GPS Trackers and OBD Ports

While I was working at Safe-Guard, in 2018, we adopted and co-branded a GPS tracker from ZAZ.  Shortly thereafter, we learned that our crosstown rival, EasyCare, was backing another such product, called SAVY.

Of the two, SAVY had more consumer-friendly features in their mobile app, which I feel is decisive.  This point of strategic positioning is the focus of today’s post.

Neither hookup did well, demonstrating that providers of “paper” F&I products are ill-equipped to deploy hardware.  I took the installer training, just for grins, with Hector Delgado.  So, at least I have a useful skill to fall back on.

I also consulted briefly for LoJack, in 2012, helping them sort out issues around preloading – issues they solved, ultimately, by selling the brand to Spireon.  Old-timers will recall LoJack used to work on radio.  It’s GPS now, like all the others.  “New LoJack by Spireon” is, in fact, old Spireon plus the stronger brand name.  The field today consists of:

    • Ikon
    • LoJack
    • Recover
    • SAVY
    • ZAZ

The model for all of these is that the dealer installs the tracking devices and uses them for lot management, and then sells them through to customers as theft protection.  They’re often sold as a nonnegotiable “preload,” which makes sense from the dealer’s perspective because it would cost another $50 of technician time to remove the device if the customer doesn’t want it.  You can see how consumer mobile app-appeal figures into our story.

If the device is drawing power from an OBD port, it can report the vehicle’s battery condition along with its location.  There’s a lot more you can do with OBD data, but manufacturers can be prickly about connecting to those other pins.  The typical device consists of the GPS chip, a cell modem, and an accelerometer.  You may have noticed that your iPhone also includes these parts, but not the OBD plug.

Speaking of those other pins, subprime lenders and BHPH dealers can wire the device to do starter interrupt.  That is, the OBD-powered devices.  The Recover device I saw at NADA is battery powered.  The argument for a battery-powered device is that it’s easier to install.  The opposing argument is around battery life, especially if you are selling it through, and the advanced capabilities available to an OBD scanner.

Connected Car Features

This brings me to the consumer features:

    • Service reminders
    • Teen driving
    • Driver performance
    • OBD health scan
    • Dealer inventory
    • Service scheduling
    • Credit application
    • Trip history
    • Recall notification
    • Digital glovebox

The astute reader will note that many of these features also aid the dealer in customer retention.  On the other hand, dealer-friendly features don’t mean a thing if the customer doesn’t use the app.  So, preloading can work against you if F&I fails to upsell the device properly.

Also, as mentioned above, your iPhone can support most of these functions on its own.  I run Life 360, which adds “insurance referral” to the driver performance feature.  The advantage to the dealer-installed device is that it’s physically attached to the vehicle.  By the way, you can buy a home OBD scanner for $30 at Walmart.

The dealer-installed GPS tracker is an amalgam of all these capabilities.  The key to success is exploiting them creatively and packaging them in ways that appeal to the consumer.

Taxonomy of D2C Providers

PayLink was the finance source we chose for Safe-Guard’s D2C program, and now they have launched their own D2C program, Olive.  This looks like a strong program, and I’m flattered they’ve kept many features from my blueprint.  I especially like name, which is a play on “all of” coverage.

“We estimate the market size of the ‘sweet spot’ for post-OEM warranty VSC sales will continue to grow to 109 million vehicles by 2024”

This is a $260 billion market.  Colonnade estimates that the “sweet spot” of vehicles less than 11 years old but past their OEM warranty is 87 million units, and growing.  That’s not to mention the 40 million sold each year without a service contract, at franchise and independent dealers.  I wrote about the different segments and how to value them in The Case for D2C.

Olive is positioned to address both segments, by partnering with automakers.  They claim two of the global top five.  I have reason to believe these are Volkswagen and Nissan, but I couldn’t find a source.  Like the original, Olive uses digital marketing and online origination through a consumer facing mobile-responsive (but not mobile-first) platform.

