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Brian Pasch

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The Six Horsemen of Automotive Innovation

By Brian Pasch

horse-race-final-650Over the years, the Internet has created new sales and marketing opportunities for car dealers. To meet these opportunities, automotive vendors have been building single point solutions, which have caused dealers to race around and buy a la carte solutions.

For 2014, the new opportunity is to connect all of the various vendor products into one cohesive platform. OEMs have a big interest in making unified marketing and sales data a reality.  Data collected from unified platforms across Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 will revolutionize the manufacturing and distribution of vehicles in the franchise network.

Integrated marketing platforms will be ultimately driven by consumer expectations of a more seamless shopping experience online and in the store. The first time I purchased a computer at an Apple retail store, I was shocked how easy it was to get what I needed and walk out of the store in minutes. The sales representative standing next to me swiped my credit card, my receipt was emailed, and I was handed my purchase in an Apple branded bag.

If consumers do value ease of purchase and ownership then that will reward OEM-Dealer networks that deliver on that experience.  Delivering on that experience requires products that work together.

This doesn’t mean that all products have to come from the same vendor, but there is an overall architecture to how they interact, which is defined by a platform provider or industry standards. The Apple/Android App Store model is a business success story, and it is my hope that an eco-system develops for automotive industry technology and services.

To fill this new opportunity, not all vendors have a complete portfolio of products. If you are a student of the automotive industry and digital marketing platforms, you are most likely aware of a horse race that is brewing. The race is made up of six companies that are racing to win the hearts of dealers and manufacturers by creating an integrated sales and marketing platform for car dealers. The promise of a better consumer experience is also sold as part of the presentation.

The six horses in the race own various pieces of technology through their own development efforts, recent acquisitions, and business partnerships.  The six horses in the race are Dealer.com, ADP | Cobalt, Autotrader Companies (ATC), Reynolds & Reynolds (including Naked Lime), Dominion Dealer Solutions, and Dealertrack Technologies.   Autotrader Companies includes VinSolutions, Haystak Digital Marketing, vAuto, Autotrader.com, KBB.com, Manheim, HomeNet, et al.

The specific platform features of the six companies vary. I will address their perceived strengths and weaknesses later in this article. The six horsemen have different approaches to the race but they have some similarities: reducing the inefficiencies in dealership operations, leveraging mobile technology in the sales process, increasing the effectiveness of marketing dollars, creating a better/shorter consumer purchase experience, and leveraging big data opportunities.

Will Unified Platforms Really Deliver More Sales?

The prize for delivering a powerful end-to-end platform can be very lucrative. It can include OEM endorsements, OEM data partnerships, and exclusive OEM relationships.  These OEM relationships create a barrier for competitors to provide core services to dealers.  For example, Cobalt has done a masterful job of becoming the primary endorsed brand in GM franchises for websites and digital advertising services and has their products in co-op partnerships for reputation management, and social media.

The companies in the race can’t lose sight of the fact that dealers want to sell more cars at a lower cost regardless of OEM mandates.  Cobalt has learned the hard way that the OEM and the dealer are their clients! Technology itself is not a solution to sell more cars; dealership employees have to be able to easily use it!  There is less time for strategic errors in this fast paced market, and there is too much at stake (OEM dollars) for these six companies to ignore past integration failures and software launches.

Changing the culture and processes in the dealership to best leverage a new suite of marketing solutions will be a significant challenge for all horses in this race.  Just look inside a dozen dealership CRM systems and you can quickly see how difficult it can be for sales professionals to follow a recommended sales process, even if the technology can make them more efficient.

New technology in the sales process will require our industry to rethink everything that we have done in the past, especially to use on iPads and mobile devices.  The largest dealer groups in our industry have a lead on restructuring the dealership experience. There will be some resistance to change, so the six horsemen better have a strong in-store marketing and training plan in place.

Integrated platforms have been discussed for years. Cliff Banks was writing about this topic over 10 years ago.  Those who doubt that the time or need has come for integrated marketing platforms should think again.  For the first time, data integration is making a strong case for dealing with one vendor for websites, advertising, and CRM.  In addition, manufacturers see the “big data” goldmine provided by access to multi-channel shopping data on Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 websites and advertising campaigns.  This is extremely difficult to achieve without limiting data partners.

Sprint Development & Changing Programming Styles

In any new technology cycle, dramatic efficiencies can be realized immediately. Dale Pollak and the team at vAuto dramatically changed the way used cars were purchased and sold.  However, when once “new” features become commonplace, how can these six companies remain innovative and deliver timely new features to their platforms?  Market pricing tools are now being integrated in platforms inspired by first to market leaders like Dealertrack Technologies AAX and vAuto.

