The desire to control is not an attractive feature in individuals or companies. Too many OEMs follow a control model for their service parts and maintenance information which is anti-market, and it should be understood and opposed.
A Trend Observed
It has come to our attention after reviewing several of our previous articles that the less control OEMs (original equipment manufacturers = companies like Ford, Apple, Cisco, etc..) and service organizations have, the better it is for consumers.
Automotive Service Restrictions to Competition
In our article, Why Automotive Parts Networks Area a Mess, I cover how automotive dealers are retarding the development of service parts businesses through their monopoly over many “dealer only parts.” These parts are not even made by the manufacturers, but instead by the manufacturer’s supplier base (on average 70% of a car is not made by the name on the car). The only reason this situation exists is because OEMs compel parts manufacturers to sign exclusive contracts with the OEM that restricts the selling of parts to the OEM or to the dealer network. This is bad for consumers in a couple of different ways.
- Dealers lack the competence or interest to create service part websites, and thus most dealer parts cannot be purchased online in any way.
- Consumers have to pay a significant premium for their parts because of the control exerted by dealers and their antiquated supply chain and inventory systems.
Unprincipled Tying Agreements
There is something ethically wrong with these type of agreements. If a company is not making an item, its hard to see how they have the right to determine how that item is sold and distributed. Not only is the item not made by the OEM, but the technical knowledge and intellectual property is not theirs either, that also resides with the parts supplier. There are laws in the US against what is referred to as “tying agreements.” It is typically applied to an OEM pressuring a retailer to sell one of the OEM’s new or less popular items in exchange for gaining access to the right to sell another more established item. I don’t see why the tying arrangement law could not be applied by the Federal Trade Commission to break up exclusive OEM distribution arrangements with their parts suppliers.
Wouldn’t This Be Anti-Market?
This is a very common concern brought up people when exposed to this idea. There is a severe misunderstanding generally about what makes an dynamic and innovative economy…and it have very little to do with moving interest rates around or bailing out Wells Fargo. It has much more to do with structuring the rules of the economy so they provide the right incentives to business to operate openly and transparently. If we really want the dynamic and innovative economy, that according to the business publications we say we want, then we need to collectively show some backbone and begin standing against uncompetitive and regressive legal contracts that enrich non-value added actors at the expense of consumers and market efficiency. There are already all types of laws on the books that break up trusts and uncompetitive, anti-consumer activities. It’s time to start using them again.
Video Repair Guides and Information Exchange
In our article, Using Online Videos for Service and Repair, I discuss how, in the case of repair guides and repair information, OEMs have historically restricted information to users, and how it is the user community that is actually doing the OEM’s work for them by making repair videos available on YouTube.
OEMs have done remarkably little innovating, and placed little effort towards creating quality instructional material for the servicing of their items. Their manuals are belabored, sleep inducing to read and unnecessarily expensive to produce compared to the benefit obtained by consumers. OEMs may find this topic incidental or a non-issue but it is wasting a lot of consumer time. If a regulatory body appeared and placed a label which listed the average number of hours required to assemble or repair items right on product packaging, OEMs would start taking this issue of repair information a lot more seriously. Again, many would call this an unnecessary restriction of the market. However, they would be basing this on a flawed understanding of what makes an efficient market. A market cannot develop without information. Here is an example.
Market Information Example
Lets say a consumer is looking at two items in a store. They have identical features and both from reputable manufacturers, but one is $15 less. It would make economic sense for the consumer to buy the lower cost item correct? Not necessarily. What if the lower priced item, because of a bad manual or bad design takes an hour longer to assemble, and 2 more hours to maintain over the life of the item. Furthermore let us say the consumer values his time at $20 per hour. In this example, the buyer would be in actuality paying $45 more by buying the less expensive item ($15 – (3 x $ 20 / hour) = $45. However, if the consumer is not made aware of this information, they will not be able to make a rational choice. Thus the current information model – which is no information about long term service costs promotes manufacturers to complete on price, to not invest in designing effective instructional material and to make less serviceable items. This results in a less efficient market.
The Place of Regulation in Maintaining Markets
This misunderstood feature is primarily because it has been heavily lobbied against by business through extensive public relations campaigns and influencing educational curriculum and economics research with money. An efficient market requires regulation, just as a fair football game requires officiating. If anyone doubts this, simply try a little test. For one week in the NFL, have all the games played with no officiating, and see what happens to the quality of the game. Thus, regulations that increase transparency and information enhance the market, not the other way around.
*This is the nice thing about blogging, if I worked at a university, I would probably get a lot of pressure from corporate donors for writing this, and our head of department would be angry at us for reducing the department’s fund raising opportunities. (businesses only fund business friendly research) However, since I do not report to any institution, I can present what is well known, but which is career limiting in academics to discuss or publish.
The ineffectiveness of manuals is well researched. The vast majority of users never read them. They also lack effectiveness because, unlike a video, they cannot show the manipulation of items in a 3 dimensional space. Several YouTube videos for each product could probably replace most of the instruction manuals for products that are sold. More complex products would require more videos, which is fine. They are cheap to produce and take less skill to produce than written manuals. To write a good manual, one has to be a good writer in addition to reproducing technical knowledge. However, to make a good instructional video one only needs to know very basic video filming, and simply perform the activity on camera. Videos can show an entire assembly and dis-assembly of an item, providing maximum reproducibility.
Service organization and OEMs are losing control over the information of their products. While they controlled this information in the past, this information was never theirs to begin with. In a free society, anyone can publish whatever they like about whatever product or service they use. History shows that users will come up with many shortcuts and extra uses that OEMs never thought of. In a way, this is similar to the benefits of open source software.
While threats like “voiding warranties” have been used to limit the user’s customization of products, a person has a right to do whatever they like to products that they buy. Users are posting videos for doing unapproved things (such as replacing iMac hard drives) to their items. What has changed is that users now have the distribution mechanism – YouTube specifically, but the web more generally, to provide their own content. Much of this content is of very good quality, and this demonstrates that content like this is not that difficult to produce, and of great benefit to users.
The trend here is clear, the less control OEMs have over the servicing of their items, the better that market will be for consumers and the more dynamic the overall market will be generally. OEMs seem to have little interest in investing in innovation, IT or service generally, so it makes sense to open them up and allow user communities to do the work they don’t want to do, so they can just work on new product design and marketing.
Forward looking OEMs will embrace this and even support the growth of online user communities on their websites. These developments can be incorporated into their own service organizations.
After researching this area, I found it goes back further than I thought. This excerpt is from the book The Waster Makers published way back in 1960. Manufacturers often failed to provide in provide information that would facilitate repairs. Recently The Boston Globe protested that appliance manufacturers were getting so “cozy” with service manuals that customers seeking them got the impression they were “censored as if they contained obscene material.” The Electric Appliance Service News likewise expressed indignation on behalf of servicemen, or at least independent servicemen. It said, “Our mail is loaded with gripes daily from servicemen throughout the country lamenting their inability to obtain service manuals from certain manufacturers.” Often this coziness has sprung from the desire of the manufacturer to keep the repair business to itself and out f the hands of independents. The News charged that “some manufacturers do not make service manuals available to all independent repairmen and therefore it is almost impossible to make repairs easily and properly—and at a time-saving expense.