Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2004   by Andrew Ross

Connecting With Customers

Getting Online With Your Future

There are few who would argue that the automotive aftermarket is hardly among the leading edge industries when it comes to technology, but the pace of change in the technology developed for the market has still outstripped many jobbers’ willingness to put it to use.

Jobbers and their trade customers–who are often even less comfortable with computing than their jobber suppliers–, have traditionally relied on the telephone to conduct commerce.

Even the early methods of getting online were all about the telephone.

“It was slow because of the dial-up; it took about 15 seconds,” says Adrian Gordon, owner of Gorwood Automotive, a Carquest associate in Woodstock, Ont., who had his first customers online back in 1998. Things have improved quite a bit in terms of technology since then, he says, but he still has only four active users.

“Primarily, for them, they can access the data quickly and be very professional in their presentation to the client. Basically it makes it seamless for them.”

Still, those customers are in the minority. Most jobbers have very few, if any, customers online.

Yet both yearn for a better way to conduct the order process, even though they may not express it that way. Service providers complain about parts that don’t fit, and talk about “dyslexic counterpeople” who send parts with the right number, just in the wrong order. Jobbers talk about service providers who just can’t seem to get it through their head: make, model, year, and then call four or five times for each individual part’s price. Jobbers also complain about not being able to find and keep good counterpeople.

They may not know it, but what they may be craving is an online solution.

And yet they resist.

“I am sympathetic,” says Jerry Fugina, Rinax Computer Systems. “The area of communications is a whole technology in and of itself, aside from computer technology. Sometimes jobbers have a hard time just getting their head around their own computer system. Communications technology has its own lingo and its own equipment, and the Internet. It can be a bit overwhelming.”

Fugina says that there are suppliers available who can act as go-betweens with communications service providers, essentially coaching jobbers on what to ask for and what to buy.

For a jobber who wants to link up with some good customers, this may sound like a simple concept, but the more you dig, the more complex the question can seem.

“It can be hard for jobbers to understand the different ways they can communicate and what’s involved. They want to be able to link to their computer system, but that can mean a couple of different things.

“It can mean exchanging information, or a remote access. In the case of an installer it is both things. The installer needs a window to look and see if stock is available, to look up an application, and find out what the price is on that part.”

The real benefits can come to play in the integration of parts lookup, ordering invoicing and populating work orders at the service provider. In fact, integration is the key to the whole thing, from the service provider right on up to the manufacturer. Though there is still a ways to go before everybody can be online with that concept, the technology is there. What is lacking is the data.

Getting that data in shape is what is behind the recent industry standards push by the Automotive Aftermarket Industries Association in the U.S., in what has become known as PIES, the Product and Information Exchange Standard, which should help electronic cataloguing immeasurably. Yet one does not have to wait for that to be adopted throughout the industry. Systems that can help exist today.

“Essentially [being online] reduces the number of calls on the counter,” says Chris Scurr, AMS Computer Systems. “It allows counterpeople to give better service to the people who need it.”

One of the concerns voiced is that when customers are ordering online, they aren’t talking to you. It is seen as potentially creating distance between the jobber and the customer.

“It’s great if a guy works after hours, or if he is a service writer,” says Dale Devlin, owner of Bestbuy shareholder Halton Automotive & Industrial Supplies, which has stores in Halton, Georgetown, and Hamilton, Ont. “What I see is that if a customer doesn’t see it on the system, he’ll call someone else on the phone, instead of finding out whether it just wasn’t on the system.”

Gordon says that going online requires more precision as a result. “Not only does inventory have to be 100% accurate at my premises, but the cataloguing has to be accurate and complete or people get frustrated and back away.”

Devlin says he doesn’t want to make too much of some of the concerns, but it does raise the point that if everyday orders don’t require personal contact, that contact must be planned. Counterpeople may have to initiate the contact more, to ensure that the service provider is aware of what the jobber can provide. With increased efficiency, and fewer order-taking calls, they may even find the time to go out and see customers more often.

