There are so many excellent, innovative companies in this industry. I left out our companies’ names from the chart, because whether you feel we are leading in any of these areas isn’t relevant to this article. Point is, dealership managers are left to themselves to aggregate processes within at least 6 separate technology platforms. In our opinion, it’s Mission Improbable for most. Running a dealership is hard, it’s competitive, and it isn’t easy. Adding a technology integrator into the mix shouldn’t be part of the job description.
It doesn’t matter how great individual companies are or become in their respective swim lanes. There are just too many different technologies that will never integrate, strongly biased opinions, glowing reports, and conflicting priorities for dealerships to make sense of it all. I applaud the effort (we are participating) in trying to develop a new integration standard (ADF-XML 2.0) across multiple platforms. But at best, it will only make a small dent in the real challenges dealerships face in today’s increasingly complex world of retailing.
Not even Fortune 500 companies have as many technology platforms to communicate with their customers and market themselves in an integrated fashion. Every speech I hear has at least one reference to Amazon or Apple. They deliver world class experiences because they have a single fully integrated platform that connects their marketing, their customers, their inventory and their logistical operations. They treat their existing customers (like me) very differently than new customers, by heavily factoring my purchase history and my relevant data across every touchpoint I have with them. That’s one of their most powerful advantages. 99% of dealerships can’t do that because their data lives in 6+ places, not including accounting. Just go to any dealership’s website and look for the ‘Sign In’ button or ‘Current Customers click here’. You won’t find it. When someone who you already do business with starts out by asking your name…well that says it all. Today’s consumers demand to KNOW ME BETTER. SERVE ME FASTER. WOW ME EVERYWHERE.
Even if a dealership kept it simple, and only picked the largest company in the limited number of technology categories I outlined, they would still be left trying to make it all work. These companies are hugely successful and best in class. Guess what? They also have the least desire to work together, are fiercely competitive, and nobody can blame them for that.
When I started in the business, it was common for dealerships to use separate finance systems (like Coin) or service retailing systems. We walked many deal jackets upstairs to accounting for them to keypunch into the DMS, which sounds nuts by today’s standards. But, once dealerships got used to the integration – they couldn’t live without it. Most of those independent companies were either purchased (like us) or they vanished. Not anymore, they are now entering the space as fast as they can, typically with a singularly focused solution, and a pocket full of investment cash.
I was fortunate enough to start my first company at 22. I worked in dealerships nights and weekends, plus developed and sold some great software during the day. After 3 to 4 years, I was able to just focus on building our first business. So, I asked lots of questions to anyone who was successful so that I could learn -because I knew nothing except how to out-hustle most. I truly did not know what I did not know. I heard a lot of inspiring thoughts, but the one piece of advice that remained consistent was, “Do one thing, and do it well. Do it better than everybody. Focus.” And ultimately, we did. It was good, sound advice, and I think most entrepreneurs in the automotive space subscribed to the advice I was given both then and now. That’s why all the leading and largest technology platforms are still different today. They stayed in their swim lane. But a whole bunch of new platforms are on their way. Because Silicon Valley is betting and banking that these siloed tech platforms are the answer.
That strategy no longer makes sense in a complex business environment like automotive retailing. In fact, I think the opposite. So much has changed, and today’s consumers’ expectations are now being established by companies like Apple, Amazon and Google. They are fully integrated across every touchpoint. The bar is high.
That’s why we have been on a long-term mission (aptly named Apollo) to build one fully integrated omni-channel technology platform that can facilitate every ounce of communicating, marketing, retailing and servicing a vehicle online or offline from one database. We couldn’t license or buy the technology, or piece-meal it together through a series of acquisitions. It had to be designed and constructed from the infrastructure level up. It’s been difficult, it’s been filled with setbacks, and it’s been five times as challenging and expensive to create as we initially thought. We are not done, but we have tackled the most difficult technical aspects of the mission. We are doing this because we firmly believe this is the only logical way for dealerships and OEMs to facilitate the changes required to meet the demands of today’s consumers through one integrated omni-channel platform. The large aggregators have struggled to cobble together integrated solutions, through acquisitions, and the start-ups don’t have enough capital or the desire for this level of competition.
Something as basic as making sure that every single medium a dealership is advertising with (from free to paid) consistently has the exact same offers, payments and disclaimers for every single model, trim and for every piece of inventory in stock. When something changes like incentives, price, compliance, or a state regulation, within minutes everything is automatically updated across all the mediums and on all the major platforms. Retaining current customers is so vital to a dealership business that it has to be 75% easier and faster to transact in sales or service than it would be for a brand-new customer. A dealership’s primary website should cater to their existing customers as much as it does to the public. By simply cross-referencing a phone number from a customer who is speaking, texting, or using Voice, you can find out 100 other pieces of critical data to make it so easy to facilitate another profitable transaction in minutes with zero friction.
My gut is that we are not only going to continue to see further dealership consolidation, but we will see vendors consolidate, merge, get acquired or vanish because omni-channel technology integration is going to be the future. OEMs are going to start looking at the logic and power of entire platforms for their retailers that connect Tier 1, 2 and 3 seamlessly. Today, they overload their dealers with individual technology platforms, picked out by some uninvested third party to evaluate, primarily based on getting the lowest price. The CO-OP programs have a purpose for sure, but dealers are left to try and make sense of all the separate technology platforms that will never work together. So, who wins? Not the dealership, and certainly not the customer.
And finally, the consumer experience itself won’t be frictionless because so many important touchpoints are inconsistent and SLOW on mobile devices. 85% of customers finance or lease their vehicles. So just start with something as basic as payments, much less actually attempting a transaction online.
Take one common vehicle/trim that you have in stock (that you are advertising), and do the following:
- Search for that car in Google, and jot down the payments and terms you are advertising -if any exist.
- Do the same thing on YouTube.
- Then go to your primary website, jot those down.
- Then go into your Equity Mining Tool, jot those down.
- Then go into your CRM and see what those emails would have for payments?
- Then go to Facebook, jot those down.
- If you send mail and/or email, jot those payments down.
- Then pull up your Retailing plug-in (if you have one), jot those down.
- Then go to the Third Party Sites and jot those down.
- Then call the store and ask about the payments for that same car you might purchase or lease.
- Then email your dealership and ask the same question.
- Now, be the customer. Because many of them are exposed to all of the above.
If you are advertising or communicating payment-based offers (which work two times better), you had a massive amount of work to do make sure everything was consistent. But most dealers give up, because it’s Mission Improbable. So, they go back to the ads that don’t include the single most important information that should be available to today’s consumer which is: “Do you have it, and how much is it?” Especially repeat buyers.
To my many dealership friends, do your best, don’t get frustrated, don’t switch vendors as often. Start asking questions about how things work together, demand consistency because your credibility depends on it, shop yourselves everywhere. And most importantly, start looking for omni-channel platforms that do more -and are as integrated as your phones, computers and the favorite companies you transact with. Licensing more single-channel technology platforms just overloads you with tech and requires more of your time to learn it.