Before W.W. Williams adopted a customized version of the Decisiv Service Management Platform, the Detroit Diesel and Allison Transmission distributor would keep repair quotes in an Excel file or on a Post-it note.
Technology can be used to streamline communications and make customers happy. (Photo by W. W. Williams)
Technology can be used to streamline communications and make customers happy. (Photo by W. W. Williams)
This caused a lot of confusion among technicians when there was a shift change, as no one else knew what was originally communicated to the customer.

Now, the company uses Decisiv's Web-based system for creating service estimates quickly and accurately. Through the online system, both the repair facility and the customer can access the entire repair process and see the threaded dialogue between both parties.

Fleet customers can now push the repair information to them. They send W.W. Williams an "instant message," so to speak, through the system, requesting a repair. At W.W. Williams, the service advisor gets notification of the request and can start estimating the parts and labor needed even before the truck arrives on site. "It has opened up a whole chain of communication," says Eric Ostrowsky, vice president of service operations at W.W. Williams.

Ostrowsky says this allows the distributor to present an estimate for the repair up front, so there are no surprises. The price has already been negotiated, so it cuts down on the time spent trying to get in touch with the customer. Now, it's just a matter of accepting or rejecting repairs that are pushed to them. "The whole transaction has become more efficient and quicker," he says.

"We have promised to fix vehicles right the first time, keep [customers] informed every step of the way and ensure their vehicles are back on the road quickly," says Wally Williams, operations analyst. This technology has helped W.W. Williams accomplish that.

This is just one example of the array of new technologies distributors can choose from that will not only help their business run smoother, but also give the customer more accurate and speedy information.

"Any time you can decrease the communication lag to your customer, it can decrease their downtime and not only help them make more money, it will strengthen your position with them," says Duff Bell, software applications specialist with Karmak.

"With so many operations trying to run lean in today's market, the chances that the vehicle sitting in your shop is just a spare is pretty remote. Your customer needs that vehicle to make money. And the sooner they pick up that vehicle, the sooner you can get paid for your work and for your tech's time."

There are many different types of technology that can be used, but here are the top five:

1. Online portals

As mentioned above, Decisiv's Service Management Platform is a Web-based platform that connects the customer with the service location or distributor.

As President and CEO Dick Hyatt describes the system, "Decisiv in the middle." The portal, which can be accessed by both parties, includes a communications platform, an electronic folder and a profile of the fleet.

The communications platform, Hyatt says, involves time-stamped, threaded conversations between the customer and distributor, similar to instant messaging. With a phone conversation, voicemail, or fax, there's no historical record of what was said, who said it, and what time, he says. But the instant messaging provides a historical record of the conversation from beginning to end. It starts when the fleet identifies the asset, describes the problem with the vehicle, selects a service location, and pushes that request to the service location, by hitting "send." Meanwhile, an alert pops up at the service location, and the Decisiv system pulls up all service requirements of that particular fleet. "At that point, a dialogue is opened," Hyatt says.

This threaded dialogue is a more effective way to communicate, Hyatt adds, because the conversation is in context. Often, phone calls can get contentious, but this dialogue can facilitate agreement or disagreement up front. At least 50 percent of the delay factor in the shop, between diagnosing the problem, fixing it and getting the truck out the door, lies in ineffective communication, he says.

"Hours and days were being lost," he says. "When you open up one of the dialogues, you can't hide."

2. Websites

Building a company website is becoming increasingly important for distributors and shops to get visibility in the marketplace and communicate with customers. "The underpinnings of a successful technology program is your website," says Tom Marx, president and CEO of the Marx Group, a business strategy and marketing communications firm focused on the automotive aftermarket.

When marketing and consulting firm Wade & Partners surveyed a group of heavy-duty aftermarket distributors, only 58 percent said they had a company website. But Partner Craig Fry says building a website can be easy and affordable. Many sites, such as Microsoft Office Live, Google Docs, and Zoho Office, offer free website hosting. There are also low-cost website hosting services available from such companies as Yahoo, GoDaddy, and Intuit, Fry says.

Here are some things to include in your website:

Cover the basics: "Most new customers are going to visit your website before they visit your place of business," Fry says. "So make sure you cover all of the basics there. Your website should include your location, your phone number, your hours, your place of business, the services you offer and the lines you carry. Also, talk about your delivery policies and let them know if you take phone orders, fax orders or Internet orders. If you accept Internet orders, include an order form on your website."

E-mail address: Many people are hesitant to include an e-mail address on their website for fear of being bombarded with spam. Fry recommends not hiding your e-mail address, but he does suggest subscribing to a good e-mail filtering service.

Sales and special offers: While it's great to include sales and special offers, Fry says these need to be kept current. "One of the biggest sins that distributors commit on their websites is to create them and then neglect them. Websites that are filled with out-of-date materials and expired offers can do you more harm than good."

Keep it local: Fry recommends making your website as local and personal as possible as a way to establish an emotional connection with customers. "Your business is local. So if it's at all possible, add something to your website that's of local interest, something you're passionate about. Talk about local events. Publish schedules for high school sports events or show team photos. Do some research on local history and publish it. Promote local causes worth supporting."

3. E-commerce

A website also offers the opportunity for online ordering, or e-commerce. In Wade & Partners' survey, of those distributors which had a website, only 34 percent offered some form of e-commerce on their site.

With e-commerce, customers can check parts inventory online and buy parts with the click of a button (and a credit card, of course).

"I recently spoke on the subject of e-commerce at a trade association for heavy-duty aftermarket distributors and asked for a show of hands for how many are currently offering e-commerce on their websites," Fry says. "As expected, not very many hands went up. Then I asked how many of them felt that it was worth the investment. Expecting to see most of the hands go down, I was surprised to see every hand remain airborne. Their comments were surprising."

AutoPower is one company that can help you implement an e-commerce solution. AutoPower will develop a website for a distributor, where customers can go online, place an order, and the order request will automatically print out at the distributor's location.

This not only saves the distributor money, it also eliminates the need for a phone call and streamlines the communication process involved in ordering parts, accord