FOR some truck equipment shops, the only time they provide a service for recreational vehicles is when the president of the company needs a place to store his.
But other distributors have found that servicing RVs can be a viable source for extra sales, particularly when much of the equipment and expertise is already in place.
Robert Henderson told the spring meeting of the Truck-frame and Axle Repair Association (TARA) in Phoenix that more than 10 million recreational vehicles are on the road today — vehicles that require service and aftermarket parts and are serviced at a labor rate that typically is $20 per hour more than that charged by truck repair shops.
The opportunity to tap a share of that business is particularly good for shops that have alignment equipment. RV owners complain the most about poor steering and handling.
“There is a critical need for steering, alignment, and suspension work,” said Henderson, president of Henderson's Line-Up, Brake, & RV in Grants Pass, Oregon. “A lot of auto repair shops cannot or choose not to work on RVs because they are too big. For shops geared for working on trucks, size is not a problem.”
Henderson said that poor steering and handling are associated with something truck equipment distributors should understand well — weight distribution.
“Most coaches are sold on their floorplan and not on the specifications of the chassis,” he said. “Not enough thought is given to the loads that the floorplan will place on the tires and suspension or how these loads may affect the handling of the motorhome. The result often is a vehicle that is out of balance.”
The three “d's”
The company has a “three-d” approach to servicing motorhomes: discovery, diagnosis, and delivery.
Key to the process is the company's Road Performance Assessments, a 90-minute process designed to provide detailed information about why the vehicle's road performance is falling short of customer expectations.
Not every Henderson customer chooses the assessment, of which the company currently charges $135. Those who do, however, tend to have about twice the service work done than those who do not. Henderson said that 50-75% of his customers choose to have the company conduct a Road Performance Assessment on their vehicles.
Henderson says that the RV industry continues to need more detailed specifications to help improve the road performance of motorhomes, and that parts availability is also less than ideal. He said his company is working with Hunter Engineering for additional specifications for motorhome chassis and that his company has developed its own line of products designed to help RVs handle better. These include bell cranks for GM/Workhorse and Freightliner chassis, coil springs for P Series chassis, rear track bars, motion controls for chassis equipped with air suspensions, and braking systems for towed vehicles.
Henderson described the process his company uses to diagnose and repair handling problems for motorhomes — including static analysis and road testing.
“The most important thing I owe my customers is an accurate diagnosis,” Henderson said.
Working from a check list, technicians inspect the coach first before taking it on the road. Included on the list are an evaluation of tire wear, an assessment of the vehicle's stance (whether or not it is level), and a look for scratches that may indicate a problem.
The company's Road Performance Assessment is a 15-mile road test designed to simulate the actual driving conditions experienced by the vehicle's owner. It covers two-lane and four-lane roads. A Henderson technician drives, while the vehicle owner sits in the passenger seat.
“This is a great tool to build relationships,” Henderson said. “It also helps the customer to clearly see and understand the problem.”
To help illustrate defects, Henderson has developed a “play detector” — a hydraulic fixture that shows customers the amount of undesired movement by applying force to various suspension components.
Customers are also encouraged to view the underside of their vehicle to see problems first hand. Sometimes customers are stunned by what they see.
“We have been able to show them propane tanks that are about to fall off,” Henderson said.
A key to accurate diagnostics is to weigh the load that each wheel carries.
“Scales are important,” Henderson said. “You can't even set proper tire pressure without knowing the amount of weight that is being distributed to each tire.”
As is the case with commercial trucks, the GVWR of a motorhome is the weakest link among the frame strength, axle, suspension, wheels, and tires.
“We teach the customer how to load his coach,” Henderson says. “For example, if it has 16,000 pounds on the rear, we want at least 8,000 pounds on the front. Workhorse Custom Chassis, for example, wants about 45% of the weight on the front axle.”
Henderson says it is important to be able to weigh the vehicle efficiently and to encourage customers to bring their motorhome in the way it normally is loaded when driven. He said that customers will pay $30-50 to have their vehicle weighed.
The diagnostic procedures, including inspections, weighing the vehicle, and road testing, should enable the technician to diagnose what is wrong with the motorhome. He generates a list of items that he believes should be corrected and gives the list to the service writer. The service writer in turn gives the list to the customer. The customer also receives the original copy of the alignment report. Henderson keeps a copy.
The shop then fixes what the customer authorizes. For many of the common complaints, Henderson has developed its own line of steering and suspension products labeled SuperSteer and SuperStop.
Some of the common problems and the solutions that Henderson recommends include:
Excessive play in the steering. Solution: SuperSteer bell crank and/or Redhead steering gear.
Constant need for steering correction. Solution: for Freight-liner chassis: SuperSteer bell crank.
Excessive movement during side winds, ruts, or blowouts. Solution: installation of Safe-T-Plus steering controls after fixing any other problems. The Safe-T-Plus controls are enhancements and are not meant to be a substitute for components that need to be replaced.
Poor return to center after the steering wheel is turned. Solution: IFS steering enhancement kits.
Rock and roll motion or whipping. Solution: motion control units for air springs.
“Porpoising.” Solution: New shock absorbers.
Now that it's fixed
Once the repairs are finished, Henderson has the technician to drive the motorhome again to verify that the work has been completed successfully.
“We then put the customer behind the wheel,” Henderson says. “We insist that he drive the vehicle to make sure he is satisfied. Our technicians don't sell parts and service — they sell value. We don't want any of our customers having buyer's remorse.”
Henderson works from the beginning to develop the company's relationship with customers. New customers receive a welcome package.
“We want to create a positive experience for our customers,” Henderson says. “After all, no one gets out of bed and says, ‘This is great day to spend $3,000-4,000 on my motorhome.’”