By Amy Antenora,
Tom Aliotti is senior vice president and general manager of the Activant Solutions automotive business group. Since joining the company in 2005, Aliotti has overseen the introduction of a broad range of innovative products, including the Activant Eagle for the Aftermarket and Activant Vision distribution management systems, Activant Vista market intelligence solution and Activant LaserCat 3 eCatalog.
Aliotti is a widely respected strategic operations and sales executive with nearly 25 years of experience with leading technology companies, including Oracle Corporation. Immediately prior to joining Activant, he was chief operating officer of Xporta Inc., a provider of global sourcing and supply chain technology solutions for clients such as Ingersoll-Rand, Newell Rubbermaid, Rockwell Automation and Motorola. In this exclusive interview, Aliotti talks about the role that technology, and electronic catalogs in particular, will play in the future of the aftermarket. He also talks about the importance of accurate data and discusses the relationship between e-cat providers, manufacturers, jobbers and distributors.
What factors affect the accuracy and timeliness of manufacturer data that appears in Activant’s electronic catalog?
The ability to deliver data that is both accurate and up-to-date is interrelated. An electronic catalog provider that pushes data to the street without thorough quality assurance isn’t really delivering data that is “up-to-date.” In fact, they’re costing both the distributor and end-user time, money and, potentially, customers by allowing deficient data, which is inaccurate or incomplete, to be used at the parts counter or service desk. In addition, a provider that is delivering manufacturer data to a very small slice of the aftermarket might have a faster publishing cycle, but the value to the manufacturer — that is interested in having as many outlets as possible moving their parts — is very limited. By contrast, Activant delivers catalog data to virtually the entire aftermarket, including service chains and independent service dealers.
Several factors determine how quickly we can deliver product data featuring the level of accuracy, completeness and usability our customers expect:
1.) The sheer volume of manufacturer data is growing at a very rapid pace;
2.) The thousands of WDs, jobbers, service chains, tire dealers and independent shops that rely on Activant eCatalog products have an uncommon array of system capabilities and limitations that require extensive work to format the data with the flexibility needed to address all of those requirements; and
3.) The accuracy of the data we receive varies greatly from one manufacturer to the next, but we take the necessary steps to bring all lines to our high quality level; and
4.) Our suite of eCatalog products is not limited to parts information, but also includes a variety of value-added tools such as VIN decoding, labor information, tire fitment, and service intervals databases all of which greatly benefit the user but add complexity to the publishing process.
In terms of data volume, aftermarket manufacturers have ramped up their new-parts introduction cycles to address increased competition from the OE channel. This, combined with a growing number of manufacturers now contributing to our catalog, has more than doubled the volume of data we have received over the past three years.
Manufacturer parts data is delivered to the market in a variety of Activant products. In addition to serving WDs and jobbers with our suite of electronic catalogs, we provide the data that powers proprietary eCatalogs and shop management platforms operated by most of the industry’s leading retailers and service chains. Our data also is embedded within the shop management solutions used by thousands of independent service providers.
If you look at this broad universe of customers, there are dozens of computer platforms and technology requirements we must address when building our data feeds. In fact, some 70% of our users are still operating “green screen” computer systems that are 15 years old or older. If we simply released one version of our catalog to all users, a large percentage of customers wouldn’t be able to access the parts information they need. As a result, we publish 15 versions of our catalog to address the needs of all of our customers.
Another time- and resource-intensive factor is the value-add we provide within our catalog products. This includes an extensive quality assurance process that helps eliminate errors at the parts counter and service desk. We also incorporate several third-party databases and functional enhancements to help users deliver better and faster service to their customers. We hear it from our customers over and over again by using the Activant eCatalog, they order the right parts the first time, which improves customer satisfaction, reduces returns and helps the aftermarket compete more effectively with the OE channel.
Many leading manufacturers do an excellent job of providing quality data to us, but the files we receive from many others require significant time and attention before they are of sufficient quality to be included in our catalog. Our goal is to publish complete, accurate, timely parts data for all manufacturers that’s a challenge that involves an extensive investment in resources, and we have continued to make the necessary investments to manage the growing volume and varied quality of data we receive. As a matter of fact, thanks to the work we do in processing the data, manufacturers often learn that their parts have wider applications than they originally thought.
One last point: Unlike other eCatalog providers, Activant does not impose an ongoing charge to manufacturers to publish their data. Inclusion in our catalog, as well as quality assurance, modification, distribution and other value-added services, is essentially free to the manufacturer after a one-time set-up charge. This helps ensure a complete, all-in-one parts and service information resource that delivers superior value to the end user.
What can manufacturers could do to accelerate the delivery of data through your eCatalog?
The key is for manufacturers to provide us with more frequent updates of their files, each featuring ACES-compliant data that has been audited for both format and content. Another important step is making sure we know when these updates are coming so our team can plan our production schedule well in advance.