It is common knowledge that the current CRM platforms from Reynolds & Reynolds, ADP, and Dominion Dealer Solutions had fallen behind in innovation and technology. Their user interfaces and core features have not matched the needs of the market. Server based technology should have been replaced with cloud solutions years ago. Dealers do not easily forget being stuck with outdated software or onerous contracts.

One change on the horizon that will benefit dealers: software development methodologies are evolving.  Many companies are moving away from annual software releases and moving toward “sprint” programming teams.

The term “agile development” refers to adding software features every 4-6 weeks, using small groups of developers, so that the programming resources stay aligned with the marketplace.

One company that has impressed me with their agile development is Cobalt. When ADP purchased Cobalt, in late 2010, skeptics said that they would be stuck for years with integrating the ADP and Cobalt website technology.  Naysayers said that ADP would drag down the momentum that Cobalt was building in the marketplace.

In fact, just the opposite happened. It took the Executive team just two weeks to make a decision on how to move forward.  In the last three years, using agile development, they have released their new Flex Website platform and a series of integrated tools for SEO, SEM, Social Media, and Reputation Management.  Their website personalization technology using “big data” is a market first.  Dealers will have to get used to Cobalt leading the market and not being late to the party.

Build vs. Buy

Having the components of the “marketing engine” is the first step, but the bigger challenge is integration and optimization.  The optimization steps are where most companies fail.  History has demonstrated that software acquisitions can be mothballed because the purchaser finds the underlying code too unstable to build upon.

The software development tools today are also making existing software look ancient, even though the software is running in a production environment. A case in point, ADP has begun briefing dealers on a new CRM platform in a new, “ground-up” build; they decided not to build on their existing technology to facilitate the cross-application integration required to deliver more seamless workflows in the dealership.  Dealers should get a glimpse of their long overdue CRM upgrade by NADA 2014.

Trying to tie together different software products, which most likely were built on different programming languages, is one challenge.  The greater challenge is creating a final product that delivers greater efficiencies and cost savings.

For example, VinSolutions recently purchased Haystak Digital Marketing to add digital advertising to their suite of dealer solutions. Haystak is a strong stand-alone product, however, it would be unfair to compare the digital advertising integration of Haystak and VinSolutions to what Cobalt and Dealer.com have built for their platforms.

The latter two companies have had years of integration experience with their website platforms, backend interface, and client reporting.  In fact Cobalt has built an impressive data warehouse, which can analyze multi-channel advertising data to create predictive models.  These models can customize dealership websites and increase consumer engagement.

Is Adding CRM The Magic Bullet?

Likewise, adding a CRM platform is not qualification for bragging rights today. The innovation awards will come when inventory data, marketing data, desking tools, CRM reporting, and consumer shopping behavior metrics are seamlessly integrated with the CRM platform to create a better “experience” when consumers contact the dealership.

It takes years to get the bugs out of a new CRM product. Companies like Dealer.com and Cobalt have decided it is better to build a “fresh” solution rather than release one that was acquired. Dominion Dealer Solutions and Dealertrack Technology are hush-hush about their upcoming CRM products, but we should be getting some market announcements in the coming months. Reynolds & Reynolds is just starting to roll out their “new” Contact Management CRM, which is said to be HTML 5 compliant, and replaces “classic” Contact Management.

I have a long wish list for Automotive CRM, and I bet readers of this article can add a few of their own. I would love to see better CRM integration with digital and mobile telephony.  I would also like to see better software integration with third party call recording, call scoring, lead scoring, and process scoring data.  For example, integrating call/lead inspection data from companies like PhoneNinjas.com, CallRevu, or PCG Consulting would be a great start for initial “App Store” integration.   Did someone mention apps?

Will Dealers and OEMs Reward An Open Ecosystem?

In the end, the OEM and/or the dealer has to “vote” that the marketing engine is easy to use and scale for their business. Companies in this horse race are hoping that the OEM makes the decision for the dealer and picks their platform solution; it saves on marketing costs.  This is where the horse race gets scary and could upset the eco-system for vendors, consultants, and for dealers.

The Internet is all about speed & change. The race is all about experimenting with fresh new ideas that motivate shoppers at lightning speed.  Will the new unified platform handcuff dealers, or, give them “room to run”?

This is an important question, as a dealer’s future success will depend on if the integrated system is open or closed.

