Aftermarket technology: what's next?

THOSE OF US who think a good year is a double-digit sales increase may be impressed with the following numbers from Bill Gates:

  • When Microsoft began 30 years ago, the worldwide inventory of computers was in the thousands. Today there are more than a billion.

  • The memory capacity of computers is one million times greater than in 1975.

  • The ability of computers to process data also has increased by a factor of one million.

  • The disk storage and bandwidth of the network communications have gone up even faster.

And to think the average parts department would be happy if inventory turns would edge up a fraction of a point.

We mention this to illustrate how much computer power companies in our industry can access. Combine that with an equally impressive improvement in affordability, and it's no wonder that companies in the commercial truck and trailer business have spent a lot of time and money over the years putting technology to work.

But most commercial applications of this computing horsepower — our industry included — have been narrowly focused. Generally speaking, we have acquired technology to meet the internal needs of our company. Applications that target the needs of the company's customers have been far less common.

Sure, parts departments are able to use technology to better serve customers. Fill rates undoubtedly are much higher today than they were when we relied on near-empty bins to tell us that it was time to reorder. Ordering is easier, pricing more consistent. Stuff generally is there when the customer needs it, and it is easier than ever for the customer to buy it. Isn't that meeting customer needs?

Yes, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we probably would say that these customer benefits are actually the by-product of meeting our own needs. They are bonuses we receive when our computers answer those vital “I” questions that are essential to running a parts business:

How many of this item do I have?

How much money do I have tied up in inventory?

How fast do I sell this item?

How much do I charge for this item?

How much profit do I make on this item?

All of these are good questions. And traditional computer systems — which we have been using for decades as electronic ledgers and adding machines on steroids — enable us to answer them easily.

But as technology advances, it also gives us the ability to answer “you” questions:

What do you need?

When do you need it?

When is it convenient for you to order it?

What would make it easier for you to use it?

Scattered throughout our annual Aftermarket Parts and Accessories Issue this year are examples of companies that are using technology to answer those “you” questions. For example:

  • What happens when a customer calls you to place an order, but your guys can't answer the phone in time? With today's phone systems and integrated customer databases, it is now possible to find out who tried to call and then call the customer back. This gives you another opportunity to make the sale. More importantly, it lets you prove to him that you really do value his business.

  • What if your customers are busy taking care of their customers? Web sites with e-commerce capabilities are making it easier than ever for customers to order at their convenience — even if your physical location is closed. Research is indicating that customers are using the electronic “shopping carts” of these sites all day long. As they realize they need items, they drop them into the cart throughout the day and then actually place the order for all of these items when their day is over and the phones aren't ringing.

  • What if you made it easier for your customer to receive his order? Some companies are no longer content to cross reference vendor and customer part numbers. With one-time input from the customer, parts vendors can add customer bin location to the shipping ticket. When the customer's order arrives, the guys receiving the shipment can tell exactly where it needs to go.

There is little doubt that technology will continue to affect our companies in general and our parts departments in particular. Devices will get smaller, faster, and easier to use — and they will continue to help us lower our costs and improve our efficiencies. But the real opportunities may be in developing ways to help our customers.

Who comes first at your company?

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