We live in the golden age of technology. Sure, our grandparents experienced larger leaps, but our stuff is better in every measurable way. Their giant computers and coast to coast copper infrastructure sit unused in our dresser drawer while even more sophisticated technology sits in our pockets. Our watches still tell time, as well as measure our heartbeats, along with turning on the lights in our home from miles away. Certainly, it’s making our personal lives easier, but is it helping car dealerships. I’d argue, NO.
The prevailing automotive dealership technology of today only serves its master. These masters could be lumped into four categories:
- The duopoly of DMS providers.
- OEM mandates.
- The Egos of the creators.
- Investors who are looking to cash-in.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a master who is the actual user.
By virtue of perpetual contracts and blood sacrifices, two DMS providers hold a Charleton- Heston-like death grip on the retail automotive ecosystem. With their steampunk technology, long reach, and infinite money, they make life tough for all constituencies. They charge exorbitant fees to other tech companies who need to interface with them. When those tech companies pose a threat, they buy them and hide that technology somewhere in the Matrix. They hold a divorced wife status with all of the manufacturers. Despite all of these things, this master isn’t going away anytime soon.
Increasingly, manufacturers are also starting to dictate the rules of the game. Some brands are happy to rubber stamp a tool while others give a store a menu of who to choose from. Still others do the “good deed” of negotiating a suite of tools for the dealership. The downside for the dealer is that it boils down to individual relationships between the decision masters (the OEMs are notorious for taking care of their own), the lowest bidder, and/or some intern identifying companies from the forums. It’s like a prix fixe menu of boxed macaroni and cheese.
It has been said we forge our image during the latter years of high school. This could be said about some technology, and the cult of personality surrounding it. Many of the tools available to dealerships today resemble those who created or championed them. Some can still be seen with teased six-inch bangs and a Pantera t-shirt. A few maintain a black trench coat with Doc Martens while others are showing off copious amounts of chest hair and a gold Gemini pendant. Like some people, these tools and their masters haven’t changed much since their early years. Yeah, they’ve gotten fatter and balder, but deep down inside, they’re still the same. By its very definition technology doesn’t have a personal identity. Their technology shouldn’t either.
If you’ve sold cars, you’ve gambled. Maybe without even realizing it, you’ve bet on time and relationships. You’ve bet on knowledge and will power. Some investors have made bets on retail auto tech only to find themselves desperate to cash out. They got past the licensing fees, certifications, and mustachioed personas only to find their surefire investment is taking way too long to pay off. With an increasingly long exit horizon, they mount pressure to boost revenue, suppress new developments, and ignore consumer behavior shifts. As distress mounts bridges get burnt, disruptive employees get launched, and technical evolution grinds down to geologic pace. The sole purpose of the company is mastering selling itself, as opposed to serving the end user.
If you’re any of the entities mentioned in this text or affected by them, you should be pissed off. I’ve been in and around car dealerships since the time of the modem. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. We’re all losing and high-fiving each other at the same time.
Great technology doesn’t replace people, change people, or use itself. No, the very best technology takes what the user does best and makes them better. The sharpest carving chisels didn’t sculpt La Pieta all by themselves. The Bell X1 didn’t break the sound barrier on the runway. Nuclear power plants weren’t born on chalkboards. It took Michelangelo’s supernatural attention to detail to bring his sculptures to life, forever setting the benchmark for future artists. It took Chuck Yeager’s nerves of steel to break the sound barrier, forever changing aviation, and ushering in space travel. It took Marie Curie’s extraordinary intellect, curiosity, and double Nobel-worthy dedication to discovering and classifying radioactive properties to pave the way for the atomic age. Technology like IBM’s Deep Blue and Watson would be forgettable without beating Garry Kasparov at chess or beating Ken Jennings at Jeopardy. The same holds true for Google’s DeepMind recently beating Lee Sedol at Go. Those computers gain nothing by mastering themselves. If the technology doesn’t compliment the end user, it does little to serve its purpose.
As an industry, let’s make a commitment. Let’s build and use tools that serve the end user. Let’s break the chains of servitude to the DMS providers, manufacturers, the egomaniacs, and the panicky investor. Let’s stop failing. Instead, let’s work together to serve the dealerships in a mutually beneficial partnership. Let’s give them the tools to help them do what they’re masters at. That is selling cars.