Privacy and AGRR Industry

19 Mar

What if your largest competitor knew your buy rates for product and had access to your customer list? Would you feel vulnerable? What about if that competitor controlled market access for you and actively worked to reduce it? Would that make you angry? What if that competitor marked you for acquisition or destruction? How helpless or scared would that make a you feel?

Looking back, 1984 occurred 30 years ago and it is indeed a brave new world out there. AGRR, about 15 years ago, began a corporate philosophical shift that has moved to big brother-like mentality, but without the family ties. As more time passes, I believe we are in real danger of losing not only choices, but our existence as well.

I have heard stories and boasts that store managers and salesmen from both the wholesale and retail side of Belron’s U.S. operations have shared confidential data of competitors acquired from each other or from its glass claims’ administration arm—Safelite Solutions. They seem to know how many insurance jobs go where and to whom and for how much. Enough stories have come in from trusted sources to make me take notice and worry that many companies are forced to work through their biggest and most powerful competitor.

Belron is not the only company that has both retail and wholesale distributing outlets. They just have far more of them than anyone else. Add the fact that Belron also manufactures automotive glass products, which gives the company a distinct price advantage in every marketplace. This is all perfectly legal and somewhat admirable. They have rightfully earned the nickname of being the “Walmart of automotive glass.”

Any shop that does business with a distributor/retailer should expect a certain amount of pricing information to be shared internally. Belron is different since it has grown to national scope and influence

I feel the real privacy culprit is Safelite Solutions, the third-party glass claims’ administration arm (TPA) of Belron’s U.S. operations. If one believes that this company operates as an innocent standalone company whose only mission is as a clearinghouse for insurance glass claims, he is sadly mistaken. Not only is Safelite Solutions a golden funnel for profitable glass installs for Safelite AutoGlass, with service as a direct beneficiary, I believe it may provide real data for the entire corporation for use against any and all competition. Are we to believe any sort of disclaimer that Safelite Solutions operates in a confidential vacuum?

Safelite Solutions has the easy ability to report every claim that they process, where they occur and how many of those claims that Safelite AutoGlass completed. That alone can prove the efficiency of the Safelite Solutions CSRs and spoken scripts that make up first contact with an insurance client.

However with Safelite Solutions being a TPA for 18 of the top 20 insurers (the company’s statement, not mine) and an unknown number of lower tier auto insurance providers, it possesses the capacity of having the most comprehensive overview of the national automotive glass claim scene. Belron could easily discern the market percentage and penetration of any competitor in every marketplace where it competes. Safelite Solutions could provide data that identifies what competitor is doing best where and for which insurer. As Belron continues to acquire regional glass companies, would one opine that this can be a revealing and potentially a useful leverage point during negotiations.

Does being small mean one is safe with data sharing? If one is an “affiliate” with the Safelite Solutions network, what privileges does that bring? Can the firm receive favorable buy rates? In a crowded market place, do they receive referrals? One would think the greatest amount of presumptive referrals go to affiliates which are in geographical areas that Safelite feels it is not profitable to operate in. Since my one man shop is not an affiliate and I operate in an urban area with a Safelite store, I have never received one unsolicited referral in my entire career despite thousands of successful and apparently satisfied clients. That is not a complaint but just a fact. Safelite, however, knows what I charge, my tax ID number, and which insurers I have connections with. For all I know, they may have a video of my truck, the constant need of mine for a haircut and are aware of when my companion dog Peabody needs his grooming as well.

Belron seemingly is not bashful at all when it comes to aiding the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) in gathering statistics. And, from what I understand, providing photographic and data evidence when fraud is suspected. In fact, how much of a straw organization the NICB actually is for Belron is a question some observers would like answered. I applaud any chance to root out fraudulent actions within our industry but what restraints if any exist when a company with an enormous amount of concentrated power and influence decides to wield it to maintain its supremacy?

Privacy and corporate data sharing are national issues that can be addressed through Washington, D.C. and not state-by-state. One may also be able to avoid the well-placed and financed political influence that the insurance lobby has used to fight anti-steering measures. This gathering of meta-data for specific business reasons is just as potentially harmful to an independent glass shop owner as if a key employee was hired away by a competitor.

