Virtual Reality: Internet Changing Shop OperationsPosted 9/18/2006
Small businesses that harness the Internet, make it work for them, will prosper
That statement certainly applies to the automotive service industry because it is ever changing - especially in the realm of technology. To repair today's complex, computer-driven vehicles, repair facilities must be equipped with the latest innovations. A key tool is the Internet. And it's ever-evolving.
The Internet is no longer in its infancy. We have seen its impact on both a personal and business level. In a recent report on Internet usage, the Pew Internet and American Life Project revealed that 128 million American adults use the Internet regularly, with 70 million Americans logging onto the Internet on a typical day. The report also found that 82 million Americans have purchased products online.
The Internet has enriched opportunities for small business success, particularly in independent repair facilities. In a survey conducted by ACNielsen, a marketing information company, 51 percent of small businesses cited the Internet as helping them become more profitable - while 49 percent of respondents stated the Internet helps their business reduce overall cost. So why wouldn't you integrate the capabilities of the Internet into your shop?
With changing business practices and the scarcity of time that affects us all, the Internet is continually delivering rich content and business solutions that can successfully be used by owners and managers of automotive repair shops. And some of the major players in the online community know this. Big names like Amazon.com and eBay have entered the automotive aftermarket realm. As Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computer, once said, "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower." So is your shop a leader or a follower? The answer lies within the technology you're willing to adopt. Automotive aftermarket companies are making it easy for you to adopt Internet technology in your shop. And the adoption of this technology is making shop operations more efficient, effective and profitable. Are you taking advantage?
Shop Connectivity and Productivity
New York Times reporter David Gelernter said technology years are like dog years, only shorter. Internet technology simply proves this statement. It's been a little more than 10 years that the Internet has been relevant in our homes and businesses. And with high-speed access becoming more accessible, the relevancy is only multiplying.
According to AutoInc.'s latest "How's Your Business?" survey, 89 percent of mechanical facilities and 97 percent of collision facilities have Internet access in the shops. The increased use of high-speed connections in the shop is remarkable. For mechanical repair facilities, high-speed Internet access is utilized by 72 percent of shops, while 81 percent of collision repair facilities use a high-speed connection.
Increasing productivity and efficiency is paramount to success in our industry, and a high-speed connection is a must to meet those expectations. With the advent of wi-fi (wireless fidelity) technology, connecting your shop has never been easier and more cost-effective. With wi-fi compatible computers, you can bring the Internet to your bays without the need for cumbersome wires.
Delphi, a manufacturer of vehicle parts and mobile electronics, has created the DS800 Smart Service System. The system provides a wireless network for technicians and service personnel to remotely perform vehicle write-up functions, access diagnostic information, technical data and training. The system is lightweight and allows the technicians to carry it under the hood, under the dash or anywhere around the vehicle. The platform helps increase productivity by eliminating inefficiencies in locating technical information, training materials and system integration. The portable computer tablet is also wirelessly connected to the Internet and provides access to information, programs and applications.
"With the technology being provided by the OEMs, if you're not keeping up with it, you're done. That's the main reason I bought the system," said John Jobst, owner of Schaumburg Automedics, an ASA-member shop in Schaumburg, Ill. His shop currently uses the DS800. "It's the leading edge of technology. I feel that if you don't have that, you're going to be lost."
The DS800 provides a "before and after" diagnostics report for technicians to show customers. "It's a tangible thing for the customer to see your reports," said Jobst.
The system also integrates with many shop management systems, making re-entering customer information a thing of the past, ultimately saving on shop efficiency. In addition, the DS800 uses a wireless OBD-II connector, allowing the technician to plug the device into the OBD-II component, and walk around the vehicle with the tablet while still communicating to the customer as the system diagnoses any problems. The system even offers Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP), allowing the technician to connect a microphone to the system and speak with one of Delphi's master technicians directly from the tablet. This master technician can take control of the DS800, offering real-time technical support.
Electronic Parts Ordering
In 1984, the first e-cats began surfacing in the automotive aftermarket. These primitive electronic parts catalogs, once known as "green screens," provided little information outside of part names and numbers. They did, however, allow a shop to connect directly to parts distributors through a computer terminal. Today, there is an increasing dependence on the integration of images in e-catalogs. And, of course, the biggest change in the procurement of parts is the real-time, e-commerce capabilities of the Internet.
