As we inch closer to seeing a mid-engined Corvette, I think about all of the things that were supposedly right around the corner. Growing up, space colonies were already decades into the promise phase. A prototype flying car was already in the air, and nearly ready for production. At least one 80s show had a robot or some form of artificial intelligence. Holograms in video games would give way to holographic TV. American soldiers would be ready to fight the commies with laser rifles. Many of the promises of the future are stuck right on the horizon, just like the mid-engined Corvette. For six long decades.
When I got started in automotive sales, pushing twenty years ago now, digital retailing was the next big thing. After all, many of the mistakes that had hampered the likes of Autobytel, Microsoft, and CarsDirect in the mid-to-late nineties were behind us. More consumers had access to computers and broadband Internet. New tools were available to assist in collecting credit applications. Cool new services like Omniture were becoming more exact, and online targeting opportunities were getting clearer. Cell phones were now common, so no customer would go untouched. People like me were selling all manners of vehicles, site-unseen, to customers all over the country. Small stores like the dealership I was working for were secretive, and always looking over our collective shoulders for the big guys. By 2005, most vehicle transactions were going to take place online. Except, they didn’t.
By the time I shifted my career interests to technology in 2008, only tiny pockets of markets were dedicated to purchasing a vehicle “online.” Completed Internet transactions were back-burnered for showroom customers, delaying deliveries for several hours, even days. Paperwork was still printed in an F&I office, and taken to the customer at the time of home delivery. The copies were then filed with the state, just like they had been for a lifetime. Deliveries took place in the shade because state laws regarding such were left to interpretation. Ten years of using eBay and Amazon wasn’t enough to bend twenty years of buying cars at a dealership. I had an iPhone that barely worked, but no robot to fold my clothes. There certainly wasn’t a flying car to sell. Maybe next year.
More than ten years later, it’s more of the same. Thanks to Tesla, laws have changed…to only suit Tesla. Vehicle financing takes place the exact same way. Paperwork takes place the exact same way. Negotiating takes place the exact same way. Delivery at the dealership takes place the same way, just longer because more stuff is crammed into the vehicle. Even things like video introductions and walk arounds, that are somehow considered new, still take place the same way (I started doing this back in 2007, as did many others). Websites have nearly homogenized, while inventory search and presentation looks nearly identical to how it did ten years ago. At least it does to those who don’t stare at these sites as part of the their job. While artificial intelligence is still part of interstellar travel in the movies, today’s retail automotive AI is the same predictive analytics I was using ten years ago.
This may come as a total shock, but wishing for things, or predicting things, or even forcing things to happen, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. At least, not today. The technology I was begging for in 2002 is finally available at a reasonable cost today. Ecommerce sales have more than doubled since the advent of the smartphone, but still only make up 10% of all retail transactions. Tony Stark (AKA Elon Musk) has fought diligently to offer Teslas directly, yet it has taken fifteen years to legally sell Teslas in 21 states. No flying cars. Corvettes with the engines up front. People still do the Macarena at weddings.
Which brings me to early 2019. Many automotive dealerships are having digital retailing tools foisted upon them by their respective manufacturers. After spending weeks inside of our clients CRMs trying to help unfu…um…unscramble the mess, I can confidently say, no one is ready for digital retailing. “But, Bill the surveys say…” Yeah I read those same surveys, too. Beside the fact that I believe in cognitive response bias, these surveys don’t explain the complexities of how all of it will work. Sort’ve like the people who voted for Brexit, not realizing that it would literally take the food off their plates. I’m sure a lot of people would also vote for the legalization of teleportation, at least those who haven’t seen the Fly. Here’s how the whole value chain breaks down.
Let’s take it from the top. Little is done to explain how the digital retailing site widgets work, especially for the OEM mandated websites, meaning that multiple leads are being generated from the widgets (caching all of the inputs before an ADF lead is generated would help immensely). CRMs cannot deal with the deluge of these leads, meaning much of the detail ends up in a lead marked as duplicate. The first lead often triggers an improper workflow, so the customer starts receiving irrelevant emails. Internet personnel are left in the air on how to properly respond, not having much in the way to identify these leads from standard leads (and again, most are marked duplicate). Sales managers revert to just getting them in. F&I managers welcome the customer as a typical walk-in. No electronic contracting, paperless registrations, free home delivery, or anything resembling an ecommerce transaction. The customer gets the exact same experience they did 20 years ago. A lead is still a lead, no matter what shade of lipstick it is wearing.
I want to be clear: I believe in digital retailing. At the same time, I don’t think it should come at the expense of everyone involved in the transaction being baffled by the process. Instead of forcing the issue, we must take an iterative process. Let’s start with getting rid of the “hey, what’s this button do?” approach to digital retail widgets. Instead, let’s start with an explanation of what the tool is for, why it’s valuable, what it can accomplish, why it’s worth trying something different, and who it is for. That’s right, I said who. Digital retailing isn’t going to be for everyone, so take the time to detail who this service is right for (read: busy people who are early adopters). An audience needs to be cultivated before they can be asked to change a car purchasing routine they’ve used their whole lives.
Speaking of routines, we also need to nurture the retail staff that
Now that the mid-engined Corvette has been spotted with camouflage on public roads, the promise of the sixties is finally real. It took decades for the engineering, manufacturing, and testing to finally come to a point where a high volume, serial production car, will be available in a configuration that was once only reserved for low volume exotic cars. It also took that long for a market big enough to emerge that could justify such a thing. I never thought I’d see a day where we’d see people buying $100,000 Chevys, but they are. But, if you think the United States is ready for 270 million flying cars without first having a way to control the air traffic, noise, places to safely take off and land, with people texting and flying, you must be more than an optimist. Let’s take it slow. Let’s do it right.