The Robotaxi Myth

I started following the Waymo situation a few weeks ago, when Ars Technica asked “why hasn’t Waymo expanded its driverless taxi service?” My glib reply on Twitter was that ride hailing is not a good use case.  Since then, we have learned that the recently-departed executive team had not been moving fast enough to satisfy their investors.  First to go was the Chief Safety Officer – not a good sign.

Indeed, the robotaxi is the absolute worst use case, according to this very thorough analysis by Tim Lee.  Lee’s recommendation is to put autonomous cars on the road, now, doing something they can actually do, and proceed from there.

Lyft has just bailed out, as Uber did last year.  The New Republic calls self-driving cars “a series of very expensive and glitzy pilot projects” which, while unkind, is pretty accurate.  Level 5 automation will be in the pilot stage for a long time.  We (and Alphabet) should temper our expectations.

Good use cases for self-driving exist in SAE level 4, constrained conditions – like airport shuttles, food delivery, and taxi services in closed communities.  Shuttle services like this are popping up all around the country. 

A zero-to 25-mph self-driving car—we believe that problem is very, very solvable.

This quote from Voyage founder Oliver Cameron sums it up – and vindicates Waymo’s decision to hunker down in Chandler, Arizona.  I agree with Lee that the winners will be those companies that are able to commercialize level 4.

Who asked for self-driving cars, anyway?  Certainly not consumers.  This study from MIT, Consumers Don’t Really Want Self-Driving Cars, and this more recent one from AAA found the same result.  Nearly half of respondents said they would never purchase a car that completely drives itself. 

They’re looking for driver assistance systems that work to help them stay in active and safe control of the vehicle.

What do they want?  You guessed it: automatic emergency braking, lane keeping, and blind spot warning.  These features come under the heading of SAE level 2, also known as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS). 

Several people have come to grief from thinking that their level 2 vehicles were “full self-driving.”  Ironically, the better the system, the greater the false sense of security, says AAA’s Greg Brannon.  This is a shame because the robotaxi myth prevents us from properly appreciating level 2. 

List of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)

  • Adaptive Cruise Control
  • Anti-lock Braking System
  • Automatic Emergency Braking
  • Blind Spot Detection
  • Dynamic Brake Support        
  • Electronic Stability Control
  • Forward Collision Warning
  • Lane Departure Warning      
  • Lane Keeping Support
  • Parking Assist           
  • Rear Cross Traffic Alert
  • Rear Visibility System

Proponents say that replacing human drivers will save lives, but ADAS is already doing that. It’s also, as I wrote here, adding value to new vehicles.  I suspect that, just as the technology must work its way up from level 2, so must we drivers.  As we become more accustomed to ADAS features, we will be better prepared to supervise semi-autonomous (level 3) vehicles.

My Shift in the Call Centre

A User Story

I enter the PCI compliant cleanroom at eleven o’clock with only a quinoa bowl from Freshie’s, and log in to Salesforce on my locked down computer.  No cell phone, no scratch paper – and there are cameras.  I wave to Peter on Camera #1 and start to dial.  I do not have high hopes of reaching anyone in the middle of the workday.  Amid all the DNRs, I may catch an inbound call off of our direct mail campaign, or someone out on the floor may catch it while I am dialing.

I log in to the dialer and it presents my first call.  To save time, I hit “dial” and the phone rings while I paste the number into Salesforce and search for the Opportunity.  Our Cisco dialer has a predictive mode, but I am not using it.  For low volumes, preview dialing is supposed to be a better experience.  The Ministry of Commerce prefers it, too.  This number is guaranteed to be in Salesforce, with a prospect status, because the dialer file is generated nightly from the Opportunity table in Salesforce. 

