Don Palombi, the general manager for AutoWest Honda in Roseville, CA, had a decision to make. It's one that virtually all dealers encounter at one point or another: which up-and-coming new technology applications to put in place at the dealership.

The decision is neither simple nor cheap. If a dealer makes a bad choice, a lot of money in technology and products go unused at the dealership.

Driving the decision for AutoWest, an AutoNation Inc. store, is a facility renovation and new Business Development Center. An AutoNation district vice president convinced Mr. Palombi it would be a good time to test a new wireless technology application developed by Stronghold Technologies, a New Jersey company.

For Stronghold, a lot depended on the pilot program at AutoWest. If one AutoNation store liked it, well, there are about 300 more who might follow suit.

The Stronghold product, DealerAdvance, is an Internet-based, wireless lead and customer management system. Stronghold installs a wireless local area network that operates on a 802.11b standard at the dealership.

The network consists of wireless hubs, handheld devices, a server and workstations. The system can be fully integrated with the DMS and Business Development Center. Internet access is also available.

The backbone of the system are wireless Compaq iPAQ handheld units, similar to personal display assistants (PDA) that have become commonplace the last few years. The handheld devices appeal to Mr. Palombi.

“With computers so prevalent today, and in this age of the open showroom, you really can't put a PC on every desk,” he says. “The DealerAdvance product allows each salesperson to have access to a computer.”

Salespeople can use the handheld units to capture customer information, access product and inventory information and conduct product comparisons. A budget calculator is also on the device so the salesperson can determine the price range that fits the customer's needs. There are also connections to Kelly Blue Book and Galves so salespeople can do a quick trade appraisals.

As the salesperson enters the customer's name, address, phone number and email address, the information is automatically placed on the customer contracts that have been uploaded onto the system. This means the forms don't have to be filled out separately. That can knock as much as 25 minutes off the sales process, notes Chris Carey, Stronghold's CEO.

Intriguing. But Mr. Palombi has some concerns.

“The salesperson has access to a lot of product information — including competitor information,” he says. “Sometimes, they can talk themselves out of a deal by producing too much information.”

Sinclair Cowans, an Autowest Honda salesman, has a different perspective.

“I've been a salesperson for a few years now and I'm pretty knowledgeable about product, so I don't have to bring up the competitor information on the unit,” he says. “But I can see where a new salesperson might become dependent on it.”

Another issue concerning the handheld IT tool: just when in the sales process should the salesperson pull it out.

Says Mr. Palombi, “Sometimes the salespeople become more concerned with trying to capture all of the customer's information rather than focusing on the customer. It's just a matter of knowing when to use it. Probably the best time to use it is near the point of sale.”

Mr. Cowans says, “Obviously, this isn't the first thing I bring out. First, I try to build a little rapport with customer. I usually will enter the information while we're on the test drive or back in the showroom. I'll explain to the customer that this is the best way I have to keep in contact with them.”

He adds, “The best part about using the wireless unit is that it makes us more professional in the customer's eyes as well as our own… This may sound strange, but the handheld unit also intimidates the customer a bit. That's a good thing for me. The customer is less confident they can take advantage of me.”

Once the customer's information is entered into the unit, it is uploaded immediately to the DMS. Managers can access the information so they can track the sales staff's results and see where customers are in the sales process. The information can be printed onto reports customized by the dealership. This information can be integrated into a dealership's Business Development Center.

But after testing the product for nearly two months, AutoWest's managers had some concerns.

Among them is whether Stronghold can deliver on its promises.

Says Mr. Palombi, “They're telling me they can integrate DealerAdvance with my ADP system. If they can do that, then there is some strong value. With the integration with ADP, we will be able to track our follow up. Also, every morning, we'll have the day's assignments mapped out automatically — which customers get the phone call, who gets the letters.”

So far, Stronghold has answered all of the questions and allayed most of the concerns. Mr. Palombi credits the firm for that. By October, he was ready to make a decision.

“We've decided to stick with DealerAdvance. Wireless technology is unlimited in its potential,” he says.

Stronghold, though, still has another hurdle to clear. Mr. Palombi explains, “We're still negotiating on price but that's in the hands of our corporate office right now.”