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.

Spinoff Startups in F&I

The popular notion of a startup is two guys in a garage, like Hewlett and Packard, but this is not always the case.  Sometimes a mature company will give birth to a new business unit.  I did some foundational work for Dealertrack and, at that time, it was the eCommerce department of Chase Auto Finance.  In fact, a number of the startups I’ve worked with have been F&I spinoffs like Dealertrack.  Today we’ll explore these for common themes and lessons learned.

One common theme is the role of outsourcing.  You can begin with a core team, plus service providers, and then insource the functions systematically over time.  I was an early employee of BMW Financial Services, which began as a department of the sales company and all functions outsourced to GE Capital.  The head of this department, Kevin Westfall, had a plan to bring the operation under his control as a new entity with a new service provider.

I was recruited from Coopers & Lybrand, which was tasked with selection and contract administration for the service provider – outsourcing the outsourcing, so to speak.  After a few years at BMW, I followed Kevin to AutoNation and the same strategy.  We outsourced Funding, Customer Service, and Collections to World Omni, but kept staff functions and the Credit department in house.

You have a lot more autonomy managing a service provider than you do with permanent staff on the parent company’s org chart. 

Outsourcing isn’t magic, though.  If you can’t manage the function in house, then you probably can’t manage contracts and SLAs either.  On the other hand, this is a great way to get around the parent company’s hiring restrictions.  They may not be willing to hire the requisite staff for, say, a Collections department, but will sign a flexible contract with a service provider.  Also, to be frank, you have a lot more autonomy managing a service provider than you do with permanent staff on the parent company’s org chart.

McKinsey’s Meffert and Swaminathan write about “breaking the gravitational pull of the legacy organization,” and this is such an apt metaphor.  Many at BMW viewed the breakaway department with suspicion.  There was political pressure to keep Kevin under control of the Finance department, an obvious misalignment, and passive resistance from some of the others.  It was important in this case to set up our own HR department, and move it out of town.

It was the same story at AutoNation Financial Services.  We had our own IT, Finance, Ops, and Marketing plus dotted lines to the respective “real” departments of the parent company.  This gravitational pull is normal organizational behavior.  Managers are always starved for headcount and, since the new initiative is hiring, they want their piece of it.

When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats and bridges, in order to make it clear that you have no hankering after home.

When ANFS was shuttered in 2002, most of our crew was absorbed back into the parent company.  Obviously, having an escape route like this is not conducive to the kind of commitment required by a startup.  Insert Sun Tzu quote here.

There was no such option for two of my consulting accounts, Route One and Provider Exchange Network.  Route One, for example, was manned by senior managers from various captives.  There was not much chance of these guys going back to their old jobs if Route One were to fail.  I am thinking in particular of the founding CEO and CIO, Mike Jurecki and Joel Gruber.

Joel retained me as a subject matter expert in online credit systems, to work on the outsourced (there’s that word again) development of Route One’s core system.  I called on Joel a few years after the project and we talked about the career risk he had taken.  By that time, I was involved in a startup of my own, with no small amount of risk.

Paradoxical though it may sound, we believe companies need to take more risk, not less.

McKinsey cites the top ten ways to fail at digital transformation, and “excessive caution” tops the list.  It’s my personal belief that you can never achieve anything unless you’re willing to take a risk for it.  In any case, a big, risk-averse corporate parent is certainly going to impede the new unit.

Provider Exchange Network, likewise, was staffed by people hired for the purpose.  We had, from the outset, our own IT, Finance, and Marketing.  We did, however, run our hiring through the excellent HR department of Reynolds and Reynolds, and this is maybe the counterpoint to my arguments about autonomy.

The parent company is unlikely to have functional expertise useful to the new venture but, where it does, you should use it.  BMW had zero expertise in consumer finance, but they had a terrific Legal department.  At AutoNation Finance, we made good use of our parent’s FP&A capability.  Also, the spinoff may be designed specifically to exploit some asset of the parent company, like its dealer network or OEM relationships.

