An open letter to aftermarket 'C types'

Jan. 1, 2020
Simply forcing your paper catalog data into standards doesn't cut it.

Plain talk about a very real problem most aftermarket executives probably don't even realize they may have — and what others may be saying behind their backs.

Dear Aftermarket CEO, COO, CFO, CIO et al.:

I'm writing you today to make you aware of a growing problem within the aftermarket. It is a profoundly significant problem that is affecting the very core of your business today and will become even more significant in the months and years ahead. It is particularly insidious because you may not be aware you have the problem or, at the very least, you are not aware of its significance.

The problem I'm speaking of is with your data. Oh, no — did I just detect an audible groan? I'm serious, and it is imperative that you not tune out or turn the page like so many of your "C-type" brethren do when the issue of data is raised. Rather, I ask that you bite the bullet and take the six minutes needed to finish this article.

I'll start by addressing the suppliers. Do you have any idea what your customers are saying about you behind your backs? Well, I do. About a month ago I attended a presentation by the newly formed "data receivers" group. That group is made up of — you guessed it — the resellers and electronic catalog providers that receive your product attribute and application data. Without listing everyone involved, suffice it to say that all the major retailers, program groups and commercial eCat providers are represented. The group was created rather spontaneously last year to deal with the frustrations and very real problems these companies are experiencing with your data. It represents an attempt to create a single voice to speak to the supplier community about recipients' data needs.

The receiver group had met separately the day before the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA) meeting in an effort to provide the "data sending" community with some clear objectives and timelines related to industry data standards. And while they were very successful in doing just that, their presentation to the larger group came to some pretty chilling conclusions.

One of the group's members started the presentation by saying, "The vast majority of aftermarket companies have data that is in such disarray that I can't sell a significant percentage of the parts they have available in their offering."

As shocking as I thought that statement was, the reaction of the 50 or so technology and cataloging people in the room representing the supplier community was even more revealing. They simply sat in quiet agreement. I looked around for one of them to take exception, but most were nodding. The only conclusion I could draw was that these data providers are aware of the problems that exist with the data they are sending to their channel partners.

There is an anonymous quote that I use in this column frequently that really explains the core of this problem. It reads, "Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand." The group of supplier technology and cataloging people who sat in quiet agreement are the ones who understand what they do not manage. Now here's the big news: the ones who manage what they do not understand are you.

As the presentation continued, another data receiver made a critical point. He said, "Most big shots at supplier companies think that if their data is standards compliant everything is cool. But corrupt data is corrupt data, regardless of the format it's in."

Of course, he is right. The concept of "standards compliant corrupt data" is seemingly oxymoronic to most. The reaction is typically, "If it's in industry standardized formats and is audited as compliant, it must be good data, right?"

Wrong.

To clarify this point, I often use this example. The following statement is 100 percent compliant for grammar, spelling and punctuation with all the great standards-setting bodies, including Strunk & White, Merriam Webster, the AP Stylebook and Sister Mary Holywater (my sixth grade English teacher). "In 1992, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." While it is compliant with the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, it happens to be factually incorrect.

The same is often true for data. According to the data receivers group most (yes, I said most) vendors are providing standards compliant data that is factually inaccurate.

If you say a part you make fits a car it doesn't, it makes little difference what format you communicate it in. I'm sure most of you C-types reading this are thinking, "none of this applies to me, because we don't say our parts fit cars they don't." As one C-type said to me, "Bob, if my data was as bad as you are telling me, explain to me how I'm selling a half a billion dollars of parts a year." Well, let's set that bit of executive denial aside and deal with the facts.

No one purposefully sets out to provide misinformation to his or her channel partners. Rather, the problems the data receivers group is pointing to are primarily the result of the industry adapting to the change from paper catalogs to electronic catalogs. (At this point I will need to beg the indulgence of the people who "get it," and remind them that I am speaking to C-types and must make this simple and understandable.)

The nature of making paper catalogs makes "compression" critical. That is, to minimize the size of the paper catalog, a high value is placed on combining applications into groups. At the simplest level, grouping several years into a single item, like "1972 – '83 Chevrolet," enables displaying a single paper catalog entry for 12 model years. Similarly, compression of makes, models, engines and body types all worked to truncate paper catalogs. Often, "exceptions" would be noted to further accommodate brevity. Again, large ranges of vehicles would be combined with notations like "except station wagons" or "without power steering."