Not one to believe in coincidence, I reckoned that maybe there is only one winning formula, and this is it.  That would be bad news for APC, US Direct, Dialog Direct, Endurance, Infinite, Forever, Car Shield, Car Chex, Delta, Omega, and Concord.

If you are a data-science inclined tech strategy consultant, you might think of this as a seven-dimensional feature space

I taxonomized a bit in my first post on the topic, Direct to Consumer VSC Sales, and today we will work out a generalized framework.  This means mixing apples and oranges.  Many of the competitors I studied are “pure play” B2C.

Business to consumer (B2C) is everyday marketing, with branding, advertising, and SEO.  Direct to consumer (D2C) means that you were marketing through a channel, and now you’re going direct.  It also means that you have a channel conflict to manage.  Think of an auto finance company that does both direct and indirect lending.

My research found seven features that characterize a consumer-facing VSC vendor.  You can think of these as design choices for a new entrant:

    1. Administrator
    2. Payment plan
    3. Touch points
    4. Lead source
    5. Marketing
    6. Branding
    7. Eligibility

Contract administrator – At Safe-Guard, obviously, we were the admin, although we branded the contract for various OEM clients.  Endurance administers their own contract, and Forever Car has an exclusive partner.  Most B2C vendors offer multiple contracts, with a variety of coverage choices.  Tec Assured works for the dealer, offering whichever contract is sold in the dealership.

Payment plan – No one pays cash for a service contract.  APC has its own finance arm, and Dialog Direct is part of Budco.  The challenge here is the credit-card security (PCI) standards.  See My Shift in the Call Center.  Admins recognize the need for a subscription-based VSC but none has yet cracked the code (maybe JM&A).  Bundling the contract with a payment plan achieves the same effect.

Touch points – In the earlier post, I described three points in the lifecycle which a vendor could target.  This dovetails with the lead source, below.  If the vendor is working with an OEM or a dealer, they can focus on new customers who didn’t buy in the dealership.  They also have access to service dates.  The pure B2C vendors generally aim for the warranty’s end, or they don’t choose a touchpoint at all.

Lead source – If the vendor is working with an OEM or a dealer (or any affinity group) then that’s a source of leads.  This may also qualify as a “relationship” for spam-law purposes.  Then, there are the usual sources, like vehicle registration lists.  This brings us to marketing.

Marketing – The pure B2C vendors use pure pull marketing, developing a brand through SEO, social, and advertising.  Who could forget the Car Shield ads featuring Ice-T?  Old-school telemarketing and direct mail are still in use – love those postcards!  As in the earlier post, my favorite approach is digital marketing, from a lead list, with call-center backup, driven by a CRM like Salesforce or Nutshell.

Branding – Branding is complicated in this space.  The pure B2C vendors must develop an online brand, even though they sell multiple admins’ contracts.  On the other hand, the affinity vendors may develop the client’s brand, or they may create a separate brand as a way of mitigating channel conflict.

Eligibility – Depending on the touch point, the easiest way to deal with pre-existing conditions is to sell while there’s still OEM warranty remaining, or enforce a thirty-day waiting period.  Servicecontract.com uses an inspection at Pep Boys, and there are also mobile inspection services.  Dealers using Tec Assured, obviously, have their own inspection capability.

Let’s demonstrate the framework with some worked examples:If you are a data-science inclined tech strategy consultant, you might think of this as a “feature space,” with each of the competitors staking out their territory on a seven-dimensional Go board.  You might also want to boil it down to three dimensions so your client can understand the diagram.

In the earlier post, I cited two broad categories: those that work with the dealer as a partner and lead source, and those that are pure B2C consumer-facing.  Here, I have shown a little more of the complexity.  Affinity marketing doesn’t stop with dealers, and some D2C vendors are hybrids.

If you’re a new entrant, this framework can help you structure your go-to market strategy.  If you’re an incumbent, you can play seven-D Go and outflank the competition.

