There have been some major developments at automotive data-mining and customer-dealership connection vendor AutoAlert, starting with the announcement at the NADA show about its CXM (Customer Experience Management) big data platform, which combines its suite of Data Mining, Social Media, Messaging, CRM, and Reputation Management software solutions.
To help direct the platform, Julian Johnston was recently promoted to the new role of Vice President of Innovation and Platform Philosophy from Senior Director of Product Consulting and Sales.
Johnston spoke with Modern Dealership about his new role, and how the CXM platform will change the way communication is done between dealerships, customers and OEMs.
That is an interesting title. Tell me a little more about what it means and what you will be doing at AutoAlert going forward?
You cannot drive continuous innovation of a platform as complex as ours without a deep understanding of what all of the components do, how they work together, and a philosophical understanding of why the platform was built the way it was.
As a dealer-partner, we have to strike a balance between equipping our dealers with the tools they need to be successful today and look into the future to provide solutions that will allow our dealers to thrive in a landscape that they might not be aware of, with tools that they likely don’t know they need.
I have worked with AutoAlert’s Mike Dullea (CEO), Tom Walls (CTO), and team for almost 10 years, and they have perfected the art of building innovative platforms in this space. They did it with VinSolutions, and now we are doing it again with AutoAlert. In working with this team, you quickly realize that building a platform requires much more strategic vision and decision making than building a standalone product. Even from early on, I began to understand that there is a philosophy that drives the company and its platform forward and all decisions have to made with that philosophy in mind.
When you are moving as quickly as we are, it is vital to make sure all stakeholders in your organization are well versed on what we are building for our dealers and why we are heading in the direction we are heading, which is why change management is incredibly important in my role. If our goal is to provide a forward-thinking solution while at the same time offering top-level support, then we can’t possibly accomplish that mission if all of our employees aren’t on the same page and singing the same tune.
I have heard you use the term “platform” already, and it is in your title. What exactly does platform mean, and how is it any different than any other software solution?
At AutoAlert, we have a series of products that all provide tremendous value on their own; however, it is the collaboration of all of those tools that drive real change. So, we have built an environment that allows for enhanced integrations between all of the solutions that we offer. This environment allows us to connect dots that wouldn’t even be there if these products were siloed.
For example, a reputation management tool is vital to the marketing efforts of a dealership, and we offer one of the best in the space; however, when you integrate the data captured from that tool into our CXM platform, then you can activate that data in real time. This integration has allowed us to build a Conflict Resolution Process to handle negative reviews that the industry has never seen before. This is just one example of many that make up our platform.
What do you think about the consolidation taking place in the industry, with companies such as Cox Automotive, CDK Global, Dominion Dealer Solutions, and others, making platforms through acquisitions?
Building an integrated platform through acquisition is incredibly difficult, and I think all of the companies you mentioned above are starting to realize that. I have been on both sides of the fence and think what many of these companies are finding out, is that building a platform through acquired products goes a whole lot deeper than just integrating code.
It is a monumental task to integrate software solutions that weren’t built to be integrated. The deeper you get into the infrastructure of the software the more you find yourself rebuilding to patch tools together. We dealt with this exact issue ourselves when AutoAlert purchased MotoFuze. For us to integrate these products together, we had to rebuild everything from the ground up — which we did — and it took a lot of effort and sacrifice to pull off. But that is only part of the challenge.
When acquiring a company, you are adopting their people, their culture, and most importantly the company’s “why.” To try and align those things with the greater good is easier said than done and often times takes years to accomplish … if ever!
Now, when you couple all of this with the pressure of making sure the acquisition bears fruit financially for the parent company, it becomes nearly impossible because every decision is made with the bottom line in mind and often times this focus clouds the judgment of what is most important: providing solutions that help dealerships better serve their customers.
At AutoAlert, we have the freedom to put all of our focus on creating value for our dealers and their customers, instead of chasing the justification of a purchased company or bottom line.
I am a firm believer of building platforms from the ground up because I’ve seen it work. That is not to say it cannot be done the other way around; but the ones that have tried it have proven how difficult it can be. We will start to see decisions made by the companies above proving exactly that.
As many people have heard, AutoAlert recently released it’s Customer Experience Management (CXM) Platform. What exactly does CXM mean and why is it so important?
It is important to point out, that CXM is not a new concept. Many of the other retail verticals have been practicing CXM for years. It just has yet to be introduced in automotive because our business model is so unique.
We knew that we had to step back and redefine what the relationship between a dealership and their customer should look like. In the eyes of the customer, they don’t realize all that goes into marketing and selling a vehicle. They don’t understand the difference between a Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 marketing strategy; or, how many partners a dealership needs to effectively market in a super competitive landscape, and frankly they don’t care. To them, a cohesive, personalized experience when purchasing and servicing their vehicle is all that matters. We want to help bridge that gap.
Every single touchpoint is the most important moment to that customer and should be treated as such. It should come as no surprise that we believe communication is the most important aspect of any positive relationship and if we can use data and modern technology to help manage the entire customer journey and communication strategy with the customer’s needs in mind, then we have a better chance of creating customers for life.
