Auto Service World
Feature   January 1, 2006   by Andrew Ross

Practical Technology Comes to the Fore

Technology, in its many forms, was at the forefront of the 2005 AAPEX show.

It was clear early on that the influence of OE technology had insinuated itself into a great number of segments of the aftermarket.

For many, the battle for access to information is top of mind. It is certainly important and requires the industry’s support, but as day-to-day challenges are faced in business, other issues rise to the top. Perhaps the most obvious of these challenges is the increase of technology under the hood.

Delphi, as it has done virtually since it entered the aftermarket in earnest four years ago, led with technology.

Not only was the firm’s DS800 multi-function handheld computer once again featured in presentations to customers and media, it was emphasized even more strongly than in past years.

“We believe the DS800 is an essential piece of the automotive aftermarket,” says Frank Ordonez, who heads up the company’s global aftermarket business. “This industry is struggling with information. [With the DS800] a technician can do well into 90% of repairs without ever leaving the DS800 for somebody else’s database.” But it is, he says, not just about its power as a tool for technicians. “It is about changing consumer behaviour.”

Changing consumer behaviour has been at the root of a variety of initiatives. Changing the industry’s behaviour to make that happen has proven to be a tough nut to crack.

“Demographics are not what they were 25 years ago,” says Michael Coppola, president and COO of the Advance Auto Parts chain. He says too that the rise in other ethnic groups and women should be reflected in the demographics of the companies that serve them, and that Advance is working hard to ensure that its workforce reflects that changing reality.

And, he says, it is also important to have parts available for those segments of the marketplace that are “financially challenged,” meaning, of course, that value lines are important for them in the marketplace.

Van D. Kirk, president of Auto Tech Service, says he has found benefits in gaining the trust of female customers. “Once you get women on your side, you have customers for life.” It is, he says, about gaining their trust by delivering on the promise of repairing their vehicles correctly and efficiently.

While Advance has a strong DIY component to its business as well as an important installer business, one thing that remains the same is that the aftermarket only benefits when the part is sold.

Before the industry can serve this changing demographic, says Schmatz, the aftermarket needs to be brutally honest about its capabilities.

One of the barriers identified with the ability of shops to effect repairs efficiently is the lack of in-shop management skills. Without sufficient profits, they can’t afford the tools or the training to keep pace.

“There is no doubt about it,” says Chris “Chubby” Frederick, president and CEO of the Automotive Training Institute. “We have to make sure that those shops are good businessmen.”

He says that in his experience with the hundreds of profit and loss statements he has seen, most have nowhere near the profit required to keep pace today, never mind prepare for the future.

“Most know what they have to do. They just don’t know how to do it.”

Kirk says that too few shops are able to plan ahead to take the training they need.

“I had to raise myself above what is wrong with the car.”

Using the AAPEX event and himself as an example, he says that more shop owners should be like him, able to take a few days away from the shop.

“They should be able to come here on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, take a few days to come to an event like this, and learn 20 things that will help their business. If they can’t do this, they are working hard, not smart. They are working in the business, not on the business.”

The reality is that, for jobbers, working smarter means newer computer systems and better use of the tools that are out there.

I spent some time in the Activant booth, among others, and paid special attention to the user interface. Most have improved drastically over the past few years. The quandary for the counterperson has always been to provide just the right amount of information that will help them fill the order and meet any special requirement of the customer, without either taking too much time from the customer or leaving out prompts for critical information required to get the right parts for the whole job.

One feature that seemed useful for Activant’s Vision system was icon-based alerts to special customer needs. Who hasn’t inadvertently waded into an existing situation regarding an outstanding credit or a warranty issue with a customer, only to have a routine order turn into the call from hell? Simple icons and alerts help.

This is only one example, but having the right information in front of the counterperson can help avoid uncomfortable situations that can damage customer relationships, especially when multiple counterpeople must handle a customer. Another graphic-based feature of obvious utility was the customer history graph, which can show a counterperson or manager at a glance if a customer is deviating from his usual ordering patterns, perhaps signalling a problem with the shop or with the customer relationship. Because it is graphical, it doesn’t require a close inspection of the numbers, breeding a more intuitive feel for a customer’s activity; this can help cut through the data that can sometimes get in the way of taking action.

Another tool that will help shops and jobbers work smarter is an online, on-demand pricing service from the combined efforts of Nu-Way and Pricedex.

While directed at the needs of the service provider to obtain pricing information, the jobber can certainly use the tool.

While jobbers are already using similar services–and in some cases the same Nu-Way pricing matrix–the application has been updated to allow users to pick up pricing information piecemeal for less than a buck a day.

According to the creators, the key benefits of the approach are time savings, by eliminating the duplication of efforts at the service provider, jobber, and WD levels, particularly for special request parts.

“The new portal is the ideal price lookup solution for non-catalogue items, special orders and non-stock items for traditional service providers, and could be especially valuable to installers of specialty and performance parts, fleets and municipalities,” says Phil Bishop, president of Nu-Way.

While this is one such pricing service, every jobber has certainly come across situations where products have been mis-priced, either too high or too low.

“A customer will certainly let you know when your pricing is too high,” says Jeffrey Marshall, director of business development for Pricedex Software, but when the price is too low, it’s a different matter. Both situations can cost the jobber dollars: one by hurting the confidence the customer has in you, the other by trimming the profit you might have justifiably been able to generate from a sale.

Pricing accuracy may not be as exciting as some of the greater whiz-bang technologies, but it could be argued that it has more of an immediate affect on the bottom line than anything the politicians in Ottawa or Washington might do regarding Right to Repair.

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