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Guest Editorial: Why Product Quality Counts

While many may think that technical education is all about diagnostics and repair, there are other key elements to be considered. Key among these is product selection, according to a recent report from AASA .

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By Jack Cameron
vice president of the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA)

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Why Product Quality Counts
The need for maintenance and replacement parts began when the first automobile rolled off an assembly line in Detroit, and that demand has created one of the largest industries in the world. As the distribution channel formed and evolved over the years, automotive parts manufacturers have depended on channel partners to provide local availability and delivery of their products to repair facilities across the nation and around the world.  This industry and the network that serves it are called the automotive aftermarket.

As the technicians of tomorrow, you face technological challenges like never before. Computers control more and more of a vehicle’s function, requiring technicians to be part programmer and part mechanical genius.  raining and education has never been more important – the days of learning by ‘trial and error’ or ‘on the job’ are a thing of the past. 

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While many may think that technical education is all about diagnostics and repair, there are other key elements to be considered.  Key among these is product selection.

Before we discuss this important topic, you should know that I am not a certified technician. In fact, if you looked up shade tree mechanic in the dictionary, you just might find my picture. Not only did I learn by watching and helping my father work on the family car, trial and error became my middle name.

I could not begin to work under the hood on some of today’s vehicles other than to perform a routine oil change and, in some cases, even those are not so routine.  

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However, I have spent all my life around cars and the last 25 years I have enjoyed a career with a variety of aftermarket parts manufacturers.

I have built, rebuilt and restored many cars, trucks and motorcycles as a hobby.  Two years ago I joined the staff of the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA), the only trade association in North American exclusively serving the automotive parts manufacturer. 

My point is – I know a thing or two about parts and have dedicated my career to them.

AASA recently conducted focus group research among repair professionals on product selection.  The results of this research are contained in a new AASA publication, “Special Report: Focus Group Findings on Buying Influences of Repair Professionals.”  This report is available for download at our Web site, www.aftermarketsuppliers.org, in the publications section.  

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You may be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with student technicians?” Fair question – here’s the answer: whether your goal is to work in a shop, manage a facility or own your own business, the parts you will install play a vital roll. 

Choosing the right quality part can be as important as the right application.  Your reputation and integrity as a technician or repair shop owner can outweigh the training you have acquired and the tools that you use. Your hard-earned good name as a repair professional can go down the drain in one moment just by installing a low quality part.

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The repair professionals who participated in our focus group research had to meet stringent criteria which included at least five years of experience, own or work at a shop with at least three service bays, and service all makes / models of vehicles, just to name a few. 

Sixty individuals attended the six sessions held in three geographic regions – East, Midwest and West Coast.  Of the participants, 50% were owners of their businesses with more than 20 years of experience.  In short, they were the experts in their field.

Without exception, participants placed quality far above price when selecting replacement parts.  Fit, form and function of a component scored 100 percent among participants as the No. 1 deciding factor.

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And, while OE replacement parts provide “confidence” and may command a higher price, the clear majority of participants depend on high quality aftermarket parts.

So what about generic parts and house brands?  After all, don’t many of us buy the house brand of shampoo, peanut butter or aspirin? 

Well, there is a fundamental difference in generic consumer goods versus auto parts. With consumer goods there is generally a list of ingredients on the package and a message comparing it to a brand name product. This is not so with automotive parts.  

You can not tell the quality of an automotive part by visual inspection. While a part may look exactly the same, it’s what is inside that counts and that may include the quality of steel or other internal components.

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How did the participants in the focus groups feel about generic and house brand parts?  Nearly all participants said they do not and will not use off-brand or generic parts. 

One respondent said, “Why would you put your reputation on the line?,” while another said it would be “suicide to use these parts.”  Most of the technicians in the groups could relay some experience with these parts “when no other part was available” or “my salesman convinced me to try it.”  However, these stories were always followed with a bad experience and a vow to never do it again.

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Even though the participants in our focus groups were against generic parts, they were quick to point out that there are shops that use them.  Some shops only know how to compete on price and, to do so, they use low-cost, low-quality parts.

As one participant put it, “Being a great mechanic does not assure you of being a great businessman.”  But while quality can be a competitive advantage over the low-price shops, these “best-in-class” shops that participated in our study recognized that the reputation of the entire independent repair industry is on the line.

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Remember what I said previously about reputation and integrity being an important part of your future?  No matter how good a technician you become, know that one bad experience by a vehicle owner, even at a different facility or by another technician, can impact where they turn for their next repair. 

Should you be concerned with the poor practices of another technician? You bet!  It could impact you in the future.

Whether you will work in someone else’s facility or have a shop of your own, you may need to make parts buying decisions.  Here are a few ways to be sure you make the right choice:

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1. Use a trusted brand name part.  Don’t take risks on generic or unfamiliar brands.  Your safety and the safety of the vehicle owner depend on it.

2. Ask an experienced technician what brand to use.  Don’t be afraid to ask advice or admit you don’t know.

3. Do your research.  The Internet is just a click away and there are thousands of resources to find out which part is best.

4. Do NOT assume all parts are the same.  Parts is parts” was a funny slogan to describe chicken nuggets but, when it comes to vehicle safety, it is no laughing matter.

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5. Participate in trade shows, distributor shows and trade fairs. Never turn down the opportunity to attend an event where factory representatives may be on hand.  There is no finish line in education, only a starting line.  You can always learn something new.

6. Read the industry’s magazines, particularly technical articles. However, don’t trust every advertisement you see.  Remember Point No. 3 above.

7. Stay in touch with your teachers and faculty. Once you have graduated and are on your own, do not lose contact with these valuable resources.  They want you to succeed and will be there when you need them.

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8. Join a trade association. Just like the one I work for, the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association, there are also associations of professional technicians – another excellent resource for information and advice.

9. Call on the parts manufacturer. They are willing and able to help. Web sites and generally toll free numbers are at your disposal.  If you can’t find these resources for a particular parts manufacturer, chances are that part is not the right choice.

10. Trust your own instincts. Remember that old saying: If it looks good too be true, it probably is. If you suspect the part is not of a high quality, you are probably right.

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As professional technicians, public safety is in your hands not to mention your reputation.  The decisions you make when selecting replacement automotive components directly impact public safety and your own professional reputation.  My best advice as you enter the work force is to always take the time to KNOW YOUR PARTS!

About the author:
Jack Cameron is a vice president of the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA).  Prior to joining AASA, he was general manager of the automotive aftermarket at The Timken Corporation.  In his 25 year career, he has held various sales, marketing and product management positions with other major manufacturers.  He can be contacted at [email protected].

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