If suppliers are uncertain of the standards we accept or how to compress the publishing cycle for their data, we are happy to sit down with their teams to implement internal processes that will help them produce more complete and accurate data and reduce time constraints within their own systems.
If a manufacturer isn’t already communicating with us on a regular basis, we encourage them to contact our data procurement team to open the lines of communication. We also proactively visit manufacturers to learn more about how they are preparing their data for our use, and often find that these “discovery” sessions help lead to significant time savings down the road.
Another challenge we face is procuring all of the data we need. We don’t simply want the supplier’s application information, but also product images, relevant TSBs, installation instructions, diagrams and other content that can help the counterperson or service writer be more accurate and efficient on the job and sell more parts. We have a procurement team that spends a great deal of time encouraging manufacturers to provide this additional content. The more of this content we can publish in our catalog including all makes, model years, product lines and related information the sooner the manufacturer will be able to significantly reduce their reliance on expensive print catalogs and benefit from the enhanced information available to the service writer.
What role will your products play for jobbers and repair shops that are reluctant to invest in technology?
Regardless of where the WD, jobber or service dealer might be in terms of their current technology, Activant offers an array of cost-effective products they can easily integrate into their businesses to become more efficient and competitive. If you’re a jobber using our PartExpert electronic catalog, the best next step might be to add Activant Cover-to-Cover graphical eCatalog module so you can access millions of part images, installation instructions and other details needed by the customer. If you’re looking to dramatically enhance speed and productivity at the counter, think about moving up to our new LaserCat 3 electronic catalog, a Windows-based solution that will greatly accelerate the lookup and selling process and help strengthen customer satisfaction. We have a broad range of affordable “next step” solutions that can benefit virtually any WD, jobber or repair business, no matter where they are in today’s technology cycle.
What’s the biggest technological challenge you face on a daily basis within the aftermarket?
One challenge we face daily is helping smaller WDs and jobbers understand the value of an electronic catalog that is tightly integrated into a modern point-of-sale system. Rather than having a single terminal with our eCatalog, these businesses would be much better served by having our PartExpert catalog and Activant Cover-to-Cover module at every counter position. These businesses would find they can provide significantly better service to more customers without the need to add additional counter personnel and other overhead. We want to help make them more productive and much more customer-focused without having to increase the size of their staff. With this additional information at their fingertips, the counterperson can make sure the customer has all the parts needed to complete a job.
Another challenge we face is the lack of commitment among some manufacturers to invest in resources needed to develop and deliver complete, accurate, compliant data for use in our catalog. The technology is available and we’re willing to help these suppliers identify the resources and processes they need to significantly improve their ability to send us all of their content and not just their application parts. This will help everyone in the aftermarket supply chain sell more parts.
What role do you see catalogs playing in the future of the aftermarket?
The electronic catalog will become even more important at every level of the industry. Manufacturers are looking for ways to deliver more complete and accurate parts information to the point of sale without incurring the unnecessary expense and inefficiencies associated with print catalogs. At the same time, distributors, jobbers and service dealers are challenged to compress the time needed to identify, pick, deliver and install replacement parts. Paper catalogs are, by their very nature, incomplete and inaccurate from the moment they are printed. The electronic catalog can be easily and efficiently updated at every counter position so that every counterperson always has the most accurate and complete information available with just a few clicks of the mouse.
We hope manufacturers will see the value of providing all of their information to us so we can help them reduce their reliance on expensive paper catalogs. It will take a commitment on their part to share the data and related information, but it will certainly pay dividends for them and their customers in the long run.
What could your jobber and repair shop customers do to better ensure a smooth flow of information? How about manufacturers?
We encourage all of our customers to provide feedback on our data products to ensure the most complete, accurate, user-friendly experience. Any time a customer encounters an issue related to parts data, we want to hear about it so we can address the issue with the manufacturer and make any changes or enhancements to benefit all Activant customers.
As the industry standard, Activant Catalog is used by more aftermarket business locations than any other data product. We work very closely with distribution businesses, service chains and value-added resellers who integrate our data into shop management platforms to identify opportunities to compress the time needed to deliver comprehensive, accurate data. We also work very closely with many manufacturers, but certainly want to strengthen the channels of communication with all industry suppliers to ensure that our eCatalogs serve their needs.
What are the ramifications of non-standardized data within the aftermarket supply chain?
The effects of non-standardized data can be felt at the parts counter, where the counterman is working with unnecessarily limited information, as well as at the service dealer, where the service writer has to spend more time researching parts and developing the estimate before proceeding with the job. This represents huge inefficiency that ultimately limits productivity, sales and customer satisfaction. If you have incomplete information at the point of sale, the level of customer service you provide will suffer. This, of course, can lead to lost sales and lost customer relationships. In that scenario, everyone suffers you, your jobber or WD, and the manufacturer that supplies the part your customer was looking for.