Bonjour et félicitations pour votre achat d’un véhicule Nissan

My first call goes to voicemail, which is par for the course.  I recite the voicemail script, which I know by heart, and log the status in Salesforce.  I really wish the dialer could leave that damned message on its own.  I must recite it a hundred times a day.  I will dial this number three times before dropping it from the file, spread over a two-week period, in case my prospect is away on vacation.  Salesforce applies this business logic when it generates the dialer file. 

For the next few hours, I get voicemail, no answer, not interested, and never call me again, which I duly note in Salesforce.  This last category will be added to the phone number filtering logic, along with the Do Not Call list we purchased from the Ministry.  I recognize the next number.  Merde!  It’s Dave Duncan.  I try to cancel the call, but too late.

Dave proceeds to grill me about my affiliation with Nissan.  No, I do not work for your local dealer.  If I did, we would have an “existing business relationship” and we wouldn’t have to honor the DNC list.  No, I do not work for the factory, its captive, nor the captive’s department of protection products – but we are the one and only factory authorized direct marketer of said products.  That’s why it’s their number on your Caller ID. 

By six o’clock, I have a live prospect.  I alt-tab to my SPP system, which allows me to quote rates as well as set up a payment plan.  I also have a custom Product object in Salesforce which connects to the rating API, but I find it easier to work in SPP because most customers will want a payment plan anyway.  SPP calls the same API. 

Things are going well until my prospect insists upon seeing the contract.  I recite the talk track about cancellation and full refund within thirty days, but to no avail.  I can also email a specimen contract and we can review it right now while he’s on the line (better odds of closing).  I end up emailing a custom link, or PURL, from SPP that will open right to the rates and contract we discussed. 

I flag this one for callback in a few days.  It’s possible he will self-close on the SPP site, and then Salesforce will close the Opportunity automatically when it receives the file from SPP.  In any case, I now have an email address we can use for the next digital marketing campaign.  Speaking of digital marketing, whenever a voicemail greeting begins, “the Rogers mobile customer you’ve dialed,” I flag those as numbers to which the digital team can send text. 

My next prospect, I actually close on the call.  I am sitting in this fakakta cleanroom just in case I have to handle credit card information which, at last, I do.  My guy buys a 72-month plan, which I set up for 24 monthly payments on SPP.  Then, I download both contracts – the protection plan and the payment plan – and attach them to the Opportunity. 

Salesforce won’t close the Opportunity, though, for another day until it receives confirmation from SPP that all is well with the credit card.  If not, it will indicate that status, send an email, and I will have to call him back.  Once the Opportunity does close, as a win, Salesforce Connector will pick it up and Marketing Cloud will include both contracts in a direct mail welcome package, ending the Customer Journey. 

So, to summarize my workflow, I am manually pasting phone numbers into Salesforce and VINs into SPP.  Salesforce and SPP are each capable of rating and contracting via API, and the customer can check out with or without my assistance.  These tasks could be improved with some Computer Telephony Integration and an SPP interface.  Instead of sending data directly to SPP, all I really need is the logic to generate that PURL and then Salesforce could either launch it for me or send it to the customer as needed. 

At eight o’clock, the end of my shift, I doff my headset and run the job to generate tomorrow’s dialer file.  This is basically a query against the Opportunity table, applying the “next date to call” rules.  Without CTI, the best time to call is not supported.  Jeanette will have to pick those out of the comments manually.  Tomorrow is my day off. 

The Case for D2C

A while back, I wrote a survey of Direct to Consumer VSC Sales.  This was a “how to,” and today I am writing about the “why.”  The short version is that D2C is a large and unserved market.  Franchised dealers sell service contracts with 47% of new vehicles, which is great, but that leaves the other half unprotected. 

Add 6% to reported F&I gross, plus 4 to 5 times that amount for the backfile

Depending on which “touchpoint” you wish to pursue (see here) this market includes roughly 67 million vehicles.  That’s how many are on the road, less than six years old, with no coverage.  Dealers are the group best positioned to serve this market.  Of course, a dealer can only address his local share of the market, not the whole 67 million.  See Profit Opportunity, below.

