Gazing into the Crystal Ball
Three Things You’ll See In Auto Glass
by Leslie Shaver
As any veteran auto glass industry watcher will tell you, trying to predict what will happen in the industry is something akin to trying to pick winning lottery numbers. Over the past few years, retail auto glass shops have experienced everything from the fear of being eaten alive by the major players in the industry to the joy of watching these same competitors suffer through very public financial problems. In between, there has been the advent of ProStars, new NAGS pricing, and, of course, the
ABC News exposé about auto glass safety. Five or ten years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find any industry watcher who would have predicted these events.
Because of this, shop owners are a bit hesitant—and possibly frightened—to pull out their crystal ball and predict what’s around the corner. “I have no clue what is going to happen in the future,” admitted one.
“If you could predict that [the future of the auto glass industry], you could make a lot of money as a psychic with one of those 900 numbers,” said another, when asked what future trends he sees in the industry.
In spite of this ambivalence, AGRR was not deterred. We trudged ahead asking questions, until themes reared their heads. Here they are.
While the dot-com economy has gone from boom to bust in a period of less than two years, the Internet still holds great promise for the auto glass industry.
The most tangible evidence of this is a web-based auto glass claims assignment and processing system started by Travelers Property Casualty of Hartford, Conn., and Mitchell International of San Diego.
The program allows independent glass shops to receive an assignment from Travelers’ policyholders and process their claims over the web. The shops verify the customer’s coverage information by simply entering basic information such as name and policy number. Shops can then create and submit invoices online and receive payment from Travelers within two days of submitting the invoice.
This kind of direct link between insurance companies and glass shops could soon spell the end for the controversial call center, say some in the industry.
“The more successful this is, the less need there may be for call centers,” said Steve Pierick, executive director of sales and marketing for Binswanger Glass of Memphis, Tenn. “Two-hundred-seat call centers are expensive. I think you could see them begin to go away.”
“If I have the ability to check a customer’s coverage, I can go ahead and do the installation,” said Alan Epley, owner of Southern Glass and Plastic in Columbia, S.C. “This could mean that the administrator will eventually have to be taken out of the equation. Insurance companies will figure out how to eliminate that cost [of the networks] if they are not necessary. This could be the great equalizer.”
Chris Umble, director of sales and market development for one of the biggest referral services, LYNX Services from PPG Industries of Pittsburgh, thinks there will always be a need for networks. “There will be always be a concern for consistency and continuity,” he said. “And there will still be 50 percent of the people who need another channel [to verify claims]. The call center will remain a part of the auto glass industry.”
Some on the auto glass side of the equation agree with Umble. “Tons of smaller shops are still not computer-literate,” said Tim Conklin, owner of Wholesale Glass Distributors in Greenville, S.C.
One of Conklin’s fellow South Carolinians agrees. “I don’t think we’ll be using the net on a widespread basis anytime soon for things like first notice of loss,” said Dan Fishburne, owner of Glasswerks in Aiken, S.C.
The web is also playing a key role in one other glass industry program that could cut networks out of the loop, the Independent Glass Association’s (IGA) e-direct billTM. This program allows glass shops to bill insurance companies directly over the Internet. The site requires a shop to input information about the insurance agent, insurance company and fleet contract. Under the plan, insurance companies can then pay the shop, ideally using electronic funds transfer. Shops can also use direct bill through fax or their point-of-sale system.
Donovan Trana, IGA board president and owner of Express! Auto Glass in Muscatine, Iowa, thinks glass shops will be more successful using this system than by doing it themselves. “They are getting the invoice from a billing company, not just a little glass shop,” he said.
There are other things about the system that appeal to shops, too. “This would increase our cash flow,” said Shawn Massa, president of Massa Glass in Denver. “We could have the money already in the bank as the job was being done.”
While the digital communication between machines could revolutionize the way glass shops receive jobs and payment, windshields that are used as communication devices could make the installation process much more difficult for the average installer. As was the case with the Internet, if shops make the commitment to keep up, the end result could be
In an effort to transmit radio signals, global positioning information and information about the climate around the car, car and glass manufacturers have made the windshield an integral part of the car’s communication system.
Heated windshields and encapsulation are also major trends. Both add cost and value to the glass. “There are more heated windshields than ever before,” said Neal Golding, owner of Keystone Auto Glass in Toledo, Ohio. “They used to be limited to just Lincolns.”
Then there is the Ford Mustang windshield with the Mustang logo that is made out of dots on the windshield.
All of the trends mean one thing for an auto glass installer—an even more complicated job. “The technology is changing too fast,” said Janet Parkhurst, owner of Oakes and Parkhurst Glass of Winslow, Maine.