How is this different than the CRMs that most dealerships are using today?
I got my start with a major CRM company and owe everything I know to the foundation they helped me build there. I’ll also say, CRMs in our industry truly changed the game in how we managed the relationships with customers and will always have a place in automotive retail.
With that said, most of the communication to the customer is automated, and all of it is time-based. Customer-relationship management is mostly driven by an automated scheduler. An automated email fires 24 months after purchase. A follow-up call on month 32 … why? And say what? It is no wonder that most of the notes we find in our CRM tools are “left message.” Outside of a happy birthday call, not much of the communication is relevant and, frankly, it is a broken process.
The digital world we live in offers up capabilities that we simply didn’t have 5 or 10 years ago when many of these CRM tools were developed. The amount of data and intelligence we are able to draw from today is astounding and the technology we have available to us to create actions using that intelligence is what is allowing us to redefine this process; and, even in the early stages, we are proving that the impact a data-focused communication strategy has on our dealers and the relationships with their customers is profound.
It sounds like communication was the missing link in making CXM a reality. Why is that?
The final phase of our journey in creating the CXM platform was taking the personalized experience that customers have come to expect online, and transferring that same experience to the brick-and-mortar. In order to do that we have to make sure we are not only communicating the right message to the right consumers, but also communicating the right message to the right employee at the right time.
Many of the OEMs are starting to have conversations about CXM, and if you dig into these Tier 1 strategies, you will find that much of the conversation revolves around employee engagement. Truthfully, it makes perfect sense because, let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how the customer is driven to the dealership; if the employee they interact with is disengaged or, even worse, disgruntled, then all of the hard work is done in vain.
The question for us was how do we develop a tool to help support the need of keeping your employees engaged to your brand and your mission … because up until now, there has never been one in place. What we have found is that, much like the relationship with your customers, maintaining employee engagement and satisfaction is driven by communication, which, again, shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Whether we like it or not, today’s workforce demands open communication with their employer and fluid collaboration with their peers. For us, the goal in the development of our communication tool – Pando – was to encourage communication, inspire collaboration, and drive operational efficiency. What we are proving is that even the smallest adjustments in how you communicate with your employees and how they collaborate with each other has a huge impact on how they feel when they come into work every day.
Your employees are the key driver in the relationships customers have with your dealership. They create the perception that customers have when they think of your brand. Dealers take a tremendous amount of pride in their brand and how they are perceived in their community; don’t let a disengaged employee destroy that goodwill.
“Much like the relationship with your customers, maintaining employee engagement and satisfaction is driven by communication.”
So, by engaging employees you are helping dealerships set the foundation. Then what?
Once we have a team of engaged employees, we can start arming them with new tools and heightened intelligence to provide customers with the best overall experience.
The most exciting part of our platform is the algorithms running in the background and the fact that they get smarter every day. Every single transaction creates an opportunity for our algorithms to learn and get better at predicting behavior. The more data we feed into this, the more intelligent the engine becomes. Imagine how powerful it would be to arm the dealership’s staff with the same level of intelligence every single time they interact with a customer.
So, for example, when BDC Agents pick up the phone to call a customer, we want them to have an understanding of who they are calling and why, and know exactly what the conversation should be, based on what we know about that customer. Or, when a salesperson ups a customer on the lot, they know exactly what drove that customer to the dealership in the first place.
Once we can start connecting these dots on a consistent basis, that is when we can drive serious change, not only for the dealership, but for our industry as a whole.
I recently saw an interview with your CEO, Mike Dullea, where he emphasized the importance of integration. Would you agree with his sentiments, and why?
Three years ago, when we started the discussions on Pando and CXM, we had to make the strategic decision of whether or not we will open up the platform for integration; and, honestly, it was a no-brainer. Our CTO, Tom Walls, said it perfectly when he said: “We want to be an ecosystem enabler.” Truth be told, we drew a lot of inspiration from what Salesforce is doing. They are one of the best CRM tools in the world, and nobody will dispute that; however, what truly sets them apart is their willingness to integrate their platform with anyone that provides value to their mutual customer — even if that third party has competitive functionality.
If you take a step back and look around in our industry, you will see that we simply don’t operate the same way … and it is to the detriment of our dealers.
Dealerships have a portfolio of vendors handling different aspects of the business. A DMS. A CRM. A Website. Third-party lead sources. A marketing company. An inventory management tool. Most of which don’t communicate with each other. It’s no wonder why the customer experience is so fragmented and disjointed. This is why integrations among all the different verticals within our industry is absolutely vital.
Our CXM platform is built with the infrastructure needed to allow for the synergies to provide our customers a great experience. If we can encourage other vendors to come together to collaborate with the interest of the customer in mind, we will all be better for it. The integration and collaboration of vendor partners within our industry will be the single most important movement in our industry going forward … and we hope to be the catalyst in making that happen sooner than later.