Eriko is a 38-year-old married executive with two young children. She’s more tech-savvy than most people her age. Yet, when it came time to replace the family’s leased minivan, she wanted more practical help than what she got.

Time-starved Eriko dreams of a vehicle purchase process geared around addressing her personal needs. It is non-invasive, respectful of her time and believable.

Mike, a 44-year-old pilot, is married with three children. He researches everything online. He relies on third-party automotive websites as well as manufacturer and dealer sites.

Eriko and Mike are real people. The digital dealer of the future will give Eriko and Mike the tools they want and need to improve their purchase decisions.

It’s time to think outside the dealership and put ourselves in the customer’s shoes now that 90% of vehicle purchase research is done online before the customer steps into the showroom. 

Dealers who focus on needs-based selling, automating processes and creating authentic, transparent interactions will win over Eriko and Mike.

Digital is not an add-on. It requires a change in the way dealerships operate, most importantly tapping into data to personalize the customer experience.

Some dealers resist change, especially technological change, for many reasons, such as process and compliance complexities, lower profit margins or fear they will lose their relationship with customers. They think technology diminishes their role.

But consider the following. When it comes to process, technology reduces the margin of error. It simplifies compliance. Done right, technology will also enhance a dealer’s relationship with the customer, not restrict it. Plus, costs for the dealer will decrease.

I predict dealerships will change dramatically. For example, the sales and finance and insurance process will merge. The sales consultant will sit next to the customer, not across the desk. Customer-facing, technology tools will enable personnel to consult with the customer at each step of the sales and service process. 

Dealers will move away from a reliance on weekly and monthly incentives, and instead will use data and search terms to target offers to web visitors. This may require having more incentives, but we know the personal approach is far more effective.

Today, personal URLs combined with personal microsites (PURLs) can strengthen ties with consumers like Eriko.

PURLs are an example of the personal, non-invasive and respectful approaches that buyers seek. Digital marketing campaigns using personalization measurably contribute to greater brand loyalty and retention.

It is possible right now to integrate the automotive manufacturer, captive finance and dealer data to create a custom cadence of lifecycle communications, from the initial conquest email, to the onboarding or welcome stage, through vehicle service reminders, to the end-of-term or lease-end and repurchase.

During the loan or lease period, dealers also can upsell products such as insurance and service contracts.

The dealer who dares to put competing cars side-by-side online with pricing as well as the pros and cons of each vehicle communicates a transparency that will reel in buyers like Mike.

Retargeting and other technology will enable the dealer to offer incentives and offers based on the visitor’s website behavior.

Blending data and self-service abilities can pay off at the service desk, too. For example, customers will schedule their own maintenance online and click to arrange for pickup and drop-off services at either home or work.

Inside the digital dealership, staff will be armed with tablets for consumers to use at the point of sale. This will allow the consumer to feel the process is more transparent and to feel in control of the purchase process.

Truly digital dealers will make it easier for customers to buy. Using data, they will provide the relevance and service consumers want, when they want it.

Paula Tompkins is CEO and founder of ChannelNet. In the last 30 years, she has helped hundreds of companies use technology to sell their products and build customer relationships. She is at or 415-332-4704.