So, my takeaways on this topic are:

Group Cohesion – The new unit should be united around a common purpose, with people hired for the purpose or as a breakaway department.

Cutting the Cord – The spinoff will have to win some turf battles with parent company managers who refuse to let go.

Leverage Legacy Assets – On the other hand, take advantage of the parent’s core competencies, especially those that are hard to duplicate.

Outsourcing – Find partners.  Rent to own.  McKinsey and others have stressed the importance of thriving in an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Take Risks – Fortune favors the bold.  No shortage of clichés here but, seriously, all of the literature talks about new initiatives that move too slowly and become roadkill.

I recognize that these points are open to some interpretation.  They’re based, as you see, on my firsthand experience.  That’s some good experience, though, so if you’re doing an F&I spinoff maybe you can profit from it.  Best of luck.

Digital Transformation Playbook

I read a good book over Christmas break, The Digital Transformation Playbook, by David Rogers.  This is a good book because it has both theory and practice, plenty of research and real-life examples, and practical “how to” guides.

Just when you’re thinking, “oh yeah, when has that ever happened?” Rogers comes up with an example.  Many of the these include commentary from the people who worked on them.  It’s clear that the professor gets out of his classroom for a fair amount of consulting.

Digital transformation is not about technology – it is about strategy and new ways of thinking.

Most books like this focus on digital native startups.  That’s the sexy stuff and, in fact, where I have most of my experience.  I chose this book for its focus on digital transformation, in existing companies and hidebound industries (like auto retail).

The book is organized around five strategic themes: customer networks, platform marketing, upgrading your value proposition, data as an asset, and innovation through experimentation.

I did grow a little impatient with Rogers’ incessant enumerating: five core behaviors, four value templates, three variables, two trajectories (and a partridge in a pear tree) but I appreciated the effort to boil everything down to a foolproof recipe.  There are a number of these:

  • Customer Network Strategy Generator
  • Platform Business Model Map
  • Value Train Analysis
  • Data Value Generator
  • Experimental Design Templates
  • Value Proposition Roadmap
  • Disruptive Business Model Map
  • Disruptive Response Planner
  • Digital Transformation Self-Assessment

I was even inspired to start making value train diagrams of our business, and platform model maps:

On the theory side, Rogers reexamines familiar models from people like Drucker and Levitt.  He shows, for instance, that Christensen’s theory of “digital disruption” is a special case, and broadens it.

By the way, this discussion of digital disruption is one of the most lucid (hype-free) that I have read.  As usual, there is a checklist: analyze three features and choose one of six strategies.  If that doesn’t work then, yes, you’re disrupted.  Time to update your resume.

I read all the time, though I don’t often write book reviews (here is the last one) so Rogers’ fifteen-page bibliography was an extra treat.  That should keep my Kindle stoked for a while.

Toward a Digital Auto Marketplace

Will the big public groups dominate online retail, as I predicted last week, and drive private dealers from the field?

This trend seems to have recovered, after some false starts, with the availability of fresh talent like Shift, Drive, and Roadster.  Shift has $253 million in funding, notably including Lithia.  AutoNation has recently invested $50 million in Vroom, valuing the online startup above $700 million.

How can smaller groups compete in this high-stakes contest?  One way, as I wrote here, would be to consolidate themselves online.

To defend themselves online, private dealers will migrate into the most capable of the platform sites. The winning platforms will not be mere lead providers.

I know something about platform marketing, having organized the Provider Exchange Network around cross-side network effects.  The more menu systems we added on the dealer side, the more success we had with F&I providers on the other side.

The difference between a selling platform and a mere lead provider lies in the site’s ability to deliver a completed deal.  That is:

  1. Show the true price online.
  2. Sell protection products.
  3. Provide a firm offer for the trade-in.
  4. Offer hard-pull credit approval and deal structuring.
  5. Allow the customer to save multiple deals and self-close.
  6. Sign the contracts online.
  7. Provide for home delivery.

Home delivery is not just a nice touch.  It demonstrates the capability to truly complete the deal online, with no tasks left over.  It is the acid test for online retail, even though most customers will opt to finish the deal in person.  The tasks are described here, and the workflow is here.

