Proposed network standards could make dealership life easier We hear all the time about this new computer age and its advantages - how it is going to transform our businesses, our lives. It surely is. But what about the problems this new age is creating?

Possibly, the exponential growth of the information technology sector poses the biggest problem. Every day, new companies are touting the virtues of their systems. Dealerships, in order to keep up, end up having separate computer systems for each department. In a lot of cases, these systems don't communicate with each other.

Also, each auto manufacturer has its own proprietary factory communication system. The result is that multi-franchise stores need separate servers and satellite dishes for each manufacturing line sold.

All this technology adds up to a lot of valuable time spent on cross training employees on the different systems as well as valuable space being used to house all of the hardware.

Mark Frost, CFO of Akins Ford-Dodge in Winder, GA. says that his dealership has seven different servers. "We might be a little more advanced than other dealerships in that our systems can communicate with each other - but it is a very complicated system. It would be nice if we could simplify it," he says.

A solution to this glut of technological advances is being touted by two newly published papers. They propose a set of common computer network standards that can be adopted by the automotive industry - specifically, the dealers, the manufacturers and the dealership service providers.

One paper, published by the Automotive Manufacturers Dealer Systems Group (AMDSG) provides a broad overview and strategy of how dealers can implement the standards.

AMDSG says the goal is to create a "high performance" and a "cost effective dealer communication system" that allows dealers to do business with both partners and customers, using a common infrastructure that is acceptable to the manufacturer, dealer and dealer service provider.

An agreement between Ford Motor Company, DaimlerChrysler and General Motors last year to work together to develop a set of common network standards resulted in a jointly published paper.

That second study is entitled "Dealership Infrastructure: A common vision and guideline for building an Internet-ready dealership network." The document provides technical instructions for implementing common network standards.

Dick Malaise, information system director for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) and involved in developing the common standards, says that the AMDSG document provides the overview, while the Big Three document has the "nuts and bolts of how to implement the standards."

Mr. Malaise adds that the two papers are being combined into one paper that should be available soon.

Even though the documents are available to the dealers, Mr. Malaise cautions that the "information is very technical and will be beyond the grasp of most dealers." He explains that the documents actually are for the service providers who are responsible for the dealership's computer systems.

Establishing a set of industry-common standards would allow the various systems to operate on a standard architecture.

Having a standard architecture would, in turn, allow internal communication between the different systems being used by different departments. Also, instead of having a separate factory communication system for each vehicle line, all factory communications could be accessed through one system.

The time spent on computer training would be reduced - instead of training on several different systems, employees would need to only learn one system. The space needed to house all of the different servers and systems would be reduced. Since the standards are Internet-based, there would be no need for all of those satellite dishes used by the various factory communication systems.

Mr. Frost likes the Internet concept - following a recent ice storm, he had to climb up on the dealership's roof and clean off the ice from the satellite dishes.

Kathleen Vokes, Ford Motor Co.'s public affairs director for information technology, says that the standards being proposed allows technology to be upgraded safely.

"We obviously had to identify the areas that the various systems have in common, as well as identify the needed proprietary information of each manufacturing system. We did not want to compromise the proprietary information," she explains.

In implementing the standards, dealerships will be able to leverage their existing equipment. They will not have to go out and purchase new equipment, in most cases.

Ms. Vokes says, "New technology can be incorporated into this common architecture rather easily ... Revisions are still being done, but they will include dealer service provider integrations and wireless applications."

She emphasizes, "These standards are guidelines and suggestions only. They are not certified, nor will they be mandatory."

In response to dealer demand, EDS is expanding its retail automotive electronic parts catalogue through the addition of GM Medium Duty Broadcast Sheets.

Parts Imager2, a fully featured, 32-bit Microsoft Windows application now offers GM Medium Duty Broadcast Sheets for model years 1992 to present. The Broadcast Sheet feature contains the production part numbers for every part and assembly used on a specific vehicle/unit as defined by its VIN (Vehicle Identification Number).

Dealership personnel now can browse anywhere within the UPC/FNA to find the exact part number they are seeking. In addition, Parts Imager2 provides direct linkage to the catalog illustrations and text information, as well as giving users the convenience of viewing or printing the entire Broadcast Sheet.

Linda Judd, president of the EDS Automotive Retail Group, calls it the most fully-featured, user-friendly electronic parts catalog available to GM dealers worldwide."

Andre Letourneau, vice president of sales for the EDS retail group, says, "Many dealers find it extremely difficult to identify and order the correct parts during the vehicle repair process."

Reynolds and Reynolds Co. purchased DealerKid, a provider of electronic customer marketing and relationship management software and services for automotive retailers in the United States and Canada.

Combined with new Consumer Loyalty Services practice of more than 50 CRM consultants, Reynolds says it has created the first, fully integrated set of Internet-based retail CRM solutions in the automotive industry.

As part of the transaction, Reynolds granted a software license back to DealerKid's principals for use in unrelated industries.

"The explosion of Internet technology has created significantly greater opportunities for car companies and auto retailers to attract and retain consumers in the vehicle ownership cycle," says Lloyd "Buzz" Waterhouse, Reynolds' president and CEO.

He adds, "The acquisition of DealerKid and the formation of the new Consumer Loyalty Services practice will help our customers dramatically improve the processes critical to capture more business, and strengthen their customer relationships."

DealerKid is one of the first providers of CRM applications through the Internet as an application services provider, or ASP. Its solutions are customized to meet the needs of individual auto retailers, megadealerships and car companies.

They provide a set of applications that allow the user to capture, manage and use consumer information to enhance marketing, sales, and customer support, and increase profits.

BMW has selected Cotelligent to support its web site development with a new system. It generates individualized electronic customer relationship management portals for BMW vehicle owners.

It lets BMW vehicle owners track the life and vehicle maintenance records of their vehicles, as well as stay informed on their leasing and financing accounts with BMW Financial Services.

New or existing owners register their vehicles online with the manufacturer using their vehicle identification numbers, and then populate their individual profiles with customized preferences for monitoring the lives of their vehicles.

A wholesale, resale and dealer-to-dealer on-line auction system is on the web from TheMotorPages.com/Autoco.com Inc.

The on-line auto B2B auction Internet site features premium late-model vehicles offered for sale by leading fleet/lease management companies for purchase by TheMotorPages member dealers.

The first tests started in September. Since then dealer and vendor feedback has led to a number of enhancements. Dealer services include transportation, reconditioning and title changes.