At the Aftermarket eForum held in Chicago this past July, Dennis Welvaert, president of the North American Aftermarket Division of Dayco Products, cited a study that said 86 percent of parts are sold via e-cats. In fact, 51 percent of ASA members use the Internet to purchase parts for their shop. And that number is poised to rise significantly in the next year.
Finding the right part on the Internet is becoming increasingly easier. Many of the major parts distributors are adopting new standards to make shopping for a part online simpler. These standards include consistent part names and SKU numbers.
As a younger generation of technicians, parts and counter people - and shop owners - begin to really influence the industry, it's only a matter of time before the Internet is used even more for parts ordering. Today's e-cats provide more comprehensive, timely and accurate information for shops attempting to order late model parts. Because of the higher focus on images and specifications of each part, there is a diminished rate of error when ordering parts online.
Earlier this year, Amazon.com, the same company that revolutionized the way books were sold 10 years ago, began selling automotive parts and tools. The list of items that the company sells is extensive, carrying everything from paint guns and toolboxes to vehicle lifts and automotive lighting. Through major industry partners, Amazon.com sells name brand tools, equipment and parts through its new automotive portal.
Searching for the right part on Amazon.com is a little cumbersome at this time. But the site has vastly improved since its initial launch and will become a major player in the Internet parts and equipment realm.
Online Training and Education
For years, universities all over the world have supplemented their traditional instruction with online courses. Some universities even offer degrees based entirely on online classes. Today's technology has enabled these online courses to integrate audio, video, animation and total interactivity into the curriculum.
With the success of online courses in colleges worldwide, the automotive service industry is quickly adopting similar practices for technical and management courses. Online training is fast and responsive to today's shop needs. The concept of e-learning allows leading automotive instructors to reach an audience they couldn't in the past. And one of the best advantages of online courses is that when changes in a technical procedure occur, it's immediately incorporated into the course. These real-time changes often make online technical training preferable to its traditional counterpart.
Melior Inc. (www.melioronline.com) offers a growing number of Web-based technical training courses. The courses incorporate Flash technology, allowing complete interactivity of applications. Courses can be accessed on both a 56k modem and high-speed connection, providing one major advantage of the company's instruction. Melior takes online technical training one step further by assigning a personal tutor to each student. The tutor monitors the progress of the student and gives an option to be contacted by e-mail or phone.
Many of the original equipment manufacturers are getting into the online technical training field as well. Toyota University began a blended strategy of traditional and online curricula in 2002. Today, the university boasts more than 250,000 learning hours obtained by their students. John Saia, manager of the Technical and Body Training Development group at the University of Toyota, said, "Online technical training should be low pressure and high value. Techs genuinely embrace online learning."
When searching for online technical training for your technicians, Saia recommends finding a program that measures the progress of learning. "What gets measured, gets done," he said. In other words, make sure the program routinely tests the knowledge of the technician as he or she goes through the program.
There are some significant challenges to online training. One of the major challenges you need to consider is technician access and access points. Does everyone in your shop have access to the training, and are there enough access points for your technicians in your shop? Another challenge is cultural change. Going from a traditional technical training environment to an online format takes some getting use to. Make sure you're selecting the right technicians for online training. Bottom line, you want your techs to receive the same type of training they would in a traditional setting. If a technician is reluctant or uneasy about participating in online technical training, then the traditional alternative is the best. Just know that the technology is there to supply ample training to your shop's personnel and is accessible anywhere at anytime.
Management training is also gaining acceptance in an online environment. The Automotive Management Institute (AMI) will begin offering online management training the first of next year. Students will have the opportunity to earn credits toward the Accredited Automotive Manager (AAM) designation by participating in online management seminars.
To say the Internet holds a vast amount of pertinent industry information is an understatement. Type "automotive information" into the Google search engine, and it will yield more than 1.1 million results. And new sites are being added every day. Even if you haven't used the Internet to order parts or participate in online technical training, chances are you have logged on to the Web for the latest automotive news and information.
This year, the International Automotive Technician Network (iATN) celebrated its 10-year anniversary. Starting in 1995, the network now operates more than 20 discussion forums and offers an abundance of technical resources. Today, iATN (www.iatn.net) has members from 135 countries and is the world's largest online community of automotive technicians. The site has become an industry icon for discussion and technical help.
"Members sharing their depth of experience has been the basis of iATN from the beginning. The content is truly member-driven and the success iATN enjoys today is a direct reflection of its members' participation and willingness to share their knowledge," said Brent Black, founder of iATN.
