Douglass Kirchdorfer knows he has a reputation for being a demanding boss.
“I demand perfection; I don’t want mistakes and I don’t want to be recommending repairs that are unnecessary,” he says. “We have to give the customers the best possible service.”
And one way he does this is by equipping his shop with the latest and best technology. Tablet computers, data subscriptions, the latest scan tools—every piece of equipment in Kirchdorfer’s shop, Downing Street Garage in Denver, is purchased for the purpose of making his team more productive.
“Technology is a large investment, but it makes our jobs a lot easier and more efficient,” he says. “Having the right tools for the right job keeps us from making mistakes.”
Kirchdorfer, who serves as the head of the Automotive Service Association’s tools and equipment subcommittee, spoke with R+W about how technology is shaping our industry and what shops can do to stay ahead.
How important do you feel it is for shops to utilize the latest technology available to them?
If you don’t have the technology, you can’t fix today’s cars. That’s pretty much the way it is. This day of “I’ll figure it out” doesn’t happen anymore. It’s as simple as the TPMS light comes on in a car, and if you don’t understand how that works and how to reset it, and if you don’t have some technology to help you figure it out, you have to guess on it: You put air in the car, press the reset button and hope it works. And if the light comes on again 20 minutes later, is the customer going to come back?
Are they going to think you know what you’re doing? They’ll probably say, “Well, this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’m going somewhere else.”
The technology, if you’re not equipped to manage it or handle it, then you’re not going to be in business very long.
Do you feel the industry does a good job of keeping up with new technology?
I think that the shops that are progressive do. But I go to training and tradeshow events all the time, and I see the same people over and over. In Denver alone, we have about 4,500 technicians. The average shop has about two or three technicians, so we’re talking a couple thousand shops. Yet, when I go to a class, it’s the same 35 to 40 people there every time.
—Douglass Kirchdorfer, owner, Downing Street Garage
Those are the guys staying current and staying successful, and those are the guys who are fixing cars right. So, if you’re not willing to invest and stay current, then you’re going to fall behind. If you’re not able to continually make that investment in training and equipment, you’re limited on what you can fix in a car. You might be able to throw a part at it and be lucky, but you’re not going to be lucky next time. And then they’re not coming back next time because you didn’t fix their problem.
There’s a vicious cycle with technology in that you have to charge the customer correctly in order to invest in the technology. I always hear from people that they can’t send their guys to training because they don’t have enough money. So, I say, “Charge more,” and they say they don’t want to lose customers. Well, you’re not going to have customers anymore if you can’t fix their cars.
The investment in technology is definitely tied to the amount of money you want to reinvest in your business.
What are some of the latest trends?
The latest trend, the thing that’s coming around right now in technology is avoidance systems.
Every car is going to be equipped with some sort of radar, and that radar is going to be connected to the accelerator and the brake pedal, and possibly the steering wheel.
So, what happens when that system doesn’t work?
That’s where the technology is going, and it’s another trend we have to prepare for and be ready for. It’s just becoming more and more complicated and every system is working with every other system in the car.
We have all these different modules in cars, and if you don’t have the right scan tool to reach them, you can’t fix these problems. It’s only going to get more complicated, and shops need to prepare by investing in the right training and technology.
What do you feel are the most important forms of technology a shop should use?
The very first thing you need is an Internet connection, and that Internet connection has to be faster than dial-up. Pretty much every shop management system now, if there is a problem with it, they want to dial into your Internet connection and fix it for you. If you have a slow connection, they won’t be fast at fixing it.
Another must-have is an information system subscription. There’s ALLDATA and Mitchell—they’re the two biggest players out there. If you’re a specialty shop, you can get subscriptions to Honda and Range Rover or anybody you specialize in. If you’re just focused on one brand, you might not need ALLDATA or Mitchell, but you need something for that brand. And all of that comes over the Internet.
The next thing you need to have is a scan tool that can do everything you need to do on all the cars you work on.
We work on a lot of Volkswagens and Audis, and we invested in a scan tool that gives us pretty much dealer-level access to anything in the car. And it’s pretty inexpensive compared to something like a Snap-On scan tool. So, when an Audi or Volkswagen comes in, we can scan it and fix pretty much anything on that car.
There pretty much isn’t anything else we can’t fix. And we don’t specialize in Audi or Volkswagen; we just get a lot of them.
The compatibility of scan tools has gotten better and better. The aftermarket suppliers are really trying to create—and everybody is doing this—a tool that works for everything. You buy the tool, and every year, you have to renew the subscription.
What are the various ways your shop has used newer technologies to increase your productivity?
About seven or eight years ago, we invested in a Delphi system. It’s a multi-faceted tool. It started out with a system of five tablet computers linked with wireless Internet. I loaded each tablet up with my shop management system, a connection for ALLDATA, iATN and Identifix, and we had a couple software-based scan tools we put on there.
Everybody has access to everything right there at their workstations. That immediately created better efficiency. I paid an awful lot of money for the system. At the time, it was about a $30,000 investment, and I had all the bells and whistles with it. It was definitely not a cheap proposition, but now everyone was able to access information immediately.
We added an instant messaging system, too, so that our staff could communicate quickly and efficiently without having to leave their workstations. Now, if the service writer had to ask a tech something, he didn’t have to go all the way back and ask him the question. He could just send him a note. He didn’t have to get up from his desk.
Those are investments I made early. I was always thinking more efficiency and let’s make this easier. That’s what technology can do for you, but if you don’t make that investment or learn how to use it, then you don’t get the benefits that come with it. What does that mean? Well, it means that my diagnosis is more accurate and it’s done a lot quicker.
You are currently overseeing ASA’s initiative of creating a scan tool matrix for shop owners. Can you describe the project? How will it affect shop owners?
It’s a very daunting task. There’s a lot to it. I’m not sure it’ll ever be done, because once you have it all in there, someone comes out with a new scan tool and there’s something else that needs to be added to it.
The concept is that we’re creating this matrix that lists all the aftermarket scan tools that are currently available and what they can and cannot do. The problem with buying a scan tool is not what it will do, but what it won’t do.
Having the right tool makes the job that much easier and more accurate. So, the scan tool matrix, you can look up a scanner and see that it does this and does this and does this. The way it’s set up and laid out is that it’s broken down by engine control module, body control module, transmission control module, comfort control module—some cars have 30 or 40 modules. Then on the left-hand side is the scan tool and then across the top is the list of all the features.
A problem is that when you buy a tool from a vendor, they don’t know. They’ll know how much it costs and be able to say, “Oh, it’ll do everything you need and want it to do.” But he doesn’t tell you what it doesn’t do, and when you learn, that is when you’re trying to get it to do something.
The point of the matrix is to take the guess work out of that for the technician or the shop owner looking to get everything they can out of a tool.
It’s about 75 percent done, and honestly, will never reach 100 percent; there’s just too much information that needs to be added and too many tests needed to be performed.
Now, when you buy an OEM tool, that tool will do pretty much everything the OEM designed it to do. If you buy an aftermarket tool, those are trying to mimic the OEM capabilities.
And they do a really good job on about 75 percent of the capability, but the other 25 percent, it’s just not going to happen.