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Dealership solution providers take note: make sure it works in the real world!

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In the last few months, I've had a lot of client dealerships ask me to meet with companies that propose to deliver a variety of solutions to them.  Some of the people I met were very passionate about what they were selling.  They spoke at length about how they were going to show dealerships the right way to do things, and the products and services that were presented to me had very impressive marketing presentations to extoll their wonders.

In discussing how they would be used, it became obvious that most of these offerings fell short in terms of how they would work in the real world of an automobile dealership.  For example, in one instance I was speaking with a company that had developed a service lane marketing solution that a manufacturer had embraced and was basically forcing its dealers to utilize (and pay for, of course).  One of the VPs for the company was talking about a checklist that would be completed on every vehicle in for service, with the objective of identifying additional service opportunities that could be presented to the customer in hopes of increasing the RO hours.  The checklist, he explained to me, would be completed by the technician doing the work, and then the advisors would contact the vehicle owner and explain the necessity for additional service.

I asked him if they were comfortable with the expectation of having the process initiated by the original assigned tech, and he confidently assured me that the tech would be happy to do so because it was not only good for the dealership, but it also gave the technician a chance to increase their earnings.  Right then I knew this product was going to be a failure.  They were suffering from a complete and total lack of understanding about how car dealerships work in the real world.

I spent 15 years managing dealerships, and I loved every minute of it.  The smartest thing I ever did in my career was to take the time to get at least a passable knowledge of every job in the dealership.  I worked the parts counter, I did AP in the business office, I took a turn in the write-up lane at least once a month, and yes – I washed and prepped deliveries.  In doing this, I earned some respect from the people who worked with me because I showed them I wasn’t above learning from them, and learn I did.

I’m a pretty smart guy, and I can usually think through any kind of problem and come up with a solution, but those solutions will only work if they are based on an accurate understanding of what’s really happening in the dealership.  Third party vendors who build products and processes based strictly on factory guidance, or theories of “best practices” that have never been tested in a dealership aren’t going to solve problems for dealers, they’re only going to create new ones.

I wouldn’t spend ten dollars on a vendor solution that expected my trans tech to take the time to complete an elaborate vehicle inspection.  I have much better things for him to do, like get on the next transmission job and turn us both some more hours.  Plus, I’m pretty sure he isn’t going to be all that motivated to find additional flat rate hours that will end up on the drivability guy’s time ticket.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of the checklist, and I love the idea of more hours on a car that’s already in my shop, but there’s a better way to implement this concept than what this vendor was proposing.  The objective was fine, the concept was good, but they didn't understand how to make it work in a typical dealership.

I see this happening more and more often as dealership solution vendors connect with manufacturers and convince them to push their products into their dealerships.  The dealership is only involved at the end of this process, and that’s why so many of these solutions fail, leaving both dealers and the factory kissing their investments of time and money good-bye.  What’s equally as distressing is that the problems that were supposed to be solved remain, and opportunities for dealerships to improve their service and earnings continue to go unrealized.

There are so many things that we can do better at car dealerships.  I’ve fantasized for years about a service process where customers are engaged from the moment they take delivery of a vehicle.  One where they are easily catered to in an effort to minimize their inconvenience when their vehicle requires service or maintenance, and are proactively updated on their vehicle’s status.  The technology we have today could easily deliver the kind of vehicle service interaction that would blow a customer away, if it was planned and designed to be used in a typical dealership easily, efficiently, affordably, and expeditiously.  In my own company, we remain zealously committed to working hand in hand with our dealership clients and their management team to put BDC and Internet processes in place that will work for them within the structure that’s already in use by them – and we’re successful almost every time.

I’m confident that someday soon, a manufacturer somewhere is going to figure this out, and they'll seek out a partner vendor that really understands the need to “learn all the jobs” before they push out their product.  That manufacturer is going to resurrect the concept of owner loyalty in their buyers, and you’re going to see massive market share increases for them - the result of their genuine commitment to an “ownership experience” that they will deliver to customers in partnership with a dealer body that has their respect, and their support.

Almost every car dealer I know is open to discussing how they could do things better.  They want to do the right things for their business, their customers, and their factory partners.  The reason they hesitate to embrace every new idea or program that’s forced upon them is because they’re still smarting from the experiences they’ve had before with misguided initiatives that didn’t solve anything, and that they were required to fund.  A great product that is supposed to help dealers first and foremost needs to actually work in a dealership, and without forcing the dealer operators to antagonize their managers and staff, or spend exorbitant amounts of money to reinvent the wheel of making customers happy.  If they really want to help their dealerships do a better job, the manufacturers first need to accept them and their people as invaluable sources of information about what they need, and how they need it.