Any abuse of privacy underscores the single greatest need for reform when it comes to the insurance sector of automotive glass. No TPA should ever have any financial ties to any automotive glass-related company. Whether it is Safelite Solutions or Pittsburgh Glass Works-owned LYNX Services, the foxes are guarding the chickens and they are simply using their positions to fatten themselves up.

Never forget that AGRR’s big brother may be watching over you and he is not your guardian angel. Far from it. It is up to the rest of the industry to push for change to restore some balance to the automotive glass marketplace. Dismantling corporate glass-owned third-party administrators would go a long way in doing so.


Nightmare on Stevens Creek

04 Feb

Ever confront a tragedy in the making? What is the correct thing to do when witnessing a crime? What can one do to stop it from re-occurring?

I had that internal discussion last Friday when I came upon a windshield installation that was being conducted at a dealership. How it was being performed was a textbook case of hacking in the first degree. The sad part was the ultimate victim would be completely unaware of what had occurred and the perpetrator got away to commit his crimes again and again.

Here are the facts regarding this incident. I drove into a local Acura dealership to help a friend set a RDX for the service department. When entering the property, I saw what I thought was the tailgate section of his parked silver Tacoma pickup. As I approached, it became clear that the truck lacked my friend’s signage and side boxes. The bed contained a single lite in a makeshift rack and a large roll of generic molding. A call then came into my phone telling me that my buddy was in the back part of service and told me of his exact location.

Robert had not gotten too far. He had the cowl pulled and was removing the post moldings when I found him. In a well-choreographed division of labor, I started to inspect and prep the new glass until he was ready to remove the old one. Ten minutes or so later, as we were lifting the distorted lite out when the truck I saw earlier, pulled about 30 feet away next to a TL (FW 2452), a man got out and lifted the wipers up. That was the first clue that what I was going to witness would not make me proud of my tradecraft.

I stayed and helped my friend for about 20-30 minutes more until I went on to my own jobs. Within that time, I observed the following acts that confirmed that a “hack-o-meter” would be sounding proximity alarms, if one existed. The cowl was not removed; a long knife was used to both cut and remove urethane; no pinchweld primer was applied; and the inside of glass was washed as it stood in truck rack. No gloves were ever used. As I drove off, the person was working the glass under the cowl while using a single suction cup. As I sat in my truck while punching in directions to my install, if the law allowed, I wish I could have physically challenged him and stopped him, or at least, perform a citizen’s arrest and confiscate the minimal means he had to function as a hack installer. I simply refuse to label him as a technician.

The only back story is that this person is known to the newly appointed service manager. Whether the car was in reconditioning for resale or as a customer pay, this alleged install foisted on this vehicle and its soon-to-be or actual owner was unconscionable.

While unforgivable, this deplorable type of install that I observed is hardly uncommon. When I come in contact with a previously replaced windshields, I could easily state that at least 75 percent of these have incurred some sort of structural damage or decline due to an earlier glass replacement. Light surface rust, in my drought-stricken California is usually prevalent. The application of ‘liquid clips” to secure moldings is oftentimes an obstacle one has to overcome. Filleted moldings or inadequate generic ones are hardly uncommon. Incomplete or inadequate urethane bonding is fairly obvious. Why is doing one’s livelihood correctly and professionally become so difficult or even problematic?

The automotive glass industry is on a very slippery slope. We are in danger of being overwhelmed by the barbarians that have been allowed to operate by a lack of regulation and a “buyer beware” mentality that is pervasive in our society. Our industry lacks oversight nor does it seem to demand or accept any.

I do not have to go any further then the door of my glass distributors to find the hacks that operate openly and freely. While I have issues with businesses that market themselves solely on price, more times than not, one finds that a customer truly gets what he pays for when it comes to automotive glass. If cheap is what they want, than that is certainly what they get—cheap glass, adhesives and workmanship, all of the lower or even lowest quality. Never have I ever seen an abundance of tools, high-quality urethanes or OE glass and moldings on the mini trucks or vans that ply the freeways or parking lots in my area.

