Do we consistently overlook our best partner?

Jan. 1, 2020
The technician's needs and opinions may often be ignored in too much of what we do.

Sins of omission are sometimes the worst.

     Make no mistake: most of us who  earn our livings in the automotive aftermarket are dependent on independent repair technicians. They are our connection point with the consumer. They are our sales agents. Our delivery system. They are the “revenue wellhead” of the aftermarket.

Yet the aftermarket has developed a disturbing behavior pattern. We keep slighting the technician in our decision-making processes. It is a sin of omission that will be our undoing if we don’t soon change our behavior. 

We don’t always act like techs are not important. We stand up in front of one another at our big, impressive symposiums and pay tribute to technicians. We ask important questions like “Who will fix the cars?” and “Will we have access to the data we need for repairs?” We debate and ponder such issues in highly visible venues. But when our activity involves making policy or business decisions, it seems that our hearts aren’t in the same place our mouths are.

During focus groups with independent repair shops, technicians talk about issues they confront in operating their businesses, and we gain insight on how technicians view the marketplace in which we all work.

Their “take” on the products they buy, the distributors who supply them, the technology available to order parts and the technical information we provide can be eye opening to say the least. 

Listening to them helped me develop an understanding of the supply chain from their perspective. Looking at our market from their vantage point, it is easy to see the dissonance between our words and our behavior. Here are a few examples:

1. Many of us, manufacturers and resellers alike, develop marketing programs designed for technicians. Some create an affiliation with a parts supplier, while some identify the shop with some service specialty they might have. The truth is that most of these programs are more about capturing more of the techs’ purchase volume than about helping them sell more. Technicians see through this. In one focus group, I asked who in the group was participating in such affiliation programs with parts suppliers and noticed one tech whose shirt was emblazoned with the logo of one program, yet he failed to mention he was a member. After asking him about it he replied, “Oh, yeah, I’m a member, but I only joined so I would be eligible to be paid for labor claims.” I asked him if he thought that was a bit cynical and he said, “It’s not like they are looking to help me, they just want me to buy more from them. It’s how the game is played.” Who’s fooling whom?

2. Software providers, more than likely with an assist from resellers, create installer software that is directly tied to one source of supply. A presentation from one software developer demonstrated a parts ordering solution where the tech could see the price and quantity on hand at the local store. The salesman doing the demo said, “Of course, even if they are out of the part, our customers all insist that we show the ‘on-hand’ quantity as one.” Why? The explanation came back that if the quantity were zero, the tech might call someone else and the reseller wanted to have a shot at running down the part and not losing the sale. I asked if that didn’t undermine the very concept behind the software, specifically allowing the tech to be confident that his part is in stock and that he won’t have to wait long when he orders it. His answer was, “I just do what my customer wants.”

3. The general poor quality of the application and product data we push out to the market creates problems for techs, e.g., it often results in a shop receiving three sets of brake pads for a job because the jobber can’t be sure which ones are right. Everybody loves to blame the third party e-cat providers for the problem, but the fact is we are all culpable. Manufacturers who are slow to adopt data standards, e-cats that cling to proprietary processes and resellers who hold on to outmoded enterprise systems all propagate the problem. 

4. Over-consolidation motivated by the supply chain’s desire to reduce inventory and the expense of carrying it has also created problems for technicians. Increasingly frustrated by sloppy fits, cables that were too long, boxes full of adapters and instruction sheets explaining how to modify parts to make them work, technicians are turning to OE dealerships. We never bothered to consult with technicians about what they thought of the practice or let them participate in the savings that result. As one technician said, “Toyota has one part that fits one year and model; the aftermarket has one part that fits 15 different applications — that just can’t be right.”

More and more often our revenue wellhead is discovering that aftermarket vendors are out of step with OEs on price. Many aftermarket suppliers have focused much of their limited resources on meeting the “street price” on their so-called value lines. Naturally, this leads to less focus on premium line pricing. The result is prices that are sometimes equal to or higher than OE for equivalent parts. Techs have discovered that the OE dealer regularly has a similar price point and sometimes a better price when compared to aftermarket premium. This creates a real quandary for techs. As one put it, “I’ve had a lot of people complain because I used aftermarket parts, but I’ve never had anybody whine because I used OE parts.”