To succeed with D2C, you must have an existing relationship with the customer.  That’s because success requires digital marketing, and anti-spam laws limit what you can do without a relationship.  For example, an OEM can email their customer a solicitation for their factory-label protection products, but a TPA cannot.

So, the dealer has the inside track.  He has the relationship, the contact info, and a service department to verify eligibility.  Plus, every additional VSC aids in service retention.  Depending on the dealer group, it may also have the other ingredients.  Here’s the parts list:

Direct to Consumer (D2C) Operation

  • An advanced CRM with the ability to run a scheduled, multichannel contact program.  Salesforce calls this a “customer journey.”
  • A source of premium finance, like SPP, Budco, or PayLink.  Dealers will already have one of these, for their instore F&I operation.
  • A call center, which could be the BDC, to participate in the selling journey and also to deal with issues around premium finance.
  • A branded website capable of presenting and selling the service contract, including Visa checkout and premium finance.
  • A service facility.  If you’re not a dealer (trying to cover all bases here) there are still things you can do with Pep Boys and mobile facilities like Pivet.

Depending on the dealer group.  Obviously, if you’re Lithia, you already have a finance arm which could (with training) handle bounced Visa charges.  They’ll need to comply with the PCI security standards.  Maybe that’s best left to PayLink. 

There is a host of such decisions, for which you will need expert assistance – but let’s get back to the “why.”  We are going to make a gross profit calculation in three steps:

Direct to Consumer (D2C) Profit Opportunity

  1. Compute the potential product gross that didn’t close with the vehicle sale.
  2. Estimate the likely D2C conversion rate.
  3. Add the backfile of customers from prior years.

Let’s look at AutoNation.  Sorry, NADA Average Dealer doesn’t provide enough detail.  Even the AutoNation data doesn’t provide much detail on product sales.  Still, we can draw some inferences using the 2019 annual report, industry norms, and these remarks from then-CEO Cheryl Miller.

AutoNation reported sales of 283,000 (new) and 246,000 (used) with F&I PVR of $1,904.  That’s the headline figure, including finance reserve.  Owing to adjustments, the figure in the annual report is a little higher, and the calculation based on Miller’s summary is a little lower.

The $1,350 (new) and $1,050 (used) are averages across all units.  We can infer that product gross was roughly $2,580 (blended) on 47% of units.  That leaves the other 280,000 vehicles unprotected, with a potential gross of $720 million, equal to 71% of AutoNation’s reported F&I gross.

You can use 75% of F&I gross as a rule of thumb.  In general, product gross is two-thirds of F&I gross, and this is derived from fewer than half of the vehicles sold (omitting ancillaries).  The ratio of D2C opportunity to instore penetration is 53/47 of the two-thirds, which makes 75%.   

This $720 million is the potential gross AutoNation left on the table in 2019.  Okay, that’s not fair.  It’s only on the table assuming every one of the D2C prospects will buy the product, which they won’t.  Most won’t, in fact.  The conversion rate is the product of three factors:

  • The number of contacts per customer, based on your touchpoints and your programmed journey.
  • The take rate, which is the percentage of people who take action by clicking the PURL link, scanning the QR code, or whatever.  The industry norm here is 2-5%
  • The close rate, which is the percentage of takers who are closed by the call center or self-close on the web site.  Expert closers can do 20-30%.  Remember, this is within the self-selected “takers.”

The conversion rate is what counts, but we break out the components for management purposes.  For instance, maybe the take rate is high but your closers are weak.  Success requires a lot of contacts, with compelling CTAs and good closers.

Let’s say we utilize all of our advantages as a dealer – an aggressive journey on all touchpoints – bringing our contacts to 10.  Multiply this by a conservative 20% close rate and 4% take rate.  This gives us a conversion rate of 8%. 