In addition to the countless number of automotive news, discussion and blog sites available, the Internet has bridged the communication gap between the automotive repair facilities and the OEMs. All original equipment manufacturers have created Web sites that house the technical information needed to repair today's complex vehicles. Because of these Web sites, independent repairers now have the information to perform diagnosis and repairs they did not have a few years ago.
Some of the OEMs have integrated new features into their service information Web sites that benefit the automotive service industry. Many offer online technical training through their sites. Others, such as Honda, General Motors and Toyota, give repairers the ability to order parts from the sites, ultimately eliminating keystrokes and research time, thus increasing productivity immensely.
Web Development, Marketing and Electronic Customer Relationship Management
The Harvard Business Review said it is six to seven times more expensive to gain a new customer than to retain an existing customer. Some companies are looking to help repair facilities leverage the Internet to help retain existing customers, as well as find new ones.
If you feel like you're not using the Internet to its full capacity in marketing your shop, know that some of the major industry players feel the same way. "Advertisers are just now learning how to use the Internet properly," said Dan Jondron, president of Advanced Digital Strategies (ADS). "Just because you have a great Web site doesn't mean you've even started marketing it."
Some repair facilities, as well as larger distributors and manufacturers, are using major search engines' "pay-per-click" concept. Basically, shops pay the search engine every time someone clicks from the search engine to their Web site. Repair facilities can set a certain amount they are willing to spend per day, per click. This marketing effort brings the shop to the top of search engine results, or is actually featured among the search engines' "sponsored links."
Denise Chudy, head of automotive for Google, explains that the search engine is using geo-targeted ads. This allows a Web user to search for your shop by city or by a defined radius. This way, your Internet marketing dollars are sourced to local searches, not national.
At the Aftermarket eForum, John Zinn, vice president of TEN Magazines, said, "Web advertising is a difficult thing for companies to learn how to leverage. If you go down the wrong road initially, it'll cost more in the long run."
Make sure you do your research before jumping into Web advertising for your shop. This is still a relatively new realm for the repair industry and should be approached with caution.
More and more motorists are turning to the Internet to find a shop in their area. Several companies such as RLO Management Solutions (www.rlomanagementsolutions.com) and See Progress Inc. (www.seeprogress.com) are now catering Web site solutions specifically to the automotive repair industry. Today's Web developers understand the need for a well-designed site for members of the automotive repair community.
See Progress has revolutionized the collision repair facility Web site with its AutoWatch program. Not only can consumers schedule an appointment and complete customer satisfaction surveys from AutoWatch's client Web sites, they can also see photos of their vehicle being repaired. Earlier this year, See Progress announced more than 12,000 vehicles were posted on the AutoWatch system.
"Every month we've seen very steady growth as we add new users to our program, and in the past year, over 150,000 vehicles were posted on AutoWatch," said Dave Henderson, president of See Progress.
And according to Gordon Henderson, See Progress' vice president of information technology, the average AutoWatch user checks on his or her vehicle 13 times. "With improvements and innovations in our photo acquisition and sorting process, we're ready for the anticipated growth in demand for our service," he said.
Alldata recently entered the Web development ring in the industry. Its ProCarCareZone provides Internet services to mechanical shops that are ready to create a robust Web site for their businesses. The product offers a Web site, online appointment scheduling capabilities, monthly electronic shop newsletter and personalized vehicle pages for the shop's customers. The features can also be easily integrated into an existing shop Web site as well.
Don't forget to retain your current customer base through various e-marketing channels. OnStation, (www.onstation.com), an ASA member benefit provider, helps automotive repair facilities with customer retention solutions that include electronic service reminders, CSI surveys and e-mail thank you notes. The company's product can be operated from any Web browser, totally eliminating the need for software to be installed on the shop's computer system.
"Without change, there is no innovation, creativity or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable." Pollard's statement has a profound impact on our industry. The Internet is one of those innovations that completely change the way we operate. Automotive service professionals need to see the Internet as an opportunity to efficiently and more productively run their shops today; not as a threat to the traditional way they ran it a few years ago.
I believe we now have a better understanding of what the Internet holds - and what it will hold in the future - more than any other time in our recent history. We have seen its impact, we have felt its economic effects and we understand its full capabilities.
If you haven't used the Internet for your shop, you need to now. Waiting is no longer an option. To stay competitive, you have to find quick, real-time alternatives to the way you used to do business. The Internet is the medium to deliver such alternatives. Jump aboard now before the train is too far down the track.
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