The auto-retail industry has seen customer-relationship management software come and go over the years.

It evolves, integrates, provides easy-to-read “dashboard” graphics and gives management a “big brother” oversight of employees work.

But to what extent has it really improved the industry?

With a more-efficient marketplace in auto retailing, sales professionals need to be more targeted in their approach to bringing in business, handling customers and leveraging technology to provide a great buying experience.

Today’s products are not just customer databases, but dynamic entities that help dealers with scheduling, marketing, tracking, boosting fixed-operation sales penetration and, most importantly, providing a way to stay close to prospects and customers.

Roy Reutter, eBusiness director at Virginia-based Sheehy Auto Stores, uses the dealer group’s CRM software to not only keep his team on track but to be a nimble marketer.

“We were notified of a special Ford incentive program a few days before the Labor Day weekend,” he says. “I went into our CRM software, identified a target audience of Ford customers from our five Ford dealerships and sent out an email announcing the incentive program for the upcoming holiday weekend.”

Having that functionality is “powerful,” he says.

Using the CRM system is not optional for Sheehy employees. Everyone has their own password and logon ID, with varying levels of access, Reutter says.

This empowers the employees to come in each morning and immediately see their mailings, to-do lists, appointments, scheduled deliveries and other activities for the day.

It also keeps them on track and makes sure nothing falls through the cracks. By monitoring his team’s activities, Reutter is able to help those that need some guidance and insure they are using the system to sell more cars.

CRM systems have become essential for modern dealerships, says Iain Smith, vice president-product marketing for ADP Dealer Services said,

“A few years ago, a robust CRM was a nice-to-have for the dealership. Today, it’s a must-have that is integral to the very survival of the business. The ability to use CRM to attract, manage, convert and retain the client is vital not just to vehicle sales but service sales as well.”

CRM systems once were standalone components that performed certain functions. Today, current CRM vendors are horizontally integrating CRM into comprehensive workflows.

That way leads come from all sources: from showroom management to the desking of deals, Smith says. “This means that CRM systems must seamlessly interact with the dealership’s website as well as deal-management applications.”

Early last decade, some dealers could go without a CRM system and still enjoy some success. Those days are over from technological and economical standpoints.

The current economy and changes specific to automotive retail mean that if a dealer does not have CRM he is at a substantial competitive disadvantage.

Here is one example in which CRM has an immense impact: Leads from third parties cost dealers more now than ever before. When they get a valuable lead, they must use the CRM system and everything else within their power to convert it into a sale. Otherwise, they are throwing money away.

With changing technologies, where is CRM going next? First, mobile technologies will change how CRM works, especially in the collection of customer information.

In the traditional model, a salesperson collecting customer information must do so at a stationary computer screen. But a salesperson equipped with mobile technology can capture customer information anywhere in the dealership, including the back shop or car lot.

Mobile also will enable new work flows. With this technology, a dealership could have a sales-desk manager who accesses the quoting information through the mobile device and subsequently can be anywhere a deal is being worked.

“Another key change is the virtualization of the sales transaction,” Smith says. “With the Internet, the transaction will be managed wherever the consumer desires, whether it be in the home or at work.”

He foresees the transaction taking place at the dealership less often.

“The sale process today is roughly linear,” Smith says. “In the future, CRM will need to know everything that happened outside of the normal deal process including quotes, financing of the deal and the choice of vehicle, regardless of where these happened in the sale.

“Today, if prospects leave the dealership in the middle of a deal, they become potential be-backs. CRM of the future needs to stay in touch with the customer at home to keep the deal from stalling.”

He sees that as “another break from the linear tradition” of a sequence of events occurring at the dealership.

Finally, the software will get smarter. CRM analytics will be embedded to make better automated decisions and lower the overall cost to administer the transaction. If a dealer pays close attention to the process, it will tell how and where to make money.