In our AutoNation example, this would mean roughly $58 million of additional gross.  All of this arithmetic generalizes, too.  Simply take reported F&I gross and multiply by 6% (8% of the 75%, above, makes 6%).  So, now I can crack the Lithia annual report with F&I gross of $580 million, and reckon that D2C could mean $35 million to them.

This incremental income recurs annually, since it’s based on one year’s volume – but we start the game with a backfile of unserved customers from prior years.  We might reasonably want to go back five years for new vehicle buyers and three years for used. 

AutoNation is a convenient example because they sell new and used in roughly equal parts, so this works out to (blended) four years’ worth of volume.  If your mix skews more toward new vehicles, then your backfile opportunity will be richer. 

In short, you can use the 6% rule to compute the annual recurring, and then add a one-time opportunity of 4 or 5 times that amount for the backfile.  This more than pays for setting up the operation.  So, is it worth the hassle to earn an extra 6% of F&I gross?  Ponder that next time you see the Car Shield ad on television.

Caution: Learning Curve Ahead

In last week’s episode, I warned that dealer groups proceeding aggressively into Digital Retail may suffer for it.  This has gotten some pushback.  Regular readers know that I have been a staunch proponent of Online F&I for many years.  Indeed, my work at PEN and F&I Express has done much to advance the cause. 

I gave this warning in the spirit of full disclosure, and to manage expectations.  Now I am in the awkward position of having to press my charge against a technology which I actually support.  If that sounds complicated, consider this:

Luddites – Veteran F&I Director Justin Gasman, quoted recently in Wards, says that F&I will never be totally digital.  “People who say that are from tech companies,” he quipped.  I call this the Luddite position but, in fairness, I am one of the tech guys he’s referring to.

Boosters – Cox Automotive regularly produces surveys with findings like: 63% of customers would be “more likely” to buy F&I products if they could learn about them online.  Coming from an opinion poll, this is mere boosterism. 

Realists – My position is somewhere between these extremes, hence the warning.  I was addressing the Big Six dealer groups, who are regularly ranked on F&I performance.  I do not want to be the consultant telling Mike Jackson to go all in, and then have to explain why he has slipped out of first place.

If you go to a dealer and say, “Hey, look, we’ve got this great solution, but the profitability is only half of what you had before,” that’s really going to slow down adoption.

Automotive News interviewed some realists last year, and they all share my cautious optimism.  The quote above is from Safe-Guard’s David Pryor.  The consensus goes something like this:

  1. Present F&I products online, early in the process, and include pricing.
  2. Use an API to select the right coverage, and AI to make recommendations.
  3. Experiment with (A/B test) various digital media.
  4. Integrate DR with your instore process, training, and metrics.

Roadster’s COVID-19 Dealer Impact Study found that dealers who already had Digital Retail saw improved gross, while the COVID adopters did not.  “Not a magic bullet,” it says, instead emphasizing the improved efficiency.  Other realists, as here, had the same experience.

Digital Retail is like any other new process.  There is risk, reward, and a learning curve.  That’s not too complicated.

DR and Public Dealer Groups

In today’s post, subtitled, “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” we look at where the Big Six public dealer groups stand on Digital Retail.  Some of them get it, some of them don’t, and others have missed the point.

“Once they start the process online, customers tend to buy a car at a much higher rate than … walking into our showroom” – Daryl Kenningham, Group 1

It’s not essential to spin up a distinct site, though many have taken this approach.  It’s a clever way to get in the same space as Carvana.  Thus, we have new brands Driveway, Clicklane, and Acceleride.  For example, you can enter Group 1’s DR process from either Acceleride or the Group 1 site. 

