How does a dealership meet the demands of today’s digitally empowered consumer and still build a relationship that pays off at the service desk and results in repeat sales?

 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” leased minivan, she wanted more practical help than what she got.

Completely time-starved, Eriko dreams of a vehicle purchase process that is geared toward addressing her personal needs and is non-invasive, respectful of her time and believable.

Mike, a 44-year-old pilot, is married with three children. Mike researches everything online. He relies on, Kelly Blue Book, and manufacturers’ and dealers’ websites. Mike wants a comprehensive way to compare vehicles at the push of a button.

He believes, “You can get everything you need on the web or by email.”

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 percent of vehicle purchase research is done online — before the customer ever steps through the showroom door.

Dealers that focus on needs-based selling, automating processes and creating authentic, transparent interactions will win over Eriko and Mike for life. Digital is not an added “thing.” It requires a change in the way dealerships operate, most importantly tapping into data to personalize the customer experience.

Dealers tend to resist change, especially technological change, for many reasons such as fear of process and compliance complexity, of lower profit margins or that they will lose their relationship with customers. They think technology diminishes their role.

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 the future dealership will change dramatically. For example, the sales and F&I processes will merge and the sales consultant will sit next to the customer, not across the desk. Customer-facing, technology tools will enable dealer personnel to consult with the customer at each step in the sales and service process.

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

Today, personal URLs combined with personal microsites (PURLs) are one way dealers are cementing their ties with consumers like Eriko. PURLs are an example of the personal, non-invasive and respectful approaches that buyers seek. Results demonstrate that digital marketing campaigns using personalization measurably contribute to greater brand loyalty and retention.

It is possible — right now — to integrate the brand with captive finance and dealer data to create a custom cadence of life cycle communications, from the initial conquest email, to the onboarding or welcome stage, through vehicle service reminders and on to the end-of-term or lease-end and repurchase. During the loan or lease period dealers also can upsell products such as insurance, service contracts, dealer services and more.

The dealer that dares to put competing cars side-by-side online with prices as well as the pros and cons of each vehicle communicates the 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 their 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 consumers to feel that the process is more transparent and that they’re in control of the purchase process.

To put it simply, 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.

This blog was originally published in the, Industry Voices column on July 10, 2014. Paula Tompkins, CEO and founder of ChannelNet, is a digital marketing and sales expert. ChannelNet has helped hundreds of the world’s leading companies use technology to sell their products and build customer relationships.