For example, let’s look at what’s happening with Apple vs. Android. Apple has a closed system, Android is open.  We know the story. Apple once was the leader, but is now losing market share quickly because the Android system is built to allow a community of vendors the freedom to explore new areas. Apple users are forced to wait for Apple to do everything.

Remember Blackberry? They were another closed system, unable to react to Steve Job’s Apple.  Do you see the re-occurring theme?  Closed systems can create early wins but are very vulnerable to innovation.

I also understand the counter argument of Apple vs. Android.  In the app world, Apple has much higher standards than Android.  Will our industry lean toward the Apple model because of the sensitive data contained in dealership CRM and DMS systems?  There must be a balance between open systems and data security that allows for third party innovation.

Vendors opting for closed systems would be akin to changing out their horse for an elephant in the race.  The six horsemen will also have to be more collaborative with their competitors.  Larger dealer groups will have a mixture of websites, CRM, and DMS products because of existing contracts and store preferences.

To facilitate collaboration, the automotive industry will need to define new data exchange specifications to allow rich data sets to be passed between unified platforms.  The domestic cell phone network is an example of creative collaboration with fiercely competing companies.

Our industry may need a third party to define specifications and bring the six horsemen together to agree on communication protocols. This is roadblock for manufacturers who want to get usable data sets from larger dealer groups or their franchise network if it does not have a single mandated platform provider.

Open Does Not Mean That Everything Is Open

It will be interesting to see which companies embrace the community of developers, trainers, and boutique software solutions with an app store architecture that is not cost prohibitive.  A system that rewards innovation and still delivers on the promise of unified data for analysis, big data decision-making tools, and a seamless customer experience.

Will there be limitations on app technology that is approved by the larger vendor community?  I think there will be based on past history. I predict that some companies would not give access to their core technology to replace their own advertising solutions.

For example, Dealer.com today does not allow advertising agencies to run Adwords campaigns to their websites and use their replaceable phone number technology. This is critical because paid clicks generate more phone calls than lead forms. The only exception was when Chrysler mandated access to companies approved for co-op funds for Adwords. Where the six horsemen draw the line on any competing technology will be anyone’s guess.

Integrated platforms will force consolidation in the 40+ website providers to car dealers as well as CRM providers.  As developments costs get higher each year and dealers expect more from their website partners some companies will just shut their doors.  I saw that in New Jersey recently as MJMI ended abruptly. With that said, dealers should note that there are some superstars out there that are beating the marketplace to offer superior core technologies that are giving dealers a competitive edge; Dealer eProcess is one of those superstars.

Rethinking Training, Continuing Education, & Leadership

Software providers have done a poor job of elevating education, training, and certification for dealership sales professionals based on the required skills that the Internet has brought to our industry. When will these six companies copy the successful business models designed by Microsoft and Cisco?  These industry giants created an ecosystem of third party certified engineers, trainers and integration partners that became low cost evangelists for their brand.  Vendor certification programs could one day be an aspect of the DrivingSales University (DSU) platform.

The six horsemen may also need to change their sales and support models.  Today, product specialists mostly call on dealers.  A website sales specialist is not expected to know how to launch a paid search campaign for aging inventory.  With a unified platform dealership sales and support staff may need to have more multi-disciple training to be effective. This may reduce overall headcount but will raise the bar on the training needed to build tomorrow’s sales and support team.

We have heard much banter about how big data will change our business, but the limitation of innovation comes down to leadership. We can have all the latest technology, rejoice to have mobile enabled software, and salivate over insights into the consumer shopping experience, but our sales and service professionals still have to be able to understand how to use it!

If you want to get a reality check, ask CRM field trainers how satisfied they are on their second/third visit back to the dealership, in regards to staff utilization of what they were taught. In most cases, they are disappointed because management is not holding people accountable, and how can they when they are not competent themselves?

Our industry has spent much time training sales professionals, yet it seems that little focus has been on training Sales Managers and General Managers.  The future opportunities brought to market by unified sales and marketing platforms will not be realized unless we invest in our leadership structure at the dealership.  Our managers have to become the experts on the new tools that our industry will rely on in the future. New-Horseman-Chart

Calling the Race As They Come Around The Turn

How would I call the race today?  I’ll answer that, but keep in mind that our industry can change on a dime.  It was exciting to see Chip Perry execute his vision to build an automotive powerhouse through acquisitions, but now a new CEO is at the helm.  Does the new CEO have the same vision, and will he be able to integrate all the chess pieces in a timely manner?

In the past year, Dealertrack Technologies has been on a buying spree, and their end game is evolving. Will they be adding more companies to their shopping basket?  Reynolds & Reynolds is launching their new Contact Management platform. Will it silence critics? Will more OEM’s mandate a single website platform like Chrysler did?

