Street Fighting Man

Customer relationship management (CRM) and business development have become the buzz words of today's software powerhouses. Lately, I've been poking around to see what vendors are offering. Sadly, I found that not yet was the most common answer to my most serious questions. Everyone's hopped on and single central data based concepts, and everyone boasts a best in market sales pitch. What no one has

Customer relationship management (CRM) and business development have become the buzz words of today's software powerhouses.

Lately, I've been poking around to see what vendors are offering. Sadly, I found that “not yet” was the most common answer to my most serious questions. Everyone's hopped on “Web-based” and “single central data based” concepts, and everyone boasts a “best in market” sales pitch. What no one has is a passive system of data mining and customer handling positioned in a way that is showroom friendly; at least not yet.

In a minute we might have some pretty neat stuff that will, with the swipe of a driver's license (and a few key strokes), identify who's who and match them to a program, a vehicle and a payment. Our shopper will then get the comfort of a computer driven solutions that pin hopes and dreams to real inventory and acceptable economics. We dealers will get the comfort of knowing exactly who's been shopping and for what. The OEMs will get faster throughput and better answers as to what to build and at what price-point.

Between visiting customers, our next generation software will comb service and sales files to match past and potential customers to current programs. Obviously, first in line will be those customers about to round the corner on a lease return or warranty expiration. Another cheerful prompt will nudge those with enough equity to make a real, not sub-vented, zero down deal. Maybe we'll even get smart enough to identify a couple of folks whose need for their current vehicle has changed — say a soccer mom whose kids finally graduated.

In the meantime, I'm wondering if anyone realizes that the old fashioned street fighter is still the dealer of choice and that all the starry eyed programs aimed at taking the edge off his effort are simply playing into the hands of the competition.

Who is this street fighter you ask? He was the one that everyone snickers about at dealer meetings and in the cafeterias of auction houses. He's the one whose survival stupefies everyone year after year. He's the one who periodically gets caught, but always seemed to dodge the bullet; the one who laughs in the face of a chargebacks, simply charging them off as a cost of doing business. Mostly he's the one who does all the volume while everyone else whines about the lack of factory support.

Without him go all those creative ads and clever sales events. Gone will be the “tactics” that play to the public's love for negotiation. Gone will be his flashy suits and high- spirited salespeople. And gone will be that love-hate relationship with car salesmen that make shopping an event and the family negotiator a hero. And sadly, gone might be all the fun.

Automotive retailing is in transformation (again); it's being homogenized, sanitized, disinfected and turned into skim milk. No haggle selling, factory web sites, published prices and, CSI campaigns are combining to neutralize that creativity and aggression that were the hallmark of the neighborhood dealer. What's left are factory outlets with Saturnized sales programs putting all but the most devoted of customers to sleep. What's worse, the more muffled the local dealer's voice becomes, the less likely that anyone will become conquested owners of new and different products.

Our modern dealers, while still invested in their stores are more and more controlled by the push pull of tiered incentives and the constant drain of cooperative marketing contributions than by the call to opportunity. Looking into a crystal ball, no dealer would be shocked to see the consolidators and OEMs replace private capital and local know how with public money and uninvested middle management. Unless the tide of consolidation wanes, we are just a moment away from the national chain of Wal-Martesque Motors. What our OEMs might fail to notice is that

Wal-Martesque enterprises only carry winners and rarely keep secondary products from tanking. Wal-Martesque retailing is more likely to be a category killer than a struggling manufacturer's savior.

As far back as I can remember the one constant within our industry's tumultuous history has been our manufacturers' push for a standardized retailing process. The inconsistent approach of a franchised distribution network irritates those possessing traditional notions of Henry Ford's assembly line efficiency. The ruggedly individualistic world of the car dealer is hard to predict and way hard to control.

The one area that just might keep today's rugged dealer in the equation is true CRM and productive Business Development. If our software giants start supporting the guerilla tactics of profitable dealers by helping them to harvest the overlooked and under serviced book of patrons in their customer base, we'll see volume shifts and cost reductions at dealerships. Here's the big “but”: OEMs must start working with those dealers by sharing the opportunity for resales and refinancings. They must add and share their data, confirming their trust that the dealer's customer is an annuity for both of them.

Peter Brandow is a veteran dealer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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