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  Collision Feature

Internet Technology: What You Need to Know

Posted 9/1/2008
By Angie Kilbourne

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Are the latest Web-based tools a boon or bane for your business?

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Internet Technology: What You Need to KnowMy first full-time job was typesetting for a magazine publishing company. My department wrote the computer code to execute typesetting commands, which was typed onto scanner sheets with the stories to produce the content for more than 30 monthly magazines.

We worked in a "blindfolded" environment - these were days long before computer screens and desktop publishing. My supervisor was a maverick in pushing and manipulating the typesetting code to accomplish our production goals easier, quicker and more effectively.

"If it's something we do all the time, I'll spend a week trying to find the way we can all [our department] get it done in five minutes," she once said to me. That statement - and her attitude toward her work - has stuck with me over the years.

Fast-forward 25 years: Networked computer workstations and laptops and high-speed Internet access are necessities in nearly every industry, especially automotive repair. These are tools designed to make your jobs easier, but have you and your team realized the benefits of increased productivity and maximized profitability that is promised?

This month, AutoInc. looks at some Web-based tools designed especially for the automotive repair industry that can help you work more effectively and with more impact on your shop's bottom line.

Knowledge + Accuracy = Speed

While the National Automotive Service Task Force's Web site (www.nastf.org) is still the most complete listing for automaker service information Web sites, be sure to check out OEM1stop.com, too.

OEM1stop.comOf course, you can get all the service and repair information you need at the automaker service information Web sites. But wouldn't you love to have them organized for you? Just save one Web address in your browser's Favorites or Bookmarks: OEM1stop.com. The site simply provides links to 33 different automaker service information Web sites, sorted graphically by badges.

This collaborative effort from the manufacturers is designed to give mechanical and collision repairers a quick, direct route to important repair information. Currently, it's not as complete a list as the one found at nastf.org, but it's got a majority of the automakers covered. Users still need to register and follow the specific manufacturer's requirements for use, too.

DEGLaunched last December, the Database Enhanced Gateway (DEG) at www.degweb.org was developed to facilitate communication between the estimating system end-user and the information providers. The DEG's purpose is to aid the quality and accuracy of collision repair estimates and the information systems that supply estimate data through detailed feedback.

The centerpiece of the site is the streamlined inquiry submission process as well as the site's database that provides a public forum where all inquiries can be tracked and viewed by the entire industry. The inquiry submission process allows users to submit a query for clarification or correction if they believe a database value is incorrect or missing information. The DEG's administrator will work with the user and, as necessary, the database information provider.

DEG Inquiry Form

DEG Inquiry Form

Not every submission will mean a change to database values. Many times the problem can be a miscommunication or missed procedure. "I think the best 'feature' of the DEG is the optimism it gives to those who use it. To many collision repairers today, it often feels as if our professional experience and input is disregarded in many scenarios," says Aaron Schulenburg, DEG administrator. "The DEG is designed to facilitate communication and allow for the end-user to express, based on professional experience, areas that might need to be revisited to accurately reflect the repair process."

Even though the project is less than a year old, there have been hundreds of submissions and resulting resolutions. According to Schulenburg, the cumulative average response time for inquiry resolution is 6.4 days, which, he points out, is exceptional "given the complexity of many of the issues and the amount of research that is performed by the information providers." Visitors can even check the status of their inquiries and search the list for related problems, another feature designed to ensure the submission process is open and transparent to the industry.

Do you know what others are saying about you?

Consumer rating and service recommendation Web sites are nothing new to regular Internet surfers. Today, as consumers are looking to maximize every dollar they spend, it makes sense for shop owners to become familiar with any site making recommendations for automotive repair.

Internet Technology: What You Need to KnowThese recommendation sites fall into two categories: Customer comment and review sites, such as Angie's List, Superpages.com or Citysearch.com; and affiliation or "expert" recommendation sites, including those hosted by program groups, AAA, and even ASA's online Shop Locator.

The power of the written word is mighty, especially when it's a testimonial coming from John Q. Public or an organization that is perceived the "expert" in the field. Either way, these reviews and recommendations are popular with consumers looking for answers, and it pays to be aware of where your customers are coming from.

"I love the CarTalk Web site. CarTalk listeners, in general, are intellectuals. They know what they want. They're well informed. That site does well for me," says Howard Pitkow, AAM, owner, Wagonwerx, Wyndmoor, Pa., and ASA Mechanical Division Operations Committee member. "Twice a month I get people coming in here saying they read about us on the CarTalk site."