Whatever happens it will be an exciting year ahead for sure! In regards to the race, here is how I call the positions as I see it today:

Leading At The Turn: ADP | Cobalt – This partnership has been a truly symbiotic relationship. ADP infused cash and resources into Cobalt, which has allowed them to add key programming, technical, and customer support staff. For example, Cobalt’s data analytics team consists of 70 full-time professionals!  In return Cobalt’s software development culture is transforming the stogy ADP into an agile development juggernaut.

Three years ago, I heard many complaints from dealers about Cobalt’s “outdated” websites and opaque service offerings. Recently, the tide of public opinion has turned as Cobalt seeks to be more dealer-centric, transparent, and competitive by delivering first to market solutions.  It is clear that they have learned that dealers and the OEM are their customers. In the past there was too much emphasis on OEM relationships to the detriment of the franchise dealer. They also have “cool” products and technology that make them first in market. A refreshing change!

Cobalt most definitely has the industry’s most sophisticated data warehouse for digital advertising. They are first to market with a personalized consumer shopping experience on the Flex website platform based on big data. If you are not aware how this technology works, you can read my recent article on Cobalt’s Personalized Consumer Experience.

Cobalt’s suite of solutions, that include SEO, SEM, Social Media, and Reputation Management, are being integrated very nicely into their backend dashboard.  Their backend interface is not as slick as Dealer.com, but a significant upgrade from what was once a basic set of management tools. Cobalt has a strong reporting engine and excellent graphical representations for SEO, SEM, Social, and Reputation Management.  I like the fact that you can export their report data into Excel or ROI-BOT™ very easily for customized reporting and analysis.

Their Flex website platform has a huge upgrade in technology and capability. Cobalt completely widgetized their platform, with each widget being digital “aware” and customizable from the Cobalt data warehouse.  It is hard to appreciate the power of their “smart” widget website solution until you see it in action.

In regards to providing an adaptive/responsive mobile website solution, Cobalt has one in the development lab, but no date has been set for general release. This is one area that Cobalt is behind in the marketplace. It will be important to see how quickly they can plug this opportunity leak and deliver a seamless content experience across all device types.

With ADP’s dominance in the DMS world, Cobalt has all the pieces of the puzzle, ample resources, and a successful development model to update their CRM and DMS solutions.   ADP DMS has proven itself to be flexible and powerful for larger dealer groups looking for enterprise solutions and owner marketing campaigns.  ADP also brings a suite of solutions for Fixed Operations and the back office, which again makes their end-to-end solution so powerful, and even stronger in the years ahead.

ADP is also a leader in integrated dealership telephony, which I hope will have stronger hooks in their upcoming CRM platform. Expect to see ADP’s new cloud-based CRM platform at NADA in New Orleans.  If there is one complaint I still hear today, it is that the ADP CRM is too clumsy to use. Well it looks like they are checking off another item on their customer “wish list” very soon.

In regards to dealership training and support, Cobalt has made some significant investments in expanding their field staff and remote support offerings. Cobalt is also proactively discussing with third party trainers how to leverage their resources to create a larger support ecosystem. The combined forces of ADP and Cobalt makes this horse a clear leader in so many areas, and takes the lead as we watch the horse at this turn.

In Second Place by a Head: Dealer.com - People marvel at Google’s corporate offices, but when you visit Dealer.com Burlington offices you can feel the energy that is in the building.  Dealer.com has been extremely focused on building world-class solutions from the ground up. Their executive leadership team is smart and the original founding partners are all actively involved in the success of the business. They have the best-designed backend management console for their integrated suite of solutions.

Dealer.com also has an impressive adaptive website design, that is scheduled to be released on the 1st week of October, that publishes properly sized website pages on desktop, mobile, and tablet devices. Many companies claim that they have new mobile technology in development, but Dealer.com is one of the few that can openly demonstrate working technology today.

Dealer.com has done a very good job at providing enterprise data and analytics to larger dealer groups, a feature they share with only Cobalt. They were first to market with VIN-level Adwords campaigns when they released TCD a number of years before companies like Haystak or Showroom Logic existed. Dealer.com has a robust website platform that can be customized very easily and dealers find their software easy to use.

Dealer.com’s new CRM platform is impressive but there are some features and reporting functions that need to be added. This is common in any new product line and I expect that ADP and Reynolds & Reynolds will have similar birthing pains with their new CRM product launches.

