For this month’s OE certification profile, we spoke with industry icon Mark Allen, Manager of Collision Programs/Collision Training and EV After Sales for Audi.
ABN: Does your program have a specific name?
Audi: It’s called the Audi Authorized Collision Repair Program. It was first started back in 2003, received a major overhaul in 2006 and another one most recently in 2015.
ABN: What is the main purpose of the program?
Audi: Audi is big on controlling the total customer experience. Despite the bad situation an accident brings, we don’t want to make it worse for our clients with a bad shop and a bad repair. So for us, it’s all about customer retention, and making sure the car is fixed properly.
ABN: What are the program requirements?
Audi: We focus on three areas: tools, equipment and training. For training, we don’t now require that the shop be I-CAR Gold Class, but many are simply because they are the better shops and are Gold Class by default. However, in the near future we will be requiring all shops to be Gold Class. Then we also have our own classes; some on structural repair, others are model-specific. We also have a 10-day aluminum class and classes on carbon fiber. Also, we have two levels of training for two levels of shops. The hybrid training is the more basic with limited classes. The ultra-advanced training includes all classes and is meant for the ultra-advanced shops.
One other thing about Audi training: most of it is hands-on training. The technicians like it because this is what they do all day. They can relate better and learn better rather than watching a video or reading a book.
ABN: What are the program benefits?
Audi: All shops receive a plaque. Technicians that complete our welding course get a special jacket. All certified shops are on the towing program, so any Audi owner using their Roadside Assistance program due to an accident can have their car towed free to an Audi Authorized shop. Audi Authorized shops are also the first shops of choice to repair any of our transportation-damaged cars, show-damaged cars or any cars that are corporately owned that suffer an accident. And of course they can promote themselves as an Audi Authorized shop.
ABN: What shops are eligible?
Audi: We welcome dealer-owned shops, independent shops and MSOs, but the standards and requirements remain the same. We don’t cut anyone any slack. Right now we have a 60/40 split---60 percent are independent and 40 percent are dealer shops. The dealer percentage is perhaps higher than other OEs, but that is because of our focus on customer retention.
ABN: Must an independent shop be sponsored by a dealer? If so, has that caused any problems?
Audi: Yes, a dealer must sponsor an independent shop and the shop must be in its own market area. If our focus is on the customer experience and retaining customers, it makes no sense for a dealer to sponsor a shop that is 50 miles away. A customer will never drive 50 miles to a body shop.
ABN: Can a dealer sponsor more than one shop?
Audi: Yes, but that rarely happens. The units in operation must warrant more than one shop in any given dealer’s area of influence.
ABN: Are any shops specifically ineligible?
Audi: Our program is limited to dealers and shops in the U.S. A few years ago we used to handle what few participating shops and dealers we had in Canada. Now that there is more participation, Audi Canada handles it themselves, although we still provide a good part of the training materials.
ABN: Do you have any program partners, such as Axalta, VeriFacts, Summit, Assured Performance or others? If so, what role do they play?
Audi: We have VeriFacts handle the information technology for us.
ABN: What is the fee for the program? Does the program run on an annual basis?
Audi: Independent shops pay $7,500 for the first year and $4,000 for each succeeding year. Our dealer charge is proprietary information.
ABN: Do you inspect every shop and if so, who does the inspections?
Audi: Yes, Axalta conducts the annual inspections for us. We also look at feedback from Audi employees and other Audi corporate people who have cars repaired at these shops. They should have the same good experience and the same proper repair as any Audi customer. On top of that, I travel quite a bit and when I do, I make a point to make a few unannounced visits to Audi Authorized shops.
ABN: Is there an optimum number of shops you want to have and if so, how close are you to reaching that number?
Audi: The optimum number is about 250. Right now we are at about 192 with about 100 being the ultra-advanced shops that work on all models, and the rest are hybrid shops that only work on certain models. Of course, that number fluctuates as shops come and go. We will put on more shops, but we want to do it strategically, placing the shops only where they are needed based on units in operation.
ABN: Have you had any shops drop out and if so, why?
Audi: We are big on training because we want the cars fixed properly and our customers to drive a safe automobile. I want to be able to stand up in front of a group of people at an industry meeting or show, talk about training and know all of our shops are properly trained. So if a shop can’t or won’t meet our requirements and complete the proper training, we have to part ways. Of course, we give the shop plenty of opportunity to take the training. We call and let them know when the training will take place and ask if we can sign them up at that time.
ABN: If the shop is removed from the program due to a training lapse, and they later take the training, are they allowed back into the program?
Audi: We address that on a case by case basis. It is a lot less work to allow that shop back into the program than to go out and find another shop and start from scratch.
ABN: Do you have a field force?
Audi: We have Area After-Sale Managers who work with both dealers and shops, but they are not collision-dedicated.
ABN: What has been the biggest challenge in establishing the network?
Audi: Today in 2018, most people in the industry know about high-strength steel, aluminum and such, and know that vehicles with these substrates require different tools, equipment and procedures. When we started back in 2003, this was a foreign concept to most people---even those in the industry. First, I had to convince our own corporate team at Audi that changes were necessary. Then we had to convince our dealers. They wanted to continue fixing cars the same way they learned 25 years ago. It was a challenge in 2003, but we eventually started changing minds.
ABN: What is you biggest challenge in maintaining the network?
Audi: Our biggest challenge is maintaining communication with our shops. It seems the technician base in our shops is pretty solid---few people come and go. The “churn” is with management people in the shops. It’s a real challenge to get them to keep their profile current so we know who we are talking to when we call. It’s also a challenge to keep everyone’s training current.
ABN: What do you see for the future of OE certification programs?
Audi: I think it is inevitable that all OEs will have some sort of certification program. Those that don’t have a program now will start one. Those that have an existing program will put more teeth into it.
In the future, I think OEs will make their customers more aware of their programs and find ways to drive more vehicles to their shops.
Also in the future, I think insurance companies will pay more attention to certified shops and give them more credence due to liability concerns.
ABN: Any final thoughts?
Audi: We have a lot of other ideas to enhance the program. Some are under development, some are still just ideas. But we will continue to move forward with the industry.