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Regional AAA Network Changes Put Pressure on Shops

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Walt Eger received the email on March 1—the day after the deadline to renew his AAA Approved Auto Repair (AAR) certification had passed.

Eger didn’t renew.

And that email, it was from Pace Software, the provider of the YES Management System that Eger’s Severn, Md., shop, Walt Eger’s Service Center, utilizes. The email, which Eger shared with Ratchet+Wrench, said that Pace Software had been contacted by AAA with a request for his shop’s customer database and invoice information.

“AAA wanted access to my shop’s system after I’d already told them no,” Eger says. “I said no, and they went to my management system and wanted backdoor access to it anyway. It’s really unbelievable. They have no right to come in and do that.”

Just like with his AAA certification renewal, Eger declined to allow the access. And he—along with hundreds of shop operators across the country—hope that more shops will do the same.

“This just flat-out isn’t right what they’re doing,” Eger says.

This isn’t just about your shop’s privacy, says Greg Buckley, co-owner of Buckley’s Auto Care in Wilmington, Del. Buckley, whose consumer video blog about the AAA issue went viral last summer, says shops should not be “purveyors” of sensitive customer information that could be sold to third parties, or be used to sell his shop’s customers additional AAA products, such as insurance. There are also fears of how AAA-operated service centers could use the data for their own competitive benefit. And the data sharing potentially could shift more business control to AAA clubs, who could put pressure on shops to control items such as labor rates and mark-ups on parts in similar fashion to insurance companies in the collision repair industry.

The issue goes back long before that March 1 email. There was the implementation of AAA-owned and -operated service centers at club locations in select markets; then an overhaul of the latest AAR contracts by certain AAA clubs that went out in early February, detailing AAA’s new initiative of data collection from shops—a requirement if businesses want to stay in the AAR program.

Now, according to shop operators across multiple states, the issue has reached a breaking point. Many shops did renew; some claiming to have not noticed or understood the data-sharing practices. Others have opted out, ending long-standing relationships with one of the country’s largest and most recognizable auto-related, consumer brands.

The Small Print

Billy Hillmuth Jr.’s multi-generational, family-owned repair business has four locations in Maryland. His Columbia facility is less than half a mile from a AAA club location that has a complete service center.

Despite a 30-year relationship with AAA, the Hillmuthes did not renew their AAR contract.

“I understand it’s a business decision on their part,” Hillmuth says, “but this is a business decision on our part, too. It makes no sense to sign that contract.”

The contract itself was the first Hillmuth’s team had received since 2010. The first 15 pages were nearly identical to the previous ones, he says. Then, after the sign sheet, came additional information. Appendix D included a new data-collecting policy, stating that shops would be required to give AAA access through the shop’s management system to everything from customer phone numbers and email addresses to parts and labor margins. And that is for all vehicles, regardless of whether or not the customer is a AAA member.

Though multiple operators in multiple states were given similar if not identical contracts from AAA in February, the issues with the AAR renewal requirements are not necessarily a nationwide issue, nor are they an initiative from AAA’s national organization, explains Donny Seyfer, chairman of the Automotive Service Association (ASA).

Seyfer points to Colorado—where his own shop, Seyfer Automotive Inc., is part of the AAR program—as an example. Seyfer’s local AAA affiliate club is only looking for minimal info (VIN, mileage, repairs performed, etc.) for its AAA customers—information that Seyfer does not view as a threat to the integrity of his business.

Both Hillmuth and Eger fall under the AAA Mid-Atlantic AAR program, which serves several East Coast states including Maryland. “It’s far different in Colorado,” Seyfer says, “and there are already some misconceptions out there that each state is the same. That’s not the case, as far as we know. But what we hear in some areas is not right or fair to ask of shops.”

Seyfer’s facility remains in the AAR program. He says, had he been asked to give up information similar to that asked of shops in Maryland, that might not be the case.

Pushing Forward

The data-collection issues first surfaced in early 2015, when AAA Mid-Atlantic explained to a group of shop owners its intentions to require each AAR facility to use a specific management system, which would then funnel the information back to the club.

That stance softened after a number of meetings, and shops that renewed in 2016 are given until the end of this year to meet the requirements to set up data-sharing. (Shops now will allow access through various systems; some programs will have built-in processes for sharing.)

The method of collection wasn’t the breaking point, though, according to shop operators. Sharing proprietary business intelligence was. Delaware shop operator Buckley, who also serves on the Ratchet+Wrench editorial advisory board, raised his concerns in a video that picked up steam nationwide. Posted to various social media platforms, Buckley’s video detailed to consumers and fellow shop operators the scope of the issue at hand. It received more than 5,000 views.

Shops in California, who have seen similar requests for data, have made their concerns known through industry associations. Seyfer says he has fielded inquiries from many in the industry through ASA.

Hillmuth, Eger, Buckley and others are working to alert shops through the Council of Automotive Repair (CAR), which is a division of the Washington, Maryland, Delaware Service Station and Automotive Repair Association (WMDA).

Still, many shops were caught unaware. Many signed their contracts without realizing the new additions.

Just as this data is an asset to your business, Eger says, so too is being informed and knowledgeable about your business’s relationships. “If there’s a lesson here, it’s being very clear of what you’re signing, what your partnerships entail,” he says. “These can be very costly mistakes. And they can be prevented.”

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