Integration. There's a word that's making the rounds in the business community, including automotive retailing.

According to Webster, to “integrate” is to make or become whole or complete, to bring parts together into a whole. This definition holds true for automotive retailing.

Indeed, integration is at the forefront of retailers' concerns in today's competitive market. In several independent studies, retailers have affirmed that info tech integration is of critical importance in running their dealerships smoothly, efficiently and profitably.

For example, in a recent dealership management systems (DMS) study, retailers state that they need total system and department integration, including everything from sales and service to human resources and payroll.

Dealers rate data integration throughout their stores as extremely important, according to a Reynolds and Reynolds study. Overall, 81% of those surveyed say integration is highly important. Those same retailers noted the primary benefits of such integration as better communications within the dealership, with other stores and with car companies, and better access to information, including current data, inventory, financials and customer service indexes.

Other key benefits that retailers mentioned in the studies include the value of not needing to re-key information and the importance of having that information shared across departments.

One dealer says, “It has to be easy to navigate through the entire system because we need information from other departments at a moment's notice. Additionally, total integration would reduce keypunch errors and eliminate duplicate work that can tie up valuable resources.”

These studies also confirmed the desire for integration across all dealership operations, including areas typically not directly involved in the sales and service process, such as human resources and payroll.

Retailers' highest demand for integration is within those systems that link the consumer to the service department.

Also important is integration between the DMS and dealership web sites, between their web sites and sales lead management systems, and between the DMS and car companies.

Why is this total integration so important? Simple. It drives customer satisfaction through the roof. How? By achieving online, near real-time integration of key customer and financial data along with seamless, secure links between all departments and external vendors.

But how do we get to that level of integration from where we are today?

As the research shows, what retailers expect to gain from total integration is different today than it was even a year ago. That's because of new emerging technologies that enable total integration within the dealership as well as outside the walls of the dealership. A truly integrated approach can help retailers achieve and surpass business goals in addition to helping them:

  • Leverage the Internet.
  • Keep pace with technology.
  • Increase customer loyalty and retention.
  • Strengthen relations with car companies.
  • Improve overall dealership operations.
  • Improve employee training and retention.

In addition, a truly integrated business solution for today's automotive retailing marketplace must include fully enabled customer relationship management (CRM) capabilities designed to flexibly adapt to a retailer's business needs.

With such an integrated CRM system, a dealership could expect its leads to be tripled, closing rates doubled and profitability levels reaching unprecedented levels. How? Through the three P's: People, Performance and Profitability.

By people, we are referring to customers and employees. From a customer standpoint, such an integrated system can focus on finding and serving them, keeping them loyal to the dealership and brand. From an employee standpoint, total integration will make sure that they have the tools, information and training to improve productivity and the dealership's ability to serve customers.

Performance refers to delivering results that matter to the dealership. Results from total integration include delivering more — and more profitable — long-term customer relationships, and delivering better information about those customers.

As for profitability, total integration enables a dealership to leverage the investments it's made in both people and technology. Integration frees up employees to better serve customers.

As fast as technology changes and as complex as business has become, the last thing retailers should have to worry about is how their systems are built and whether all the pieces work together. A totally integrated solution will alleviate this worry.

A new generation of integrated technology and systems is coming. Keep your eyes open and make sure you're a part of it.

Deb Falknor is a vice president with Reynolds & Reynolds' Retail Management Solutions.