  • Penske – Penske started experimenting with DR way back in 2015 and something called Preferred Purchase.  Today, it’s still called Preferred Purchase, but it’s the DDC Accelerate system.
  • Group 1 – GP1 recently (2019) launched a Roadster implementation called Acceleride.  It is now selling more than 1,000 units per month, including new cars.  This is the top initiative in their investor deck, clearly showing management attention.
  • Asbury – Asbury was also an early adopter, starting with Drive (2016) and now their own Clicklane offering.  By my count, this is their third experiment – exactly what you want to see with digital transformation.
  • Lithia – Lithia has a branded DR site called Driveway which, unfortunately, requires users to create an account before entering the process.  As I wrote in Design Concepts for Online Car Buying, you don’t create an account until the customer is ready to save a deal.
  • AutoNation – AutoNation has made strategic investments in DR vendors like Vroom, and launched its own AutoNation Express in 2014.  As with Driveway, step one is a lead form.
  • Sonic – Sonic announced a plan to use Darwin but, alas, there is still no sign of DR on either the Sonic or EchoPark site.  Maybe the new eCommerce team will fix that. 

I can understand why new-car dealers might want to start with a lead form.  New cars are commodities, and vulnerable to price shopping.  This is where used-car dealers CarMax and Carvana have an advantage.  Otherwise, DR requires a strong commitment to price transparency.

Digital Retail is synergistic with modern sales practices, like one-touch and hybrid teams.  Sonic is the leader here, and has the highest used-car ratio, so you would expect them to have an edge.

Finally, it’s hard to sell protection products online.  Groups with growing DR penetration are likely to see reduced PVR.  This has long been a knock against Carvana.  Experts agree that the solution here is an AI-based “recommender.” 

Top Digital Retail Systems

I have been writing about Digital Retail for several years now.  Keeping tabs on the players was part of my job at Safe-Guard, and people still call for my notes.  Since I am moving on to a new venture, I figured I would simply publish the list.

First, some notes about the category.  I split out online car dealers, TPC platforms, and finance-first sites.  Obviously, CarMax is omnichannel, but they’re not a software vendor.  My definition of a digital storefront is given here, and I differentiate then from TPC sites here

Anybody with a foothold in the dealer’s website is using it to pivot into digital retail.

The “pivoter” category from this last article is especially relevant, as more and more vendors transition into the space and flesh out their offerings.  Finance-first sites are those, like Rodo and AutoGravity, where customers go for finance and then turn over to a dealer.

List of Automotive Digital Retail Vendors

  • Roadster – Roadster’s Express Storefront was the first to use the “plug-in” delivery strategy.  They are in some very innovative dealers, like Paragon and Galpin. 
  • TagRail – Similar to Roadster.  My pal Kiran using analytics as a differentiator.  Now owned by digital marketing firm Fox.  I wrote about DR and Marketing tie-ups in my survey, DR and Dealer Websites.
  • MotoInsight – I did an OEM project with Moto, and visited their offices in Toronto.  I like the team, and what I especially like is the idea that dealers will use the same system instore that the customer uses online.  I profiled them here.
  • Gubagoo – Gubagoo started as a chat engine, and has now developed a DR solution called Clicklane for Asbury Automotive. Lithia also has a branded DR offering, called Driveway.
  • Modal – Formerly Drive, from serial entrepreneur Aaron Krane.  I cited Krane and Roadster CEO Andy Moss, here, as examples of “disrupters” from outside the industry.  Modal has recently inked a deal with Honda, and raised $15 million in funding.
  • CarNow – Another entrant from the chat space, I was surprised to discover so many dealers using CarNow’s BuyNow plug-in.  It seems to be especially popular on Dealer.com sites.
  • AutoFi – AutoFi expanded successfully from a finance plug-in to full DR with Express Checkout, used by a number of dealers including Ricart Ford.
  • Darwin – Darwin is unique in having pivoted to DR from an instore system.  They’re at Herb Chambers, branded as Smart Buy, and also my local Atlanta dealer, Jim Ellis. 
  • Digital Motors – This is a very new entrant (2020) but a strong team including Andy Hinrichs, formerly of AutoGravity.
  • Dealer eProcess – Getting DR from your website provider seems like a good idea, buy my survey found few instances of it.  Others in this category are Dealer Fire and Dealer Inspire.
  • Make My Deal – MMD is gone now, folded into Accelerate and attached to DDC.  So, it’s in the dealer website category, not a storefront.

