Technology means profits when your services hit the road

Driving Up the Profits
Improving efficiency and customer loyalty

Interactive manuals on CD-ROM

Expanded customer base and increased revenues from faster service

A spark plug drenched in oil for no obvious reason? Worn-down tires on a car that was driven only 17,000 miles? Boomer Kennedy, owner of Chicago Auto Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., used to spend up to 10% of her time trying to diagnose mysterious car ailments, only to end up sending her unhappy customers back to their original dealerships to find the underlying causes. Not only was Kennedy mystified by the unexplainable problems, but she estimates that she was losing about $17,000 a year in revenues because of time lost in useless exploration.

Now when a customer comes into the shop, Kennedy scoots in front of her pentium processor and launches ALLDATA. She enters the customer's car make, model, engine size, and year -- and all kinds of information about the car becomes accessible. She can click on any of several categories to find out everything from whether the car was manufactured with a defective axle to how much time she should quote for installing new brake pads.

In 1994 when Kennedy wanted to overhaul her shop, she spent $3,500 on a Packard Bell pentium processor and another $4,500 on an interactive CD-ROM program from ALLDATA (Elk Grove, Calif., 800-829-8727). She pays $142 a month for the ALLDATA service, which includes CDs that are updated every 90 days. The CDs contain detailed labor manuals, technical-service bulletins, and labor-estimate guides, for all imported cars.

The spark plug that was drenched in oil? "I thought for sure we were going to have to take apart the top half of the engine," says Kennedy. She went to ALLDATA and clicked on "technical service bulletins" -- factory information that is available to dealers but not usually shared with independent mechanics and customers. She discovered that the manufacturer, Toyota, had issued a warning that the car might have defective sealant compound around the spark plug. The problem was easily fixed -- in far less time than would have been wasted had Kennedy taken apart the engine.

"We don't waste time the way we used to," says Kennedy. "In the past only one of two hours of work would have been billable. The other would have been diagnostic. Now we are fixing problems for both of those hours."

The worn-down tires on the car with barely 17,000 miles on it? The car had been brought in for an oil change, but out of curiosity Kennedy checked the technical-service bulletin -- and discovered that Honda had put defective tires on the car. The bulletin also invited customers to bring the model back to the dealership for new tires, free. "The customer loved me for that," says Kennedy. "God knows how many people he told that story to."

Kennedy's garage also relies heavily on ALLDATA's labor-estimate guides. Mechanics used to spend much more time consulting printed guides put out by new-car manufacturers to quote accurate estimates of how long any repair job should take. They find that ALLDATA's estimates are more accurate than the printed estimates were, too.

Kennedy says the computer program helps keep her mechanics alert. ALLDATA has a built-in driveability work sheet that prompts mechanics to ask customers important questions about their cars and their driving habits. "Mechanics know they're supposed to ask certain questions," says Kennedy, "but the driveability sheets ensure that we are always on our toes."

Kennedy wouldn't trade her CDs for a new set of lug wrenches. She anticipates that ALLDATA will help boost her 1994 revenues of $425,000 to more than a half million in 1995. And she maintains that by satisfying more customers in a shorter time, she adds to her bottom line in ways she may not be able to calculate. "We can get the 20% of business that used to escape -- and who knows how much business that 20% will help to create in the future?" she asks.

Are You Being Served?
Tracking customers' service-repair history

A customized database that includes past repairs and who made the call

Quicker response to service requests

Garland Heating and Air Conditioning Co., a $3-million company specializing in the installation and repair of heat, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems (HVAC), in Garland, Tex., held off automating its service-repair department for as long as it could. Now service coordinator Rick Kelley wonders why he waited so long.

Less than two years ago, a customer calling for repair service would have to wait while Kelley sorted through filing cabinets searching for a record of the customer's repair history. Once he found the record, he would skim it to find which service repairperson had last visited the site. Finally, he would scan a handwritten schedule to see when that person was available to make the service call. "The paperwork we had to search through was unbelievable, and the search was very time-consuming," recalls Kelley. "We just couldn't react that fast. Customers would grow impatient with us."

Now when he gets a call from a company complaining that its ventilation system is on the fritz again, Kelley enters the company's name into Contrac2, a customized database from Compusource that he bought for $5,000 (Lapalma, Calif., 714-522-8300; prices vary). Up pops the company's service-repair history: a fan motor was purchased less than 90 days before, repairman 17 had installed it, and it was still covered by the manufacturer's warranty. Within minutes, Kelley informs his customer that the part is covered by warranty and that service repairman 17 will be there the following afternoon. "We've improved our efficiency by 90%," says Kelley.

Having information at his fingertips also comes in handy during emergencies. When a small supermarket calls because a meat freezer has broken down with $100,000 worth of meat in danger of spoiling, Kelley consults the computer, sees what work was done recently and who serviced the market last, and then pages that service technician. To let the technician know that the page is an emergency, the beeper flashes 911.

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Bottles Up
Preventing cancellation of service

Mapping software to route deliveries

Reduced customer-cancellation rate

Crystal-clear spring water that you pour from a cooler in your own kitchen sounds like a great idea. In fact, many people who hear about it turn around and call a local spring-water distributor to order a cooler and bottled-water service. But by the time the cooler arrives the following week, they've cooled on the idea and turn down the delivery.

That scenario used to be all too familiar to Sparkling Spring Water Co., a multi-million-dollar company in Highland Park, Ill., that installs coolers and provides bottled-water service in northern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, and southern Wisconsin. The company would lose not only the customer but the time spent in delivering the cooler.

Too bad Sparkling Spring couldn't offer next-day delivery service. But it built its delivery routes manually, and creating routes each day for the entire territory would have taken too much time. So the company divided the territory into zones. For example, on Mondays it might deliver to zones 1 and 2, on Tuesdays to zones 3 and 4, and so on. If a customer in zone 10 called on Monday, he or she might have to wait a week or more before a cooler could be delivered. "We simply couldn't accommodate many customers," says Joe Burgess, fleet manager.

But now next-day deliveries are the rule for Sparkling Spring. The company turned to a customized version of MapInfo (Troy, N.Y., 518-285-6000) to route its cooler deliveries. When customers call for the service, they are asked when they would like to receive the cooler. That information is entered into a database and stored on the company's network. A supervisor can then transfer the information from the database program to MapInfo at any time.

When supervisors want the software to build the routes for the following day, they make one final data transfer -- and enter the number of hours the drivers should work. A supervisor may enter eight hours, but the computer may then draw five routes. If only four drivers are scheduled for the next day, the supervisor must reenter a longer workday so that the computer will draw only four routes.

Within one month of installing MapInfo, the company reported a drop in its cancellation rate from 32.2% to 26.9%; in the following months, the cancellation rate dropped to an estimated 20%.

Although MapInfo provided the original software, Sparkling Spring used Route Info Corp., a MapInfo reseller in Chicago, to customize it. The total cost for the system was $100,000. The software paid for itself in 14 months, reports Sparkling Spring -- and no one at the company has had any second thoughts.