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Are Your Days Numbered?

July 2007, F&I and Showroom - Feature

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

A customer comes into a dealership $12,000 upside down. Not only did the dealership make the sale, but it sold a GAP product on the finance deal. Not bad, right? Unfortunately, there was no salesperson and no F&I manager … well, almost no F&I manager.

I received the press release about the “milestone” deal on April 15. The company, called Ai-Dealer, boasted that it had changed the automotive retail world as we know it. It all happened at Joseph Airport Toyota Scion in Dayton, Ohio, where Ai-Dealer added a feature to the dealership’s Website that allowed customers to complete a vehicle transaction from the comforts of their own home ... from vehicle selection to financing. Transaction time: 17 minutes.

Ai-Dealer terms its creation as “humanizing technology using artificial intelligence.” Basically, the company uses a semi-life-like digital character known as an avatar to guide the customer through the buying process. The company even has colorful names for its avatars, such as Trinity and Santa (yes, it’s the real Jolly Old Saint Nick himself).

I could understand consumers researching a vehicle online, or possibly sending a lead to a dealership. But F&I? What about showing every product 100 percent of the time? No way.

So I visited the company’s site (www.ai-dealer.com), where I was greeted by a Paris-Hilton-like (minus the orange jumpsuit) three-dimensional avatar named Lynne. I’ll let you go to the site to get all the details, but the system costs between $5,000 and $10,000 per store for the setup. That price comes with a 30- to 50-mile franchise-exclusive territory. Basically, no one else within that range can tout the same technology.

As for maintenance … very little once it’s set up. Basically, Ai-Dealer gets a copy of the dealership’s inventory nightly so the system is in sync with what vehicles are available. It does the same for any new incentives the dealership might be offering. The software does require set up, using Ai-Dealer’s editor program to input information the avatar will use to guide the customer through the transaction. Oh, and there’s no added fees for the system unless someone makes a purchase.

Then I called Brian E. Hoecht, CEO and president of the two-year-old company. The system became “aware” last November at the Ohio dealership. During our discussion on June 14, Hoecht said a second wave of dealers was about to go live, which included a Colorado-based Chrysler dealership, two Subaru stores in Dallas and two Canadian dealerships.

I guess I was waiting to hear Hoecht, a former general manager at a Canadian dealership, say that the F&I manager’s days were numbered. However, that was the furthest from the truth.

“I don’t want to inherit the support base for e-contracting and connecting to banks,” said Hoecht, who admitted that the GAP purchase on the system’s first sale in April actually occurred when the customer went to the dealership to pick up her vehicle. “And what we didn’t want to do is reach into the F&I manager’s pockets. The system is basically an effective TO, as it allows the customer to research products without feeling pressured.”

The site claims the technology delivers what traditional Internet-leads companies can’t: instant and satisfactory answers to consumer questions. It also incorporates the F&I experience into the deal, but directs these profits to the dealership. So far, Hoecht said that one in 11 customers actually purchase from the site. The same ratio of customers also went to the dealership to complete their purchase.

So I thought I’d put the Ai-Dealer system to the ultimate test … what did the wife think? She’s pretty crafty, you know. She selected the Camry and breezed through the rest of the process. She didn’t select any F&I products, but the site did offer information on the benefits of those products. She also got a kick out of how the avatar’s eyes followed the mouse and how it changed facial expressions.

There wasn’t really a back-and-forth conversation, she said. However, there were speaker icons that appear throughout the process, letting her know that the avatar could audibly comment on the topic.

As for explaining the different F&I products, the avatar did provide an intro for GAP. The site also offered a link to another page that provided further information. The process did include full disclosure on anything she added to the deal. And it did provide different payment options, including leasing. Now, my wife has purchased a vehicle before, but it sounded like this was really the first time she completed grasped the itemized breakdown of the deal.

My wife never did enter her credit information, as the system was basing everything off of a credit range she selected. Once she was done, the site sent her an e-mail telling her that a delivery coordinator would contact her to verify the deal.

So, what did she think? “I like how they gave her cleavage,” she said about good old Lynne.

My wife did like the idea of having someone there to guide her through the process. However, I don’t think our test was scientific by any means. The feeling I got from her was that Ai-Dealer was like an Internet-lead-generation solution on steroids. We’ll be keeping tabs on this technology, but I’d also like to know what you think about it. Go to the site, do the demo and send me an e-mail gregory.arroyo@bobit.com.

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