Sorry if I missed anyone.  New entrants pop up every day.  I would say that the space is becoming crowded, but there are still thousands of unserved dealers.  Follow my Twitter feed, @ViragConsulting and the #DigitalRetail tag, for regular updates. 

DR and Dealer Websites

I was chatting with my pal Kiran Karunakaran about his new role at Fox Dealer.  You may recall that Kiran’s DR solution, TagRail, was acquired by Fox earlier this year.  At that time, I figured DR would be an absolute requirement for dealer websites, and I expected to see CDK bid for, say, CarNow.  Here are the pairings:

  • Fox Dealer, TagRail
  • Dealer Inspire, Online Shopper
  • Dealer Fire, Precise Price
  • Dealer eProcess, SARA
  • Dealer.com, Accelerate

Note that, with the exception of TagRail, these DR solutions were all developed by their website partners.  Missing are the pure DR startups I usually write about: Roadster, Modal, and Moto.  Maybe they’re better off uncommitted.  I decided to test this theory with a little research.

I went through Wards’ Top 100 Internet Dealers, identifying the website provider for each one, and their DR solution.  The Wards sample skews strongly toward DDC, at 60%.  The Datanyze survey (chart above) has DDC at 18%.  Remember, I am not looking for market share so much as patterns in DR adoption.

For example, 20% of “top internet dealers” had no DR solution.  That was a surprise.  A few of these had cobbled together the Dealertrack frame with Trade Pending and a homebrew payment calculator – not DR as it is usually defined.

Same-vendor pairings for DR and website were rare

Some dealers use the same website and DR solution across all their stores, and some skip around.  Herb Chambers uses DDC and Darwin faithfully except in his Chevy store, which uses CDK and Shop Click Drive.  Paul Rusnak and Fred Anderson are faithful to Roadster and Gubagoo, respectively, but vary their choice of website providers.  Of course, these choices are often mandated by the manufacturer.

Of manufacturer DR preferences, the best known is probably Shop Click Drive, followed by AutoFi.  AutoFi is historically associated with Ford, and still used mainly by Ford dealers.  I did find one Kia dealer in Peoria using AutoFi.  Chrysler’s DriveFCA is powered by Carzato.

Same-vendor pairings for DR and website were rare, at 12%.  These were almost exclusively DDC with Accelerate.  I found one instance of Dealer Inspire with its mate, Online Shopper.  Free-agent DR solutions did much better than those associated with website providers.  Roadster, Darwin, and CarNow together accounted for 59% of DR in the sample dealerships.

As it happens, CDK did not acquire a DR solution.  Instead, they sold their website business to Sincro, a digital marketing company.  The Sincro announcement reminds us that what I am calling the “website business” may also include digital content, advertising, SEO, social, reputation, CRM, and lead-gen.

The right framework is not DR plus website, or even DR plus website and marketing, but a continuum across the customer journey.  The journey begins with the various marketing services required to land the customer on the website, and ends with point-of-sale (POS) systems like menu and desking.

Recall that Roadster, Darwin, and Moto also play in the POS space.  At the other end, there are pure-play marketing agencies that don’t do websites.  You can evaluate strategy for these companies in terms of where they are concentrated along the journey, and where they are extending.

Dealer Fire moved up funnel, through their partnership with Stream, and Fox extended down a notch with TagRail.  Darwin is unique in having moved to DR from point of sale. (I am using the linear model for simplicity. To account for CRM and reputation, you need the loop model.)

My goal here was to explore the synergy between DR and dealer websites, and the answer is that they’re not as compatible as they appear.  Research showed much less crossover than I had expected, between marketing agencies on one side of the BUY NOW button, and DR specialists on the other.