Auto Auctions Disintermediated

Carvana acquired the Adesa auto auction last week.  Discussion on Twitter said this was not fair play, cutting into the supply line, and that dealers should take their business elsewhere.  I replied that there is already a movement to “disintermediate” the auctions, and that they will ultimately go the way of the stick shift.

Auctions are to wholesale what the test drive was to retail. 

If you think about it, the whole auction paradigm is incompetent, like the dark days of assembly plant inventory before JIT was invented.  It means that one dealer took my used X5 in trade, couldn’t retail it, and sold it at auction – where it was purchased by another dealer, and finally retailed to a new owner.

Think of the friction – the time lags, the transport, the fees.  It’s just insane.  The only reason I didn’t sell the car myself is that it’s a lot of bother, but I can easily sell person to person (P2P) through platforms like Shift and Tred.  I can also sell direct to a used-car specialist like CarMax or, yes, Carvana.

This diagram shows three ways to skip the auction:

Figures from NAAA show that auction volume has declined every year since 2016.  I understand they provide other services but, look – Carvana already ingests inventory at scale using its own facilities.  They handle two million vehicles a year, and Adesa will bring them to three.

The wholesale market will be conducted dealer-to-dealer, without physical auctions, on digital marketplaces like CDK CarSource and Cox Upside.  The only wholesale inventory will be in transit or recon, because the digital listing can flip instantly to a retail offer.

The Car Offer case is instructive.  Bruce Thompson developed Car Offer as a dealer-to-dealer marketplace, skipping the auction.  Car Gurus then bought the platform and converted it to a consumer site, skipping the selling dealer.

Auctions are to wholesale what the test drive was to retail.  Just as consumers are learning to buy cars online, so will dealers.  In fact, dealers should pick it up faster because they’re experts.

Network Effects in Dealer Systems

Last month, I wrote that the recent acquisitions of several Digital Retail vendors were driven by the need to accumulate dealer data for predictive analytics.  Today, I’d like to discuss another of Professor Rogers’ five themes, “network effects,” and how it applies to F&I software.

We’ll consider a hypothetical company that supplies admin software for F&I products, and also sells one or more dealer systems.  Having two distinct, but related, customer groups will allow us to explore “cross-side” network effects.

If the value of being in the network increases with the size of the network, as it often does, then there is a positive network effect.  Social networks are the model case.  The more people who are on Facebook, the more valuable Facebook is to its users (and its advertisers).

This is the textbook definition of “network effects,” but it’s only one part of what Iansiti and Lakhani call Strategic Network Analysis.  Below is a handy outline.  This article will walk through the outline using our hypothetical company – and some real ones from my experience.

Network Strategy Checklist

  1. Network effects (good) – Value grows as the square of the node count … maybe.
  2. Learning effects (good) – There is valuable data to be gleaned from the network.
  3. Clustering (bad) – You can be picked apart, one cluster at a time.
  4. Synergies (good) – Your business includes another network that talks to this one.
  5. Multihoming (bad) – Easy for customers to use multiple networks.
  6. Disintermediation (bad) – Easy for customers to go around your network.
  7. Bridging (good) – Opportunity to connect your network to others.

By the end of this article, you will understand how networking relates to the data concept from the earlier article, and how to apply it to your own software.

Speaking of vocabulary, let’s agree that “network” simply means all of the customers connected to your software, even if they aren’t connected to each other.  It will be our job to invent positive network effects for the company.

The early thinking about networks dealt with actual communication networks, where adding the nth telephone made possible n-1 new connections.  This gave rise to Metcalfe’s Law, which says that the value of a network increases with the square of its size.

Working Your Network

If you are supporting a “peer-to-peer” activity among your dealers, like Bruce Thompson’s auction platform, Car Offer, then you have Metcalfe’s Law working for you.  By the way, Bruce’s company was among those in the aforementioned wave of acquisitions.

If you are supporting a dealer-to-dealer activity, like Bruce Thompson’s auction platform, then you have Metcalfe’s Law working for you. 