“It also reduces the amount of returns. The guy sees the part number and orders through the catalogue. You end up with fewer returns, which jobbers and service providers like, and you also have the loyalty, because they can check their account, check your inventory, etc.”

Scurr says that the system AMS provides goes beyond just online services and inventory management. A feature AMS calls the VIP Service holds some 10 million names and addresses and can help a service provider manage the cars in the customer base, because the basic information on the customer is already there. The technology is an outgrowth of the company’s experience in the retail sector.

“You don’t have to do all the setup. You have the history. And when you want to do a promotion on a certain product line, it will pick out the people who have traditionally bought those goods.”

The need for increasing sophistication and technology within the aftermarket supply chain has also attracted some players that are generally considered large enterprise solution providers, such as SAP.

That’s the traditional view of SAP,” says Jeffrey Watts, senior vice-president, marketing and alliances, SAP Canada Inc. “I can tell you that we have a number-one share in the mid-market, which is $250 million. That is not a well-known fact.”

He says that SAP has spent considerable time creating solutions for smaller enterprises as well. Its Business One product can be configured to work with enterprises as small as 10 people.

“That is a new platform that has been developed for people who need an end-to-end solution including bill of materials, kits, purchase to cash, etc.”

Watts says that integrated solutions provide the greatest benefits to the supply chain, but they can also take longer than more simplified, single-purpose applications. It is also perhaps the most difficult thing for some business owners to understand.

“When you run into challenges, they are typically about implementation. When you want to replicate what you’re doing today with a new system, it’s not a formula for success. Implementing new practices with new technology is really what it is about.

“When it comes to implementation, it is taking time to ensure that you’re not just taking what you’re doing today and putting it into a new system.”

Stating that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a new result, Watts says that implementation of a total system can take anywhere from weeks to months, depending on the ability of the management and staff to embrace change, as well as the size of the leap.

“If you have bad processes today and know you want to change them, that’s a good thing, but it takes time.

“It’s not the implementation of the system that takes time, it is the people and the processes that take time.”

Getting over qualms about the security of their own systems has held some auto parts wholesalers back from getting online to some degree.

“The concern is that the guys didn’t want their customers to have ac
cess to their computer system,” says Bob Worts, territory director, Carrus Technologies. While those concerns may have been valid in the past–when online meant having what was essentially a remote terminal at a customer’s shop–it is no longer the case. Security measures, limited access parameters, and more effective cataloguing have all improved online functionality.

“To go and search a jobber’s availability of parts takes less than 10 seconds and you bring back the retail selling price, the installer’s cost, and you can see what the quantity on hand is at the jobber. And you can see your order, confirm it, and it automatically develops the documentation.”

Peter Quattro, president of CAPP Associates, an IBM Business Partner, says that while a lot of what jobbers are going through may seem new to them, distribution chains in other industries have already been through much of the process.

In 20 years of dealing with the electrical products distribution network, he has seen them go from near-rudimentary computing, to having systems and standardized data protocols in place that have saved billions of dollars. And this is the view that he thinks the aftermarket should take concerning the whole connection issue. It is a way to take waste out of the system, not to generate revenue.

“Surely, you have to have your customers connected,” says Quattro emphatically. “It has to be seamless and inexpensive. You cannot introduce the customer connection as a revenue stream; the distribution chain doesn’t support that. I have fairly strong feelings on the need to have a seamless database from the manufacturer to the installer”–a consequence of his experience–“that’s one step toward real, total integration.

“Connection from the installer to the jobber is important, but that’s not enough. If the jobber can go to the WD, why can’t the installer? The system should be intelligent enough to only show them what they need to see.”

Quattro says that jobbers need to understand that getting online with the customers, and really making it work, is not a piecemeal process.

“They continue to be told that they can do little bits within automation. You can’t.”

“About the only caution I might have for other jobbers is not to purchase too far in advance of programs that are going to become available,” says Gordon. “We do have to stay ahead of the technology, but there has to be some caution since things are changing rapidly.

“Today, there are still some limitations, but it is certainly the way of the future.”

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