Direct to Consumer VSC Sales

Direct to consumer (D2C) service contract sales can be divided into two broad categories: with and without dealer consent.  This, along with the lifecycle “touchpoint,” determines the choice of tactics. Today’s post will discuss the state of the art for dealer-driven D2C selling.

Direct-to-consumer marketers price VSCs to absorb high cancellation rates and can generate margins in excess of 25% – Gina Cocking

Outfits like Car Shield market directly to consumers using their own advertising and their own lead lists.  These are generally brokers, selling service contracts from their chosen administrators, outside the dealer process.  Car Chex does this, and also does marketing for dealers.  Endurance, whose ads you may have seen on television, is actually an administrator.  On the dealer side, obviously, D2C marketers will offer whatever service contract is sold in the dealership.  The leaders here are APC and Dialog Direct.

The traditional tactics are telemarketing and direct mail, but there are some exciting new entrants.  The image above is from Tec Assured.  Their 2-8-28 contact program uses a combination of digital and phone messages directing the customer to a branded website.  The site handles credit cards and premium finance.  Instead of a call center, Tec Assured leverages the dealer’s BDC.

So, the ideal approach would be some Hegelian synthesis of the old and the new.  First, though, let’s talk about touchpoints:

  1. Second chance – this is around thirty days after the vehicle purchase, and the talk track is something like, “hope you’re enjoying the new car, and you forgot to buy a service contract.”
  2. Warranty expiration – this is a few months before the factory warranty expires. A postcard is traditional.  Directing the customer to your website, via digital marketing, is more modern.
  3. Service visit – dealers have the inside track here, because they can follow up a service visit with something like, “lucky thing that repair was covered.”

Thinking about these touchpoints, you can see the power of adding digital tactics to traditional D2C marketing.  You may also have noticed the eligibility issue and the financing issue, because the sale is happening outside the dealership and after vehicle purchase.

Servicecontract.com offers monthly subscription pricing, which may begin during the factory warranty period.  This means the customer is paying in advance for coverage that hasn’t started yet.  On the other hand, if the factory warranty is expired, then they require an inspection at Pep Boys or a 30-day waiting period.

Financing is key.  No one is going to buy a $2,000 service contract on their credit card.  This is why Dialog Direct is affiliated with Budco, a well-known premium finance provider.  APC also has a financing arm.  Servicecontract.com is essentially an innovative form of premium finance.

In my experience, the hardest piece to build is the call center and support infrastructure.  Whoever handles the finance contract has to support accounting, cancellations, and customer service.  Even if you’re not doing telemarketing, you still need a call center.

Digital marketing means using email, text, social, and retargeting to direct the customer to your website, following a contact program like Tec Assured.  As a Salesforce trailblazer, I would call this a “customer journey.”  The journey should be driven by some analytics, and culminate in the customer clicking a Personalized URL that links to the website.  The journey can also include phone contact and direct mail.

The website can change its skin to match the dealer’s branding, based on the PURL.  When I was at MenuVantage, we supported a dozen different brands, like GMAC’s IntelliMenu, all from a single code base.  The site UX will include the usual shopping and checkout features, along with sales tools like testimonials and TCO data – not unlike an F&I menu system.

Also like a menu system, the website must be able to originate contracts via API for whatever product provider the dealer chooses.  See my various posts on this topic, as here and here.

This is classic digital transformation.  The challengers bring new tactics, and these tactics will certainly become the norm.  The incumbents are well entrenched, though, and tactics can be copied.

Corona News Roundup

I spent my sequester time looking for smart people with fresh takes on the crisis.  First, in the “obvious” category: a lot of people got hurt, and dealers who could sell online got hurt a little less.  By the way, if you’re in need of some encouragement, click on over to Megadealer News and check out some of the philanthropic efforts underway.  I have been actively seeking positive news for my Twitter feed.

I like to frame this in terms of people developing new capabilities. 

