In this, the final article in a seven-part series sponsored by Chevron, reporter Jacob Stoller looks at how shop owners should view the disruptive technology on the horizon of the automotive industry. The short answer is it’s not all that bad!
By Jacob Stoller
“Disrupt or be disrupted” is a common cliché in the tech world.
The idea is that if you don’t jump onto the technology bandwagon, somebody else will seize the initiative and leave you in catch-up mode.
Shop owners can’t be blamed for feeling disrupted these days. The costs of staying current with the progressive digitization of vehicles are already significant, and there are fears that the situation will worsen as the industry transitions to electric and autonomous vehicles.
There is, however, another side to this story.
Independents are themselves disruptors. They often take over customer relationships that begin in the dealer shops. As service providers who are accountable only to the customer, they have the freedom to disclose any shortcomings that a vehicle might have, and the flexibility to provide the kind of service relationship that customers want. Furthermore, they might do such a good job that the customer decides it’s not really necessary to buy a new car.
That’s pretty disruptive!
When it comes to technology, therefore, shops need to think about their strengths as well as their vulnerabilities.
“We’re a customer service industry, and that’s where a lot of people get lost,” says Cody Olishaki, owner at Gary’s Automotive in Surrey, B.C. “They get lost thinking we’re mechanics and people just need us. But realistically if you want to build a good large-scale business, your customer service is paramount.”
To use a hockey analogy, keeping up with OEM technology is like playing defense. Offense is about applying technology to build customer relationships. You have to do both to stay in the game.
“Most of my techs are in ongoing training,” says Olishaki, “but the technology that the techs are using is just a by-product that we need to have in order to get the vehicle right the first time.”
Olishaki focuses on offense, developing the shop’s digital inspection capabilities to provide the level of communication that customers expect. “We send them text messages on their phones,” says Olishaki. “They can see all the information. And if they have leaks, or if they have parts with excessive wear and play in them, we send them videos. They’re actually seeing what’s going on with their car.”
Digital inspections have taken off because customers want to know what’s happening with their vehicles. Emerging tools will provide new ways for independents to accomplish this. Connected vehicles could warn the customer and the shop of upcoming service issues, avoiding emergencies and expensive repairs. Blockchain-verified aftermarket parts could help alleviate the fear that you don’t know what you’re getting when you go with independent shops. Augmented reality apps could bring a customer right into the shop to see exactly how the repair is being done.
All these could be applied in an offensive strategy to build better customer relationships. And solutions are developing very rapidly.
The costs of staying current with the progressive digitization of vehicles are already significant and there are fears that the situation will worsen.
OEMs have proven resistant to providing the information independents need to fix their vehicles, and there’s a legitimate fear that as technology evolves to electric and autonomous vehicles, they will try to widen that information gap. The issue has become highly politicized, with right-to-repair legislation under discussion in both Canada and the US.
Perhaps a more important challenge to OEM secrecy, however, is a growing consumer movement claiming that ownership of data is a basic right. If I buy a vehicle equipped with sensors, data recording devices, and telematics technology, the argument goes, I am the rightful owner of that data, and to share it with whomever I chose.
Thanks to public backlash against the control of personal data by large corporations, the right-to-data movement is gaining momentum, and it’s likely to get tougher for an OEM to refuse access to data when the customer insists on it. A good defensive move for independents is to stay current with the latest developments regarding data ownership rights, and keep customers informed. No customer should feel that they can’t choose who services their vehicle.
It’s also important to remember that OEMs don’t hold all the cards when it comes to data collection. As was pointed out in Part 1 of this series, much of the statistical repair information used in dealer shops doesn’t come from the factory – it is gathered from millions of kilometres of field data collected from cars being driven by their owners. (Yes, this is data that is arguably owned by the customers.)
There is a significant opportunity, therefore, for a third-party technology provider to collect such data and provide the information to independents, and it might soon be feasible for a consortium of independents to do this on their own.
Ultimately, however, acquiring the knowledge to repair vehicles has always been and will continue to involve cooperation between shops.
“Sharing our knowledge is ultimately the only way independent shops will be able to compete with the OEMs,” says Steve Bernard, owner-operator of Auto Service Kingston, in Kingston, Ont.
Knowledge-sharing applications, consequently, are likely to become the most powerful tools that independents can adopt. There are many possibilities. Faster communications networks, combined with virtual reality and augmented reality apps, will make it possible for a shop to receive training from a remote instructor, or to get help with an intricate repair job. Natural language processing, a subset of artificial intelligence, will make it easier for shops to pool the shop notes of all their technicians into a common database.
The dizzying pace of technology is frightening for independents, and the threat of getting overwhelmed or forced out of business by proprietary OEM practices is a real one. But independents hold an important card – they have earned the trust of millions of customers, and customers, in the end, tend to call the shots.
Jacob Stoller is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He specializes in technology and lean management.