Where Have All the Product Reps Gone?

Where Have All the Product Reps Gone?

When you have questions about a part, you don’t want to talk to a computerized “options” voice on the other end of the line. You want to talk to a real person, with real knowledge. Will the good old days of real product reps ever return?

Call me a hopeless romantic, but I’m addicted to the era of tailfins, chrome steel hub caps — and product reps.

Okay, I’ll admit I’m overstating the case. Once upon a time, product reps freely roamed the automotive earth, dispensing the latest fix-it knowledge, engaging in back-slapping camaraderie, installing inventories of expendable parts and unabashedly engaged in product promotion. Product reps in those days had, what I call, a “smoke-filled backroom” relationship with their installer customers. These kinds of relationships went a long way toward solving any problems the installer might have had with the product.

But modern times are different. Like the last of the dinosaurs, a few product reps are occasionally spotted in the steamy, warm climates of trade shows. But rarely are they spotted in an auto repair shop advising the installer how to use a product or how to sell its benefits to the paying customer.
Of course, we know that product reps didn’t disappear like the dinosaurs because of a giant meteor striking the heart of Aftermarket City. To the contrary, most have been eaten alive in the jungles of corporate accounting, never again to be seen by an installer clientele who might, even now, be clamoring for their long-lost services.

The trend toward doing away with the old-fashioned product representative is troubling in a world characterized by rapid technological change. Here at the grassroots level, we’re seeing revolutionary changes in the workflow passing through the average shop.

Let’s, for example, start with the common oil change. Years ago, technicians recommended changing engine oil each 3,000 miles. This recommendation meant that the shop would see its customer four times each year for inspection and maintenance.

But now auto manufacturers have “computerized” oil changes, so to speak. Instead of seeing customers every three months, we’re now seeing them only when the “oil change” warning light comes on at intervals as high as 7,500 miles or once every 10 months or so.

This seemingly minor technical innovation is having a major effect on a shop’s relationships with its customers and on aftermarket sales. In many cases, the customer stops off at a local quick lube to get his oil changed. Afterward, he forgets that the vehicle still needs a scheduled maintenance inspection. From that point on, batteries, serpentine belts and other expendable parts are replaced on an emergency, rather than preventive, basis.

Trends like these are having a major impact on the bottom lines of many shops. Several years ago, I answered a phone call from a representative for a rubber goods manufacturing company. We spent a half hour discussing why the sales of belts and hoses were plummeting. For me, the answer was simple — instead of being replaced on a biennial basis as they were 20 years ago, belts and hoses are now being replaced on an as-needed basis. The reason for this is that belts are routinely lasting 100,000 miles or more and hoses are sometimes lasting the life of the vehicle.
Without a sales rep making the rounds of area repair shops, an owner must wonder if aftermarket parts manufacturers are staying abreast of trends that ultimately affect business for better or worse. Indeed, considering that some parts manufacturers seem to be losing their grassroots connections, we should wonder if aftermarket manufacturers are, in fact, keeping in touch with the real world in their marketing efforts.

The average independent shop owner or technician now has more technical information available than ever. Internet sources like the International Automotive Technician’s Network (iATN) and numerous technical hotlines keep technicians on top of the latest in technical and tooling technology.

What’s lacking in this picture is product feedback. All too often, a manufacturer takes a good thrashing on iATN because of perceived faulty products or poor customer service. Although I’m sure many aftermarket parts manufacturers are “lurking” on these forums, I have no way of knowing that for sure.

But, while I’m not inclined to broadcast a problem with a parts manufacturer on the Internet, many other shop owners and technicians feel obliged to do just that. At this point, let me say the any manufacturer can have a production run of faulty or inadequate products. When I worked in a dealership many years ago, I experienced a bad run of OE fuel pumps for a particular application. The pumps would produce only 3 psi pressure instead of the rated 6 psi pressure because the vapor return orifice had been drilled too large. Keeping in mind that since this was a manufacturing error rather than a materials or craftsmanship error, the reputation of the product remains unsullied in my mind.

But, in a similar situation, this epidemic of product failures might have been transmitted to corporate headquarters much faster by a good product rep analyzing the problem in the field and relaying that information directly to the engineering department or assembly line. In-field analysis is much faster than having an engineer pull defective fuel pumps out of a dusty warranty barrel for a failure analysis six months or a year after the fact.

With the help of instant computing and on-line communications, a professional installer would believe that glitches in the distribution system could be resolved in minutes or, at most, a few hours. But this is not the case. It seems as though once a cataloging error is chiseled into the memory of a computer chip, it becomes set in stone like the hieroglyphics chiseled into the tomb of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Similarly, if a problem occurs in the fit, finish and function of a product, the problem often seems to continue until sales of the product dwindle until it is considered obsolete and is erased from cataloging. Spark plug wires offer a good example because many sets always seem to have one wire that is cut too short. While an inch and a half of secondary ignition cable doesn’t seem to be much of a problem to a corporate accountant, it becomes a major problem for a time-pressed technician whose just spent the better part of an hour installing spark plug wires only to find the last wire doesn’t reach the last spark plug.

Now, if you’re a technician, try explaining this problem to a computer or try finding your way through the telephone extension maze at corporate head quarters. Or, on the brighter side, try telling it to a live human being who has a vested interest in solving these seemingly minor installer problems and who knows which option button to press on the corporate telephone system.

While it’s true that many human activities can be duplicated by a robot or computer, it’s not true that robots or computers can resolve each problem that arises.

A good example of this happened several years ago. I tried canceling an unused long-distance service from one of my local phone companies. After spending an hour wandering through the labyrinthine maze of dialing options, several facts stood out. First, there was no human voice at the other end of the telephone. Second, whoever designed this labyrinthine maze didn’t install a button option for canceling an account. At that point, I began dialing service numbers from my phone book and was fortunate to hear a human voice. I explained my problem and the young man said, “Sure, I can take care of that for you right now.” And he did.

Such is the power of human contact. Our military people call it “boots on the ground” because no amount of remote-control technology can replace the human touch or the human voice.
Call them dinosaurs of the automotive aftermarket if you will, but product reps have fulfilled a unique function in the automotive aftermarket of the past and may well continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

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