made it a point to target every single person in the chain who can influence a purchasing decision at least once a year.
What other methods do you use to connect with customers – social media, direct marketing, in person training? What’s most effective for KYB today?
For us, it is certainly in-person training. We are still sharpening our social media strategy, and I think so much gets lost in direct marketing, especially when we are trying to market to service providers.
Shocks and struts are an undersold category and most service providers don’t have enough information or training to determine when they are worn enough to recommend replacement. Many service providers also lack the communication tools and confidence to even recommend replacement to the motorist. Our team begins by teaching technicians how and why a shock wears and what vehicle conditions are caused at specific stages of shock wear. We then instruct shops how to quickly and effectively perform a road test, specifically what conditions to look for, and how to rate them. The next step is making sure technicians can communicate their findings to the service writer.
The final step of the training is preparing the service writer with enough knowledge, information and the ability to clearly report the conditions that are occurring so they can have a discussion about the vehicle and tire control with the motorist.
When we began this initiative, we were surprised with how many technicians were never formally trained how to road test and determine what is normal and what is a clear sign of worn components. This approach has been incredibly successful, and we know that more vehicles on the road are safer because of it.
KYB is a global company with its main headquarters in Japan and the U.S. Can you talk a little about what’s going on politically right now (China tariffs, import issues, overseas sourcing, etc.) and how KYB may or may not be affected by that?
Our industry’s supply chain is incredibly complex, so I think everyone has been affected to some degree. With that said, we probably have not been as affected as other manufacturers have. About 10 years ago, KYB started a global initiative we called, “Local Production, Local Consumption.” We have been moving more and more production to our Indiana facility and have recently opened a new OE and aftermarket plant in Mexico. The vast majority of what we sell here is manufactured in North America or Japan, so far, we haven’t been terribly affected by the 301 China tariffs. Of course, we are following the story of the 232 automotive tariffs very closely – we have no idea how that will play out, but we will able to adjust accordingly.