Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2006   by Andrew Ross, Publisher and Editor

Little Problems are Big Problems

There is a battle waging about just how big the access to information problem is.

On the one hand, there is the aftermarket initiative branded as “Right to Repair.” It is firmly entrenched in various associations on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, who are pushing hard the position that restricted access threatens an effective and widespread aftermarket alternative, if not the very survival of the aftermarket itself.

In support of this, the aftermarket presents a survey of 1,000 shops in the U.S., which estimates some $5.8 billion in business is being lost annually because access to information and tools is not readily available. My initial reaction was that we in Canada must be proportionally worse off, as we have less access than they do in the U.S.

Then the Consumer Reports group produces a missive that calls these claims into question. And they do it in the worst possible way for the issue: with the aftermarket’s own data. By actually dissecting the survey responses, the consumer advocacy group unloads all over the aftermarket, and the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE) in particular, which is made of many industry groups to advance the issue:

“A 2004 survey sponsored by CARE, which has persisted in introducing the bill, found that independent repair shops were turning away customers for lack of information. Of 801 U.S. repair shops polled, 59% had ‘ever’ had a problem getting needed repair information [and that the responses indicate that this] represents only 0.2 to 1.2% of the average independent shop’s monthly business,” said Consumer Reports.

“What’s more, advocates of the bill, led by the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE), which is comprised of aftermarket parts distributors and large service chains, including AutoZone, Carquest, Jiffy Lube, and NAPA, are exaggerating a problem that affects a minuscule 0.2% of auto-repair customers. A Consumer Reports analysis of CARE’s own data and of congressional testimony shows that the problem the bill addresses has already been solved.”

Now, those of us working in the aftermarket know full well that the problem is far from solved, but the latest volley of opposition should serve as a strong reminder of how opposition can come from an unexpected source. The fact that I am writing about it once again should also serve as a reminder of how sticky this issue really is. After all, isn’t it the “Consumer’s Right to Repair”? Indeed, it seems that there are those who do not believe in the magnanimity of the argument in favour of improved access.

In Canada, we have an advantage in that we can learn from the mistakes of our brethren to the south, but we are also handicapped by a culture that is not so hell-bent on treating individual choice as a consumer as if it were enshrined in the constitution.

But perhaps we should, however, do a little hammering of our own to wake up those segments of the aftermarket who are affected most. While there are many making inroads and overtures at the association levels, there has been little if any groundswell of support for the initiatives.

Only a very few incidents of information lockout get reported–I believe it to be a fraction of the total–and this gives everyone outside the industry the impression that there is no big problem.

Perhaps we also have to define what constitutes a problem. If a technician cannot find the information in a readily available repair information source, that is a problem. If he has to call a friend at a dealership, that is a problem. If he has to borrow a tool from that friend, that too is a problem. If he has to spend endless minutes hanging on the phone prying information on the location of a component out of a service advisor at a dealer, that too is a problem.

They are problems of inefficiency and lost time, which means money out the door and less satisfactory repairs. Blocking access is not just about having to send a car to the dealership; it is about not having the resources at hand, at any price, to repair it efficiently.

That hurts your customers, it hurts the consumer, and it hurts you. It’s time we all started letting people know how much.

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