Despite being a new product, the Dealer.com CRM user interface and management tools are amazingly simple, yet powerful. Dealer.com’s CRM reminds me of a product that Apple designers would build.  Dealers are raving at how easy it is to inspect workflows and assignments to their sales force. When was the last time you heard a dealer rave about a CRM product?

Dealer.com has integrated service offerings for SEO, SEM, Social Media, and Reputation Management. They currently do not offer a DMS product but they have access to both ADP and Reynolds & Reynolds DMS platforms.  Their website platform, like Cobalt, has many OEM endorsements and an exclusive with Chrysler and Subaru.

Dealer.com has built most of their platform from the ground up and has not often gone the acquisition route.  As a result, integration headaches or incompatible development tools do not limit their platform’s growth. I also have to commend Dealer.com for avoiding rushing new products to market.  I think they have learned from the mistakes of their peers; it is hard to take back the damage from a weak product rushed to market.

Finally, Dealer.com built their company on bold marketing campaigns, active evangelists on dealer forums, and being highly visible at industry trade events. The company, as it has matured, has been much quieter and reserved.  That said, Dealer.com has the best NADA parties for their customers, which are always fun to attend.

I would encourage Dealer.com to get back to their roots and not conform to marketing models of their peers. Get the energy that is clearly felt in Burlington, and now in Southern California, back in the face of dealers.

Pulling Into Third Place: Dealertrack Technologies – Autotrader.com is not the only company interested in acquisitions. Dealertrack Technologies has been on a buying spree; 20 companies have been purchased in the past nine years.  Dealertrack has an industry leading position in credit application processing, electronic document processing, and F&I solutions, but in recent years have added inventory management, websites, and digital marketing solutions by purchasing eCarlist and Clickmotive. Dealertrack is also leading the charge in automotive digital retailing with their online “first pencil” credit tools (called Payment Driver) that can be integrated in any website platform.  In fact, the technology is so good that Dealer.com has integrated their Payment Driver technology into the Vehicle Detail Pages.

Dealertrack is one of the few companies that are encouraging dealers to provide solutions that will allow consumers to purchase a car completely online.  The consumer of the future may be coming to the dealership to sign a few papers and have a representative go over the features of their new purchase, streamlining the purchase experience.

Many dealers would not know that Dealertrack has a CRM product. That is because it is only offered for dealers using their DMS product. When asked about future upgrades to their CRM platform, all I was told is that announcements would be coming.  Since I have not heard much about their CRM tools, I would assume that they pale in comparison to some of the latest CRM products on the market. So we will have to wait on their buy vs. build announcement.

Dealertrack Technologies has OEM website endorsements from Ford and Acura and also a preferred vendor for Gulf States Toyota. Their digital marketing suite, former Clickmotive, is an advanced marketing tool.  The company also offers SEO, Social, and Reputation Management services to car dealers.

Similar to Dominion Dealer Solutions, Dealertrack has the big task to integrate all their acquisitions into a unified data warehouse. They also have to create a single-login platform that will allow dealers seamless access to their world-class products, reporting, and analytics to provide increased benefits to their customers. This initiative, called DT 2.0, will be something for dealers to watch because the executive team is focused on creating a unified digital marketing and sales platform.

Dealertrack Technologies nudged out Dominion Dealer Solutions for third place because of the key technologies they own, the breadth of their product offerings, and the fact that they have many industry best of breed solutions.  Both Dealertrack Technologies and Dominion Dealer Solutions have equal weakness in their current CRM solutions.

The jury is still out to see how long it will take to create a unified software interface, data integration, and leverage the immense data warehouse that is potentially available to their dealer network.

In Fourth and Closing The Gap: Dominion Dealer Solutions – I consider Dominion Dealer Solutions (DDS) the sleeping giant.  For as many great products that they own, I consider their marketing message timid; they need to pound their chests more.  They have very happy customers, are viewed by many as a very ethical company, but they need to leverage their successes in the dealership community. For example, dealers love their equity-mining tool (formerly called Deal Activator) and the ROI it delivers is fantastic.  This product should be a household name, but isn’t.

DDS has built and/or acquired a number of popular dealer products over the years and recently rebranded their company instead of using their popular product names like Autobase, AVV, Deal Activator, Dealerskins, etc.  VinSolutions did a great job at touting the benefits of their unified platform in the marketplace, which I think in part, motivated DDS to create a single brand. Dealers want to deal with less not more vendor companies.

Dominion Dealer Solutions is also proud of their partnerships to build world-class products for dealers; their egos do not demand that they start everything from scratch.  By partnering with companies like Microsoft, they believe that they can bring proven innovations from outside of automotive to dealers that will differentiate their offering.