For all the benefits compression provides in the world of paper, it creates a world of pain in electronic cataloging. Computers don't react well to interpreting ranges. They are much more comfortable with specific numerical references that irrefutably tie one piece of data to another. Like a 12-digit number that specifically identifies a 1999 Ford Taurus station wagon with a 4.2-liter engine and power steering as opposed to a different 12-digit number that identifies an identically equipped car made in 2000, or another 12-digit number that identifies the same year with a different engine. It is this "exploded" data with a single line item for every variation of a vehicle with respect to its configuration and equipment that computers prefer.

According to the pundits among the data receiver group, it has been this necessary expansion of application data from its compressed paper catalog condition to the exploded eCat state that has created most of their problems.

What happens is that when a compressed application reference like "1992 – '97 Ford F-150 — 250 w/o AC, except Crew Cab" gets expanded, it becomes 48 unique applications (six years times two for the models, times two for the air conditioning, times two for the cab configuration). If one of the qualifying attributes is dropped in the translation on a single model year, it results in two errors in the data records. This is how so many errors "creep" into what is otherwise accurate and robust application data.

Multiply these small numbers of inaccuracies by thousands of parts and hundreds of applications, and the number of corrupt data records gets pretty significant pretty fast. And this is but one of many examples of how this method of managing data creates problems.

Because most of you manufacturers manage your data the same way you did when you were making only paper catalogs, chances are you are experiencing this very problem. That doesn't cut it today. As Warren Zevon used to say, "the stuff that used to work, don't work now."

That point was made clear by one of the data receivers who made this chilling observation: "After years of begging, screaming, cajoling, fining and whining, I have come to the conclusion that the data as it exists in most supplier host systems is so corrupt that there is little hope we will ever receive an accurate data feed from most of our vendors until they radically change their data management practices."

And that is probably the point of this rant. You need to go back and retool your processes to manage data for electronic use, not for paper. That means getting away from the flat file method that worked so well for paper and building a relational database. Simply forcing your paper catalog data into the standards format doesn't cut it. There are new processes required, and standards are not a substitute for effective data management processes.

Let me put it in a context that might be more relevant: manufacturing processes. You know that if your manufacturing processes are bad, you will make bad products. You can inspect the living daylights out of what you make in an effort to weed out that bad stuff, but if the processes are bad, you will consistently make some number of bad products. With this approach, you are simply institutionalizing the time and cost required to find and weed out the bad ones.

The same is true of data. The only reason you are skating by is because your catalog and data people are manually manipulating the data every time they create an export to send to your channel partners. That is the equivalent of the inefficient method of inspecting out bad products from the manufacturing process.

Now, just in case you C-types from resellers think you are getting off scotfree, let me tell you how you are contributing to this problem.

Too many of you are trying to fine your suppliers into compliance. I actually heard a reseller joke that he hoped his suppliers wouldn't get their data act together too quickly, as fines were becoming an important revenue stream. I recalled thinking at the time how close jokes are to the truth.

I'm not suggesting that fines are inappropriate; financial penalties are all we have since flogging became politically incorrect. I'm suggesting that your distance from this situation means you aren't doing enough to help your suppliers understand the magnitude of their problem and why this data is critical to your operation. I might also add that they are making more work for your people and, in doing so, costing you money. The problem is your catalog managers and IT types are telling it to their catalog managers and IT types and the message isn't getting upstairs. It is only when the big shots at the resellers speak to the big shots at suppliers that action results. So there is a little hint about some action you can take.

Technology represents an incredible potential for improving efficiencies, lowering costs and selling more products for manufacturers and resellers alike. But technology applications, like automobiles, need good clean fuel to operate. Data is that fuel. The only way we can get that fuel is for aftermarket C-types to get a better understanding of data management processes and allocate the resources required to do it right. In other words, you need to understand those processes you do not manage so that the people who do manage them can do them better and make everyone in the supply chain more money.

Now, pick up that phone and schedule a meeting with your front line data and catalog people. It's time to get your data right.

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