Thursday, 31 August 2006 17:00

I-CAR promises improved customer service, more training options

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Rod Enlow joked that in mid-2005 as he became chairman of I-CAR's board of directors, it looked like it was going to be a fairly smooth and calm year for the training organization. The destructive forces of hurricanes Katrina and Rita turned out to be just one of the issues that ended up buffeting I-CAR during what Enlow now calls a challenging but successful year. 

His comments came as he wrapped up his year as chairman at I-CAR's annual meeting, held in San Jose, California, in August. Although he and Tom McGee, president and CEO of I-CAR, did not avoid discussing the less positive aspects of the past year during their presentations to meeting attendees, they also focused on some key accomplishments as well as future ventures in which I-CAR is involved.

Student enrollment in I-CAR classes was up this past year, for example, and even though it was still nearly 25 percent below its most recent peak in 2002, additional sources of revenue - such as welding qualification tests, online training, and training development for automakers - boosted fiscal revenues to about $14.6 million, the highest ever.

This occurred in a fiscal year, McGee and Enlow pointed out, when last fall's hurricanes and resulting flooding challenged a region of the country that has in recent years been among the most active for I-CAR.

Trademark battle distracts

Enlow also said the past year included "a very serious threat to the I-CAR trademark." Although it was discussed in only vague terms at the meeting, I-CAR and Clemson University were recently involved in a legal skirmish over the school's use of the acronym "ICAR" for its "International Center for Automotive Research" in South Carolina.

"This took quite a large effort to fully explore, prepare, discuss and defend," Enlow said. "As our trademark becomes more valuable, the potential for others to try to use look-alike, sound-alike names…is a clear and present danger. For this reason, it was the recommendation of the I-CAR Executive Committee and then the full International Board of Directors, that I-CAR vigorously defend our trademark to the fullest extent of our capabilities and available resources. I'm happy to report to this body that I-CAR prevailed in the litigation taken against us, and we have built several safeguards to more fully reinforce our organization's ability to better defend the I-CAR trademark against potential future action."

Clemson is now calling its research center "CU-ICAR," but the distraction and resulting legal fees for I-CAR this past year were what another board member termed "greater than anticipated."

McGee, too, said that I-CAR's shift this past year to a new database and a move to its newly-built headquarters building in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, resulted in some glitches in customer service.

"We failed in a lot of ways while this transition was going on and we were distracted with some of these other things," McGee said. "But I tell you, the support we got from the volunteers and instructors was fabulous. And the staff did their best; I was proud of the staff.

"So my apologies to those who called and had some issues with our service. Please bear with us. Customer service will get better in this organization. Our promise for fiscal 2007 will be to increase service and support. We will become more service-oriented. We have customers. We need to take care of our customers and treat them like we want to be treated."

New ventures and offerings

McGee did have plenty of positive developments to announce at the meeting. While the meeting was under way, for example, I-CAR posted to its website (www.i-car.com) a newly-developed vehicle sectioning guide.

"We've been working through the I-CAR Tech Center with State Farm Research and [Allstate-owned] Tech-Cor to develop a vehicle sectioning or partial sectioning matrix," McGee said. "Now the industry can go free of charge to determine: 'Can I section this car or not?'"

Along with listing what sectioning procedures are available for various vehicles, the web-based guide includes links to the appropriate OEM or other websites where the sectioning information is available.

I-CAR has also continued to expand its relationships with automakers, which McGee said is helping bring more vehicle and repair information to the entire industry, in part through an increasing number of vehicle-specific training courses.

"It makes sense with the technology changes that are going on," he said. "And the training is not limited to the car manufacturers. We're doing more training for independent collision repair businesses than we are dealers."

He said I-CAR is also taking steps to simplify its "Gold Class Professionals" and "Platinum Individual" programs, which recognize those that maintain high levels of technical training. The revised requirements are the same for all technicians, for example. In order to obtain the Gold Class Professionals designation, all technicians and estimators at a shop, for example, will be required to have completed five tested I-CAR courses as well as any two additional tested courses each year.

I-CAR's "alternative delivery" systems, McGee said, are also beginning to take off. It includes a library of self-study courses online, and through WebEx a schedule of classes people can listen in and view from their shop or office and even interact with the instructor through the Internet and phone. He said use of these training options is still a bit below what was expected, but he believes some lack of awareness of their availability may be one cause of that.

"We are dealing, I also think, with some demographics issues as well," he said. "Most technicians at 34 or 38 years old are not real comfortable on computers. So as you start to see a younger generation come in, we'll see use of it pick-up."

I-CAR is also beginning to expand internationally, with more activity in New Zealand and an effort to launch in Australia this fall.

McGee was also very pleased to see one of his longer-term goals for I-CAR move closer to reality this year with a deal that will enable the industry to receive credit for I-CAR training toward associates or bachelors degrees through the University of Phoenix. Teresa Hutchinson, a corporate liaison with the University, said a student with completed I-CAR training may receive up to 30 transfer units, which can knock as much as a year and $10,000 to $15,000 off the cost of a degree through the University of Phoenix's online programs or at 190 campus locations.

Details and a course transfer guide can be obtained through a special joint website (www.uopx.com/icar), or by calling Hutchinson at (800) 433-2490, ext. 71740.

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.

  

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