Regardless of their desire to partner with industry leaders, I have to take my hat off to the development teams at Dominion Dealer Solutions.  They have delivered the first scalable responsive automotive website platform which is critical for car dealers, whether they know it or not. Google has recently discussed search penalties for website content that does not display properly on mobile devices, which I discussed previously on DrivingSales.

With 30-47% of dealership website traffic coming from mobile devices, responsive/adaptive websites are the next big leap in online marketing. This first to market advantage is significant. I hope Dominion Dealer Solutions can leverage the technology lead with their marketing team. Being first to market was accomplished because of their agile development philosophy, and sprint teams that have been in place for years.  Bravo!

Dominion Dealer Solutions  (DDS) has products for SEO, SEM, Social Media, Reputation Management, Equity Mining, and of course their industry leading inventory management services company: Dealer Specialties.  Their professional services business for SEO and SEM is not as well known or branded but will be a more visible part of a unified marketing platform.

Since Dealer.com, Cobalt, and VinSolutions have in place more mature digital marketing platforms, it will be interesting to see just how Dominion plans to scale integrated marketing campaigns. To date, I have no visibility into the technology, reporting, and website integration they offer for digital advertising.

Dealers will get a chance to learn more about their progress in the fall and see product platform examples at NADA. Speaking of NADA, last year, DDS unveiled their partnership with Microsoft to build a new breed of DMS called Dominion DMX.   Dominion purchased an existing DMS company to avoid the learning curve of connecting with OEM data feeds, and are building on the Microsoft Dynamics framework that will have the popular Microsoft interface.

It is too early to know how well the DMX product will do on the market, but if it delivers on its promises, this could be a market changer that encourages defections from DMS platforms that have unhappy customers.

Dominion Dealer Solutions has many pieces of the puzzle in place, now we need to see how they tie all the data together. With no official announcement on the direction of their CRM platform, the jury will be out until them.   Autobase, their CRM platform, needs a complete overhaul and how they will upgrade their CRM is not public knowledge right now, but I expect an announcement soon.

I have faith that the leadership team at Dominion Dealer Solutions will deliver some impressive progress at NADA.

In Fifth Place and Holding: Autotrader Companies  - In case you did not know, Autotrader Companies (ATC) are owned by Cox Enterprises, a media giant. The loudest voice in the dealership marketing space over the past 3 years has been VinSolutions.  I attribute a large part of the success of VinSolutions being acquired by Autotrader to the dynamic personality of Sean Stapleton. That is not to minimize the contributions and business acumen of Sean Wolfington who seems to be in the middle of many big deals in our industry.

Last year, I documented the potential synergies that could be brought to market by a single company owning Manheim, VinSolutions, vAuto, KBB, and Autotrader.com.  I wrote a number of articles on my “ideal scene” and one specifically titled: “Will Autotrader Build an Exclusive ZMOT Data Network?” It appears that the screenplay has been put on hold.  The visibility that I once had for the product roadmap is no longer there.

The Autotrader acquisition spree, led by Chip Perry, was a way to build a story and a solution set for car dealers that would enhance an initial public offering (IPO) and attract the investor community.  I like Chip Perry and supported his vision with eager anticipation of what could be possible.

There were a number of documented missteps in bringing that Autotrader IPO to market which potentially damaged investor confidence. The biggest concern was a $400 million special dividend that was paid to investors three months prior to the filing of the IPO.  This was a story penned by Dan Primack from Fortune magazine. The IPO was pulled and soon after followed by the departure of Chip Perry.  Recently, one of the oldest investors in Autotrader, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, cashed in their Autotrader shares to Cox Enterprises. What this means for the momentum that Autotrader was building, I do not know.

Will the leadership still have the vision to integrate the pieces or will some companies be sold off?  This is a cloud that is hanging over the “head” of Autotrader companies.  It is being discussed at dealerships across the country and the sooner clarity is provided to the marketplace the better.  In the meantime, Cobalt and Dealer.com must see this Autotrader speed bump as an opportunity to step on the gas.

Despite the leadership changes in ATC, they own great products that dealers love.  vAuto, VinSolutions, and Haystak are all award winning technologies in their own right. I like the fact that VinSolutions added the Haystak Digital Marketing solution to their website customers. The Haystak team is passionate and energized by the acquisition, led by Duncan Scarry. The bigger question is how Haystak can be integrated and leveraged to provide dealers with a better sales and marketing platform with the VinSolutions websites.  The fact that Haystak is not integrated into the VinSolutions backend interface today puts another layer to campaign management that Cobalt and Dealer.com have already simplified.