How many accounts or jobs have been lost by legitimate glass shops to concerns that have undercut their pricing? Legitimate means those who pay wages, insurance and proper taxes. How many of those low bidders exist legally? Or carry liability insurance? If an organization has more than one sole installer, what about workman’s compensation and payroll taxes? I am seeing more and more sub-vendors that have a relationship with cyber glass shops or websites. In these cases, they are paid a nominal flat labor fee to install a windshield from a lead generated by an out-of-town glass shop or ad click service. Some are given both glass and adhesives from their proxy shops. Since the labor fees are usually subsistent, quality workmanship is usually the first casualty.

This drains the resources and profitability of shops who value quality. By allowing hacks to contaminate our industry, we are putting both the public at risk and our own livelihoods. The sad fact is that there is an unwillingness to seek regulatory constraints or to somehow cull the worst offenders in the AGRR industry. Why would a glass manufacturer or wholesaler try to cut the number of sales they could make by calling for the removal of incompetent or illegal customers? Would a third-party administrator (TPA) demand stringent certification and high-limit liability insurance over negotiating deeper discounts from the same vendors? Furthermore, we, in AGRR, play into the hands of our largest competitor who promotes its technician’s training and employee character via the media over smaller companies—the unknown local glass purveyors—that may prey upon potential clients. That alone can create a bad dream or two.

This writer is truly tired of having nightmares that “Freddy the hack” is becoming the ugly face of today’s automotive glass industry. I see it more and more each day and most worrisome is the complete lack of concern by many within our industry. How we can police ourselves or be policed is the $64,000 question that has to be addressed and answered some day, hopefully sooner rather than later. If we continue to bury our collective heads in the sand, it will be our own necks that get hacked, as well as more unfortunate windshields.


Medic-to-be Maxwell

29 Jan

The news that Glass Medic products will become exclusive only to Belron should be hailed as a positive step for independents technicians who perform windshield repair. No longer will you have the option of choosing a somewhat ineffective Rube-Goldberg style method over simpler systems that actually can perform difficult yet commonplace repairs.

Let me first explain my history. I got into automotive glass through owning and operating Novus franchises from 1980 until approximately 1996 when I sold that end of my business to one of my long-time employees. I believe in the validity of the process. I have walked away from installs when I have encountered easily repairable breaks, giving the client the reference to call my old associate so the person could save money.

It is my simple contention that in the hands of a professional, a pressure system can and will deliver a completed repair in far more instances than the vacuum one. This is especially true when the operator is not under a timing metric that demands numbers over integrity.

While setting up an automated mechanical device on a customer’s windshield may impress some, the fact that injected resin may not reach the tips or outlying areas of a break once the vacuum has been released should suggest to many more customers that the intent of having a permanent repair has not been reached.

I have been called to replace a number of windshields that had Glass Medic repairs. Some of those had “run out” either at the time of repair (which happens to the best of repairman) or suspiciously later. Many of these repairs had unfilled legs or voids. I would tell customers that the effect was similar to a surgeon leaving pockets of cancer inside a patient either because it was too difficult or too inconvenient to remove.

Windshield repair is an art, just as installation is a craft. Glass Medic seems to me to be an attempt to mechanize and systemize chip repair in order to lower the qualifications of the operator. One might see a parallel to the difference between the chef who grills the steak at Ruth Chris Streak House over the person at McDonalds flipping the exact shaped and weighed burgers at the mandated time and temperature.

The factors of public ignorance and gullibility, along with inept, incompetent and spurious repair outlets, have allowed a certain corporation to set itself up as the standard of excellence to be compared to. This is done mostly by trying to mesmerize the viewing public with a high-tech approach. This is the same message the company uses when selling installation services: We are the only professionals you can trust.

As I have stated often and openly, due to the “easy entry” of this industry, conscientious and honorable glass shops get squeezed and are damaged by the unprofessional operations of low or no quality services, and for the most part, the mediocre and metric mandated procedures that our number one leader uses. Being foolproof, I suppose, is a major consideration when the company adapts a tool.

I suspect we may soon see Geico’s pig, Maxwell, operating a Glass Medic system in some not too distant advertisement. This would prove once again that almost anyone can be taught how to use one, even if they have hooves and are wrapped in a blanket.