5. One of the more passionate responses from technicians relates to their suppliers “talking down” to them. These situations are often caused by product problems or data errors coming down the pipe, resulting in a bad or wrong product being installed. In our “damage control” efforts to minimize warranty exposure, prevent tarnishing a brand or avoid eating of crow, we are less than candid. Technicians resent the arrogance of both manufacturers’ and resellers’ representatives who suggest that a problem is explained away by “technician error.” If techs discover that they were unjustly blamed for the problem or that their culpability was exaggerated, they become incensed. They understand that mistakes can happen, but like any of us, they resent being a scapegoat for the industry.

When it comes to our relationship with techs, too many of us are not asking, not listening and generally thinking we “know better.” That is the working definition of taking someone for granted. Too often I hear executives “further up” the supply chain talk about techs in disparaging terms, saying “these guys aren’t rocket scientists” or “they don’t exactly have MBAs” when referencing our front line partners. One of my business mentors warned me that I wouldn’t get very far thinking my customers are idiots. 

Yet, through all of this borderline exploitive behavior, technicians have consistently displayed a fierce loyalty for traditional aftermarket sources. They profess a strong preference to buy from traditional suppliers. But review the preceding list of transgressions and ask yourself, “How long will that last?” The situation is analogous to political parties that have taken certain constituencies for granted only to see them jump ship for the other party. I fear we are sending our technicians running to the arms of the new car dealerships. 

Perhaps we need a prior-to-introduction litmus test that everyone in the aftermarket can use to check their behavior, or products, or programs that are directed toward techs. Maybe it’s as simple as asking, “If I worked at a shop, is this how I would want it?” when finalizing any such plans. If we actually used the answer to that question as a guideline, we might not create so many self-serving programs.

Before leaving this subject of doing right by technicians, I think there is another way the industry may be underestimating the role they can play. We, as an industry, have to ask ourselves, “Is the industry’s ‘Be Car Care Aware’ initiative enough?”

Be Car Care Aware is a marvelous concept, designed to help the aftermarket capture some of the $60 billion in unperformed maintenance that is not only languishing out there, but currently growing. Getting more of that service performed is critical to all of us. 

The technician has the potential to be our most influential ally in addressing this issue. No one has more influence over the car owner than their chosen repair technician, but most of the industry effort has been directed toward the car owner. Expecting vehicle owners to take the initiative in performing preventive maintenance seems to ignore that point.

Let me explain with a personal story. 

I turned 50 about a year and a half ago. The medical community, through its outreach communication and education, had made me aware of the need to have a rather unpleasant medical procedure.

Although I knew it was the right thing to do, I put it off — that is, until I was confronted by my primary care physician. He directed his comments to me personally and related his own experience with other patients who have procrastinated. He sufficiently motivated me, and I scheduled the procedure. 

I think the analogy is clear. Almost without regard to the medical community’s efforts to educate me on the “right thing to do,” I avoided action until someone I trust personally confronted me. It wasn’t until I got the nudge from my unbiased, trusted advisor that I opted for something unpleasant, inconvenient and expensive. Is a timing belt replacement so different?

In a perfect world we need to do both. But this isn’t a perfect world. The fact is that we have a limited budget. We can either try to influence the techs in the 250,000 independent repair shops to more aggressively sell preventive maintenance or we can try to convince 200 million vehicle owners to voluntarily act on something they might consider unpleasant, inconvenient and expensive.

I am aware that the industry has formed a committee to better involve independent repair shops in the Be Car Care Aware campaign. We must partner more aggressively with our service dealers to help them use their status as expert advisors with their customers. This is the most efficient and effective way to get more maintenance performed. 

But this approach goes beyond effectiveness and efficiency. It represents an opportunity for our industry to formally and officially partner with independent shops for the express purpose of making everyone’s business better. More importantly, it presents an opportunity to do something for the technician community, not to them. 

The OEMs realize they don’t have enough bays to fix all the cars, but they understand they can sell a lot more parts to the independent repair channel than they have in the past. They are making inroads with our techs while many of us continue to take them down a dead-end.

The aftermarket is a supply chain that has a time-honored linkage between manufacturing, distribution and installation. No one in the chain is more important than the other. For it to work effectively, there must be balance. If we continue to exploit techs, either purposefully or unintentionally, we will continue to erode our relationship with them and with it our link to getting our parts installed on the consumer’s vehicle.

Bob Moore is president of Bob Moore & Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in the automotive aftermarket. Moore can be reached at [email protected].