The marketplace is also looking for updates on how Autotrader can leverage consumer shopping data from KBB.com and Autotrader.com for customers who also visit a VinSolutions website platform.  The potential to customize the website experience or to supplement lead forms submitted by overlapping customers is just two of the benefits this network could produce for car dealers.

Autotrader Companies does not currently own a DMS platform, and I never heard from management that they were interested in going down that path. Their strength is obviously in auto shopping resources (Autotrader.com and KBB.com), dealer websites and CRM (VinSolutions), advertising (Haystak), and merchandising tools (vAuto).

In regards to websites, VinSolutions has been a market disruptor, taking market share from weaker companies due to their “in your face” marketing style. VinSolutions websites and CRM products are popular with dealers and their integration story has been fuel for their growth.  Like all fast growing companies, VinSolutions has had their share of growing pains and customer support issues, which have been getting better each year.

VinSolutions has yet to demonstrate a responsive/adaptive mobile website solution for their customers. Mobile visibility and marketing for all the website content pages is a critical element for success with 30-47% of dealership website traffic coming from mobile devices.

With so much invested, I hope that the leadership at Autotrader does not delay in creating a product development strategy that maximizes the popular products that they own before the integration story gets damaged.

In Sixth Place: Reynolds & Reynolds – Let me start by saying that of the six horsemen I have the least visibility into the future plans of Reynolds & Reynolds.  Many industry vendors, including companies outside of the six horsemen, take the initiative each year to keep me updated with their product roadmap. Reynolds & Reynolds is not one of those companies that reach out on an annual basis.

Reynolds & Reynolds sells themselves as a Retail Management System; one solution to meet the needs of the dealer. DMS data security concerns have continued an in-store server-based software delivery model. The company seems to be staying with this model while the larger business community moves to cloud based computing solutions. I’m torn between buying into valid cloud security concerns versus lucrative hardware and support contracts that Reynolds does not want to see change.

You cannot ignore the fact that Reynolds & Reynolds has a large piece of the DMS market. Dealers rely on their proven DMS infrastructure to run their business. Recently Reynolds & Reynolds launched “ERA-IGNITE”, a windows based interface to their server-based DMS, which works side by side with their legacy blue screens. IGNITE reduces the keystrokes needed to get work done when compared to their legacy interface.

The IGNITE software allows dealers to create a customized dashboard to see key elements of their business operations. Dashboard modules can include data from Fixed Ops, Accounting, Contact Management, Naked Lime Websites, and DocuPad. Reynolds & Reynolds have a rich suite of variable and fixed operations software and reporting that dealers on their platform love. The IGNITE software allows Reynolds & Reynolds dealers to multi-task, something they have been asking for over the years.

What I don’t see today is a clear integrated solution that is web based to allow dealers to access their data without tunneling through a private firewall or remote access server. This means dealers on their platform are tied to physical servers and maintenance contracts.  The business world is moving to cloud based server hosting, which of course is secure, but Reynolds & Reynolds seem to be bucking that trend.

Reynolds & Reynolds is also well known for their Contact Management, their CRM platform. At NADA 2012 Reynolds & Reynolds announced that they would be releasing a web based, HTML 5 compliant version of their CRM.  Last year at NADA, the same message was repeated to customers and visitors to their booth. The project management on the new CRM platform has been a disaster; many of their customers are tired of waiting.

The good news is that the new Contact Management (CM) software is finally being released in a limited rollout to dealers in August/September 2013; replacing classic CM. Fans of classic CM loved the tight integration with their DMS so I look forward to feedback from users of the new CM product.  Dealers on classic CM cannot do a “soft migration” to new CM to see how it works; it must be a full store cutover.

The new Contact Management platform will have mobile and tablet integration as well as special features for stores with a centralized BDC.  Email communications have been significantly enhanced from classic CM, a common gripe from customers.  New CM is compatible with I.E. 9.0 and higher, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome.  With most new CRM products, reporting is often limited.  Customers of Reynolds & Reynolds should ask their sales team to see how many reports are available in the production system today.

In October 2011, Reynolds & Reynolds announced the formation of a new company called “Naked Lime” to sell their website, advertising and marketing solutions. Some have said that the new company was created to separate the digital services from “bad blood” created by older Reynolds & Reynolds contract strategies. Naked Lime was also staffed by younger professionals in the hope that dealers would perceive them as “hip”; a contrast to how Reynolds & Reynolds was perceived. Naked Lime sold dealers the promise of a transparent, full-service marketing solution with “one throat to choke.” The Naked Lime service required a 12-month contract; many know that Reynolds is a contract centric organization. Naked Lime offers websites, social media management, reputation management, digital advertising, and traditional advertising services.