This capability is not so far-fetched as it was when I started writing about it, some years ago.  Delivering it on a multi-dealer site, however, poses special challenges.  The only eCommerce capable sites I can think of are run by monolithic used-car dealers Shift, Vroom, Carvana, and CarMax, or single points using digital storefronts from Roadster, Drive, and TagRail.

So, I am back to writing about the future.  In the fullness of time, someone will figure out how to do eCommerce for:

  • New cars
  • Multiple new-car stores in a group
  • Multiple unrelated new-car stores

When I started writing about the platform concept, I naturally assumed that Autotrader, et al., would be there.  Now that I have spent some time exploring Autotrader, Cars.com, Car Gurus, Edmunds, GoGo, Carfax, TrueCar, Autobytel, Kelley, and Deliver My Ride, I can tell you this is still uncharted territory.

Everybody promises eCommerce, of course, but most stumble at the first gate.  This challenge, price transparency, was supposed to be TrueCar’s edge.  In fairness, the platform model poses some special challenges:

Price Transparency – This one needs no explanation.  Despite glimmers of hope from the Rikess Group, online pricing is mostly confined to used cars.  A new car marketplace would have to disclose, on the search results page, prices from competing dealers.

Protection Products – Same story here, as regards pricing.  Also, if you want to do it right, you need to copy the dealer’s menu system setup, and ping those providers for pricing.  In fact, each step of the online process needs an interface with its “system buddy” in the dealership.

Trade Valuation – There are plenty of tools, but participating dealers must agree to honor the platform’s valuation.  This is easier if the platform happens to be Kelley.

Credit Approval – Each dealer will have their own stable of finance sources.  It’s best simply to bounce the application off the dealer’s Route One or Dealertrack credit system, and then return the results to the platform.  This data needs to be in synch with the dealership anyway.

Deal Structuring – I complain all the time about weak payment calculators on consumer sites.  The special challenge here is that data must be shared with each dealer’s desking system, and the calculations must match.

The rest of the process is pretty much unchanged from single-dealer: saving and transmitting the deal, signing (standardized) forms with DocuSign, and scheduling the delivery.

I recognize this is but the broadest broad-brush outline.  My purpose here is not to explicate the design, but to illustrate how progress toward the digital marketplace is impeded by these special challenges.

We may need to cooperate with a direct rival due to interdependent business models or mutual challenges from outside our industry.

How will these challenges be resolved?  Will competing dealers learn to cooperate, for the sake of their online survival, or will the palm go to a single online victor – like AutoNation, or Amazon?  The quote above is from Professor Rogers’ definition of “coopetition.”

Smaller groups cannot afford to invest $50 or $100 million, as AutoNation and Lithia have done.  Look a little farther down the league table, though, and it’s not hard to find four or five dealer groups which, combined, match the scale and revenue of a public group.

Joint ventures are not unheard of in our industry, especially when it comes to eCommerce.  My own brainchild (and eCommerce platform) PEN, like CVR before it, is a joint venture between archrivals CDK and Reynolds.  Route One is a creation of the Detroit three captives, plus Toyota.  Honda and GM are working together on electric cars, while BMW and Daimler collaborate on mobility services.

Combining four or five dealer groups simplifies the problem, relative to a fully open marketplace.  It reduces the number of systems, lenders, and product providers that need to be integrated.  The ideal venture partners would already have a high degree of standardization within each group, and similar choices of software among them.

Such a project might proceed “depth first” by developing core functionality in one partner, and then folding in the others, or laterally by function, or by merging the existing eCommerce capabilities of the partners.  What to aim for as “minimum viable,” and how best to expand it, depends on a number of factors.

Meanwhile, the commodity lead business is under pressure.  Damage reports and reviews do not offer adequate differentiation, whereas investments in eCommerce could yield significant new opportunity.  The Cars.com situation marks the beginning of the shakeout, consolidation, and – just maybe – the digital marketplace.