“Parts are getting more and more complicated,” Tim Taylor of Thru-Way Glass Distributors of Syracuse, N.Y., said. “This makes it even more important that a shop puts it in the right way.”
Massa agreed. “The technology is changing so rapidly that technicians have to actually be technicians, not people who just slap glass into a car,” he said.
To do this, they will need a great deal of technical information about the car readily available. Massa thinks this is where the first trend—the Internet—will come into play. “Ready access to technical information is very important,” he said. “It would be really helpful if there was a system where installers could look at technical information online as they prepare to put the windshield in a car.”
More complicated glass will affect more than installation practices. “We would sense that the product [glass] would be more expensive,” said David Williams, national glass manager of State Farm Insurance Co. of Bloomington, Ill..
But this is not an altogether bad thing. “Glass will be more expensive,” Tim Taylor said. “It will cost you more, but you can charge more, so you will make more.”
Trana notices some trends with the size of glass. “Vans and sport utility vehicles have bigger glass, but some cars are using less glass,” he said. “There is also a rush to do exotic things but designers are still boxed in. There are a lot of cars that look pretty standard.”
Because of the change in the size of glass, he says shop owners may need to allow for more storage room. Yet he cautions them not to overreact when assessing trends. “Whenever you look to the future, you tend to go to the extremes and then things blindside you,” he said.
In addition to these technologies, a number of glass manufacturers—Guardian Industries of Auburn Hills, Mich, Pilkington of Toledo, Ohio, and PPG Industries—have introduced a number of self-cleaning glasses.
These hyrophobic glasses have a coating on the outside that can break up things like dirt, oil and sand. Once water or rain contacts the glass, the resulting sheeting carries away the dirt. While these glasses have arrived with much fanfare, they will probably not affect the individual auto glass installer who is replacing the window. However, these value-added options could mean more expensive glass.
3—The Great Race
n the good old days, glass shops could just open their doors and let the customers roll in—or at least that’s what the old-timers say. While it might not have been that simple, things were probably much easier then. The only people to whom a shop owner had to market were a select group of insurance agents in his area. These agents knew that the shop would do a good job and would point their insureds there when they needed glasswork.
But networks changed this. “Access to the agents was cut by the networks,” said Cindy Minon, owner of J.C. National Glass in Phoenix.
Now many agents give their customers an 800 number and some random call-center employee helps the customer find a shop.
“If the customer has no preference, the networks will probably not refer them to you,” Tim Taylor said.
But if a customer does have a preference, the shop has a good chance.
At first many shops complained about the networks and their loss of influence with agents. While many still moan about this, others are finding new ways to market themselves. Glass shops are now looking for ways to get to these customers, and some of their methods are original, if not effective.
“People are trying to get to the customer first with rebates and anything else,” Minon said.
“The idea of lead generation is a long-term idea that will continue to have an impact on the industry,” said Dave Taylor, president of the National Windshield Repair Association and secretary/treasurer of Cindy Rowe Auto Glass in Harrisburg, Pa.
Since there is not one dominant company in the industry with a proven way of attracting customer, Taylor thinks that glass shops will find a variety of ways to reach the public.
“There are a lot of ideas in different, sometimes opposite directions that seem to be working,” he said.
He noticed one new marketing approach when he was at a state fair. A local glass shop had a booth that was staffed by students from a college who told fair attendees about the shop’s service and took their information. While Taylor did not think the shop’s approach and follow-up were particularly effective, he thought the idea had potential.
“The idea of going to places where there are a lot of people has some validity,” he said.
Tim Taylor already subscribes to this theory. His shop has promotions at both basketball and hockey games. At hockey games, the company sponsors a promotion where it puts a windshield on the ice and gets a customer out of the stands to see if they can break it with the puck. At basketball games, it awards the title of “Glassmaster” to the player with the most rebounds.
Trana thinks a shop owner’s presence can pay great dividends in getting to the customer.
“One of the best ways to get your name out there is through public speaking,” he said. “Go to the Rotary Club or drivers’ education classes. The owner has to be someone who is known in the community.”
Trana thinks this kind of grassroots advertising, can supplement a campaign through the traditional media. “You don’t have to hang your hat on that [traditional radio and television advertising] alone,” he said.
Dave Taylor’s shop has a healthy telemarketing program that helps Cindy Rowe get its name out to customers. But he says this will not work for all shops. He says shops need to get into telemarketing early on because objections, mainly from employees, could doom telemarketing ideas later on.
“We did it from the beginning,” he said. “So we did not go out and try to reinvent the wheel later on.”
Pierick, on the other hand, had little success with telemarketing. Instead he chose to market to insurance agents.
This just goes to show that in the industry, the more things change, the more they do stay the same.
Leslie Shaver is a contributing editor for AGRR magazine.
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