Research has shown that naturally occurring networks, like Facebook, do not exhibit Metcalfe-style connectivity.  They exhibit clustering, and have far fewer than O(n2) links.  Clustering is bad – point #3, above – because it makes your network vulnerable to poaching.

Even if you don’t have network effects, per se, you can still organize learning effects using your dealers’ data.  Let’s say you have a reporting system that shows how well each dealer did on PVR last month.  Add some analytics, and you can show that although he has improved by 10%, he is still in the bottom quintile among medium-sized Ford dealers.

That’s descriptive analytics.  To make it prescriptive, let’s say our hypothetical company also operates a menu system.  Now, we can use historical data to predict which F&I product is most likely to be sold on the next deal.  The same technique can be applied to Digital Retail, desking, choosing a vehicle, etc.

Note that we have data from our reporting system doing analytics for our menu system – and pooled across dealers.  Any data we can accumulate is fair game.  This is why I recently advised one of my clients to “start hoarding now” for a prospective AI project.

Cross-Side Network Effects

So far, we’ve covered points 1-3 for our hypothetical company’s dealer network.  I’ll leave their provider network as an exercise for the reader, and move on to point #4.  This is where your business serves two groups, and its value to group A increases with the size of group B.

I like to say “cross-side” because that clearly describes the structure.  Iansiti and Lakhani say “synergy.”  Another popular term is “marketplace,” as in Amazon Marketplace, which I don’t like as much because of its end-consumer connotation.

It’s hard to bootstrap a network, and it’s twice as hard to bootstrap a marketplace. 

Is there an opportunity for cross-side effects between dealers and F&I providers?  Obviously ­– this is the business model I devised for Provider Exchange Network ten years ago.  Back then, it was voodoo magic, but a challenger today would face serious problems.

It’s hard to bootstrap a network, and it’s twice as hard to bootstrap a marketplace.  In the early days at PEN, we had exactly one (1) dealer system, which did not attract a lot of providers.  This, in turn, did not attract a lot of dealer systems.  Kudos to Ron Greer for breaking the deadlock.

Worse, while PEN is a “pure play” marketplace, our hypothetical software company sells its own menu system.  This will deter competing menu systems from coming onboard.  I’ll take up another of Professor Rogers’ themes, “working with your competitors,” in a later post.

Finally, network effects are a “winner takes all” proposition.  Once everybody is on Facebook, it’s hard to enroll them into another network.  That’s not to say it can’t be done.  Brian Reed’s F&I Express successfully created a dealer-to-provider marketplace that parallels PEN.

This brings us to point #5, “multihoming.”  Most F&I product providers are willing to be on multiple networks.  When I was doing this job for Safe-Guard, we ran most of our traffic through PEN, but also F&I Express and Stone Eagle, plus a few standalone menu systems.

The cost of multihoming is felt more by the dealer systems, which are often small and struggle to develop multiple connections.  On the other hand, Maxim and Vision insisted on connecting to us directly.  This is point #6, “disintermediation.”

New Kinds of Traffic

Fortunately for our hypothetical company, Digital Retail is driving the need for new kinds of traffic between providers and dealer systems.  This means new transaction types or, technically, new JSON payloads.  Transmitting digital media is one I’ve encountered a few times.  Custom (AI-based) pricing is another.

Digital Retail is driving the need for new kinds of traffic between providers and dealer systems. 

Controlling software at both ends of the pipeline would allow them to lead the market with the new transaction types.  Key skills are the ability to manage a network and develop a compelling interface (yes, an API can be “compelling”).

As before, note that the same concepts apply for a dealer-to-lender network, like Route One.  There is even a provider-to-lender network right here in Dallas.  Two, if you count Express Recoveries.

So, now you have examples of Strategic Network Analysis from real-world F&I software.  This is one of the methods the Virag Consulting website means when it says “formal methods” to place your software in its strategic context.  

If you’ve read this far, you are probably a practitioner yourself, and I hope this contributes to your success.  It should also advance the ongoing discussion of data and analytics in dealer systems.