I have reviewed marketing reports from Naked Lime, and while they are graphically attractive, I have not been impressed with the transparency of the marketing ROI.  The Naked Lime website product needs a technology refresh and a responsive/adaptive mobile solution. I have no update to share with readers on when a website update would be coming to market.

While dealers who have Reynolds & Reynolds DMS may have a way to see enterprise data across various Reynolds & Reynolds products using ERA-IGNITE, I don’t see a strategy to create a web-based unified reporting and management tool for Naked Lime websites and services. I hope to learn more about Naked Lime’s plans at NADA this year.

I invite the product development team at Reynolds & Reynolds and Naked Lime to start a dialogue with me so that I can better understand their product direction. I will add an addendum to this article and whitepaper so that dealers can better understand, if they plan to build out a suite of products or will they take a different direction than other horses in this race.

The Time Has Finally Come

Our industry has been talking about unified marketing and operations systems for years but there are a few factors why the next 12-24 months will silence doubters. First and foremost is that the OEM’s have tasted the “wine” produced by big data and they want more.  When billions of dollars are at stake, franchise dealers will be nudged into compliance.

If you have never witnessed the real-time keyword cloud that Cobalt created to show how consumers are shopping for cars online at Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3, arrange for a demo.  As consumer-shopping behavior is tied back to VDP views, calls, leads, sales, service, and financing data the manufactures will save billions of dollars over time.  Big data models are already impacting manufacturing and distribution schedules.

The second reason why the timing is right is that the Internet has matured. Powerful mobile device computing has solved the last barriers for 24x7 access. Today’s consumer has a powerful computer sitting by their nightstand, tucked in their purse, or glued to their ear.  In the same manner, dealership sales professionals can walk the lot with their entire inventory and desking tools at their fingertips.

Thirdly, consumers want a simplified car purchasing experience as witnessed by the increase in utilization of online “first pencil” tools, credit pre-approval software, and greater transparency of vehicle data; price, performance, styling, safety, and warranty. The auto industry has resisted change despite customer feedback that demanded a shorter sales process.    Digital retailing will become a reality and those who “fight the tape” will lose market share.

Lastly, cloud computing and new software development tools have made shared databases, real-time analytics and decision making, and cross-platform integration possible at lightning speeds. The financial and technology barriers have been lowered.

It will be up to the dealer to decide which horse they want to bet on, which of course will be influenced by which company shows the OEM community higher value from an integrated sales and marketing platform.

Since many of the opportunities discussed in the article are not solved, part of OEM selection process will be determined by how well the six horsemen sell their vision and their company’s ability to deliver on the promise of a better future.

The stakes are high and the competition fierce, but in the end it will propel the automotive industry to push to a new level of success and customer satisfaction.

I welcome your comments below.  

Dealers who would like a PDF version of this whitepaper can also request a copy here:  Six Horseman White Paper 

Brian

Brian Pasch, CEO
PCG Consulting
732.672.2356
Google

Nick Holliday
Lots of thought here, Brian. Thanks for sharing your insights.
aaron kominsky
Brian You have outdone yourself ! This is an incredible piece of work I read it twice and and will re read it many times over You have made it so easy to understand the future od Digital Marketing! Thank you so very much for sharing your expertise ! Great Job!
Mario Murgado Jr
Brian, thank you for writing this article. I look forward to the day when companies can integrate the DMS, CRM, Digital Advertising Platform, and Website into one seamless solution/experience.
Chip Dorman
Easily the best synopsis of the Automotive CRM/Internet Marketing space I've ever seen. If I had to pick a longshot, I'd take a look at Salesforce.COM. If a vendor could talk Marc Bennihof into bulk pricing for user licenses and build on their AJAX platform, they already have a lot of solid pieces in place for an end to end backbone that could easily be adapted to all three tiers in the automotive industry. They're cloud based and open source too...
Brian Pasch
Chip, you bring up an interesting perspective. Salesforce.com is a powerhouse in cloud computing CRM. I'm note sure how strong their API is to integrate into the many aspects of automotive process. Let's see if this fall any of the remaining holdouts in this race announce a Salesforce.com partnership. The related conversation is related to this line of thought: If all six horsemen will announce by this fall the CRM plans, and four of the six have their own new platforms announced, and these six companies represent the largest players who could make integrated platform investments, who will be in the market to purchase the popular standalone CRM platforms? So either an open communication standard is created quickly or will the bid for these single-point solutions drop?

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