But questions remain on the validity of these testimonials. Not every shop owner has embraced them. "I certainly don't have the time nor the desire to track all the Web sites to see who is saying what about my shop. I know I will get negatives either from a disgruntled customer or, more likely, a disgruntled competitor," says Randy Bernklau, owner, B.C. Automotive Services, Fort Collins, Colo. "Where is all this headed? Are we going to have to staff a person just to track Web site reviews? I would be all for it if there were accountability [with these sites], but there isn't."

That last statement is one echoed by many shop owners, and though Web site owners strive to keep their content fair and accurate, each one will have its shortcomings and critics. However, this fact doesn't mean that you and your business can't get a fair shake on these Web sites. It does mean you need to be aware of the sites that strive for excellence in their everyday processes.

"Only members can leave a rating, and while companies can be members, they can't report on themselves," says Angie Hicks, founder and chief marketing officer, Angie's List. Hicks also points out that companies don't pay to be on Angie's List, and the organization does not accept any payment from the companies for work performed. She emphasizes that the information presented is strictly based on the feedback of area homeowners, who are Angie's List members.

The precautions taken by one site such as Angie's List are not required by law nor are they even industry standards. However, if your business has been dealt a less-than-favorable review or is not included in a list your customers have started talking about, it's time you contacted the site's administrators. It could likely be the opportunity your shop needs to speak directly with an unhappy customer or educate an organization about the professionalism they are missing by not including you in their ranks.

John Modesti, owner, Modesti's Neighborhood Car Care Center, Culver City, Calif., encourages his customers to submit reviews on the Web sites. These recommendation sites are a large part of his marketing plan to new customers.

"Six percent of my clients are buying new cars annually," says Modesti. "It adds up."

Though his customers still return to him for service, brand-new cars don't need much work beyond maintenance.

He actively recruits new customers through client reviews and referrals, and he says that he's not afraid of a bad review: "I haven't had a bad review, yet. But it gives you another opportunity to fix the problem if there is one."

Finding a needle in a haystack

Internet Technology: What You Need to KnowThere are a number of online methods to procure used or recycled parts, but before the purchase is actually made, a shop will ultimately have to call the recycler to ensure that the specs, quality and delivery of the part are acceptable and accurate, says Ken Weiss, co-founder, RealParts.com, which launches this month.

Use ASA's Ultimate Buyers Guide for Service Professionals (www.asaultimatebuyersguide.com) to search for recycled parts providers. There are a variety of sources from independents to franchise dealers and brokers. Some of the many companies that you can find include Car-Part.com, United Recyclers Group LLC and Greenleaf Auto Recyclers among others.

"You're back to the original way of doing business: making a phone call," says Weiss. "It's a loss of productive time with multiple phone calls ... being put on hold. When you write an estimate, you might not need to have the right part there. But when you are trying to repair the car in a lean environment, you need to know you have the right part."

While recyclers have provided their databases online for years, RealParts.com wants to modernize the process for repair shops.

1. A repair shop logs into RealParts.com and submits a request for a specific part.

2. RealParts.com sends the request to as many recyclers as the user has requested. Weiss says that it can be all recyclers in their system or it can be a shop's preferred network. The search is launched, and the shop can move on to other work.

3. After receiving the message, the recycler looks at its inventory database and confirms that the requested part, including quality and delivery specs, meets the requirements.

4. The recycler sends a personalized message back to the shop, informing the staff if the product is available.

Weiss emphasizes that the RealParts system provides shops with a non-database, live confirmation of part availability, part condition, price and delivery window. Any delivery and/or fuel surcharges are listed separately.

"There is no restriction on what types of parts can be searched [on the site]," explains Weiss. "Something as simple as a cigarette lighter can be sourced. Our system is not limited by database constraints. If you are looking for a mirror, you can add in a description such as 'heated.'" Parts also can be searched by part grade, as well as by "same year or newer" and from make to make.

RealParts.comRealParts.com also offers toll-free customer service for questions or problems. In addition, Weiss says RealParts.com stands by the services and products it is recommending and offers a buyer protection guarantee.

Finally, shops will be able to leave their own reviews of recyclers at the site. "Every repair shop I talked to, they've said, 'we want to be able to rate the recyclers,'" says Weiss. "We're actually giving shops the ability to rate the recyclers. It will be an overall ranking of two criteria: quality of part vs. what was quoted and delivery of part vs. what was quoted."

In this Web 2.0 world, we could go on with pages and pages of new and innovative Web sites that can help share documents, send files or even edit photos online - but we don't have the space. Luckily, someone started cataloging them, and you can view, search and sort them at go2web20.net. We've found it a great resource to view and visit some of the newest Web resources available.

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