Going forward, buyer behavior is going to change.  Some of this is an acceleration of existing trends.  Balaji Srinivasan writes that corona is putting an end to the Twentieth Century:

  • Offices → Remote work
  • Stadium sports → eSports
  • Movie theaters → Streaming
  • TV news → YouTube news
  • College → MOOCs
  • Public school → Internet homeschooling
  • Corporate journalism → Citizen journalism

He might have added socializing by video conference.  We had our kids staying with us, doing remote work by day, and Zoom parties in the evening.  I like to frame this in terms of people developing new capabilities.  Here is Andrew Tai talking about people in his neighborhood having groceries delivered for the first time.

I got to know Max Zanan from watching Joe St. John’s webcasts, talking about touchless car delivery and service pickup.  In a pandemic world, we are not just worried about dirt on the floormats.  Interior prophylaxis is part of the service.  Max also points out that, if you can’t sell service contracts in the dealership, you can still sell them Direct to Consumer.  This is something I know a little about, so maybe I’ll do another post just on that.

Ridership on New York’s transit system is down 90%, and experts say this could portend a permanent change in the mobility equation.  The alternative to a personal vehicle used to be public transit or, in drivable cities like Atlanta, ride hailing.  Both are good ways to get sick.

Guns, ammo, and survival gear sold out rapidly, as if everyone is suddenly a “prepper.”  I imagine these people will want to have their own vehicle, with four-wheel drive.  I can relate, because I lived in South Florida for many years.  You don’t want to be waiting on Uber when there’s a hurricane bearing down.

My last few findings are from the world of computer networking.  Infrastructure becomes a challenge when the dealership shifts to online work, notably network security.  Virus scanning and security procedures may not be up to speed when people are working from home.  Also, not all dealer software is web-based, so VPN access becomes a requirement.

Be safe out there.

Digitally Disrupting Dealer Systems

I hesitated to use the D word here.  So much of digital is normal, healthy evolution, that saying “disruption” is like crying wolf.  So, I will digress briefly into that discussion before presenting my thesis, which is: traditional dealer-system providers are about to be whipsawed bigly by digital retail.

According to Gartner, digital disruption is “an effect that changes the fundamental expectations and behaviors … through digital capabilities.”  This idea of changing expectations is echoed by Aaron Levie, to the effect that businesses “evolve based on assumptions that eventually become outdated.”

If your UI even vaguely resembles an airline cockpit, you’re doing it wrong – John Gruber

Another common theme in studies of digital disruption is that people will come from outside the industry, bringing new attitudes and techniques that incumbents can’t match – something I like to call “advanced alien technology.”

Modal’s Aaron Krane came from online sports betting, and famously wondered why there is no “buy now” button on the Mercedes-Benz web site.  Andy Moss of Roadster came from online fashion retail.  I think I am on solid ground arguing that DR pioneers bring something fundamentally different.

In fact, I can identify the baseline assumption which is now outdated.  In olden times, the user of auto retail software was an auto retail employee.  These were experts, executing an esoteric process, and they could be trained to deal with crappy user experience and disjointed workflow.

Today’s user is, of course, the car buyer.  A few years ago, I wrote that each of the six canonical tasks in DR would need a “buddy” on the dealer side, with which to share information.  For example, the website may disclose prices for protection products, and it would be nice to pull retail markup from the menu system.

It’s hard to believe how quickly DR has evolved.  Roadster had just launched Express Storefront when I wrote that article, and already the buddy system is dead.  If a car buyer can desk her own deal, at home in her pajamas, why use a different system in the dealership?

The advantages to using the same system in store and at home include trust, transparency, cost savings, and reduced demands on the salespeople.  The new generation of in-store DR means that salespeople can be experts in customer service (and cars) instead of complicated software.

This marks the culmination of important trends in auto retail, from “one experience” at Sonic to “single point of contact” at Schomp, and it should serve as a wakeup call to old-school software vendors. Digital retail will drive a gradual shift in dealer process, but a rapid one in software.