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Mobilizing the Dealer Experience

Mercedes-Benz Financial Services is taking its mobile strategy where no organization has gone before, but officials say the company won’t push its vision of the future on dealers.

March 2011, F&I and Showroom - Cover Story

by Gregory Arroyo - Also by this author

Ash Zaki, COO of Mercedes-Benz of San Francisco, demonstrates MBFS’s new iPad-compatible tools. Behind him is Chip Kirby, an MBFS dealer rep.
Ash Zaki, COO of Mercedes-Benz of San Francisco, demonstrates MBFS’s new iPad-compatible tools. Behind him is Chip Kirby, an MBFS dealer rep.

Ash Zaki isn’t sold on the idea of consumers buying solely online. No, his vision of the future dealership is one in which the showroom and the online experience are fused together. The bridge to that future, he believes, could be the Apple iPad, which is why he’s excited about the quickly evolving mobile strategy undertaken by his captive lender.

Zaki is chief operating officer of Mercedes-Benz of San Francisco, which sits underneath the Bayshore Freeway connecting Oakland and San Francisco. The 50-year-old operation was one of 40 dealerships selected by Mercedes-Benz Financial Services (MBFS) last May to pilot its iPad-compatible MB Advantage software. It was again selected in February as the launching pad for the finance company’s newest mobile offering: an iPad-compatible F&I presentation tool that aims to connect the F&I process to the showroom.

“I think this tablet technology is exactly what will marry the showroom and online experience,” says Zaki. “It was just a matter of time before it was integrated into the automotive vertical.”

Rolled out in late February to dealers who signed up to carry MBFS’s line of F&I products, the presentation tool takes aim at that small window of time customers spend in the showroom before transitioning into F&I. As of now, the mobile F&I
presentation piece is nothing more than an interactive F&I brochure,
using icon-dressed buttons to help customers delve deeper into the
company’s aftermarket vehicle protection products.

Officials at MBFS, however, are quick to note that this is not the second coming of the F&I kiosk, a decades-old concept that was supposed to mark the end of the F&I manager. Instead, they describe the tool as the entry point to a whole new set of dealer tools.

“We don’t prescribe any process to our dealers. We just want to give them the utmost level of flexibility,” said Andreas Hinrichs, vice president of marketing at MBFS. “We are simply saying, ‘We’ll provide you the device, we’ll provide you the mobility that comes with the device and we want you, the dealer, to figure out the best way of doing business with it.’”

Dealer-Led Technology

In February, Hinrichs served as a panelist during the American Financial Services Association’s Vehicle Finance Conference in San Francisco, where he and Dietmar Exler, head of MBFS, touted the company’s mobile strategy during separate panel discussions. And although other companies talked about their interest in the mobile realm, it’s clear MBFS is in the driver’s seat.

“In our case, we decided to drive the bus,” Hinrichs said during the conference’s “Evolution of the F&I Office” panel.

The finance arm’s mobile strategy was launched in October 2009 behind an iPhone app that allowed customers to wirelessly manage their MBFS accounts. It took a mere 15 months for the app to attract approximately $15 million in consumer lease and loan payments, or about 25,000 payments. That’s when the company knew it was on to something.

That “something” became a little clearer when MBFS officials caught wind last February — around the time it was preparing to release the smartphone version of its consumer app — of Apple’s plan to launch the iPad. Hinrichs says the thought of Apple entering the tablet category changed everything.

“When we became aware of Apple’s impending [iPad] announcement, it really sparked our curiosity,” Hinrichs says. “We thought it could create a new device category that would be very applicable to our business.”

Figuring the iPad would open the door to a slew of new tablet devices, the company decided to move away from its device-dependent strategy to one that was built around its dealer point-of-sale system, the aforementioned MB Advantage. The company’s software team knew it was the right decision when they got their hands on an iPad simulator four months before the device’s launch.

Hinrichs says the work that went into making MB Advantage compatible with Apple’s iPad and Safari browser means the road is paved for newer solutions down the road. “It is a device-independent strategy,” he says. “Whatever tablet PC you want to use, you can use.”

As Apple began rolling out the iPad last May, MBFS kicked off a six-month pilot program for its new mobile tool at 40 dealerships, becoming one of the first companies in the world to take the consumer-oriented iPad and give it a business application. Each regional manager was given 10 iPads, which were then distributed to dealer relations managers like Chip Kirby. He was asked to select two dealerships from his Northern California area to run the new tool through its paces, and Mercedes-Benz of San Francisco was one of them.

“I knew the dealership and Ash, in particular, would embrace the technology,” Kirby says. “If you look around this dealership, you’ll see flat-panel screens hanging throughout the showroom and that every desk has a computer. That level of technology is not typical.”

The ability to send inspection sheets directly from the iPad to a printer was “the last piece of the puzzle,” according to Chip Kirby, a dealer relations manager for Mercedes-Benz Financial Services.
The ability to send inspection sheets directly from the iPad to a printer was “the last piece of the puzzle,” according to Chip Kirby, a dealer relations manager for Mercedes-Benz Financial Services.

The company’s six-month pilot phase of its mobile tool ended last October. Zaki’s team put several features to the test, including one that allowed front-end staff to execute tasks such as starting loan applications, checking for financing options and grounding lease-return vehicles. Since leasing represents 60 to 70 percent of the store’s business, the store proved to be the perfect testing ground.

The dealership’s staff led demonstrations of the mobile tool during a media event held at the store the day before the start of the 2011 NADA Conference and Expo in February. Staffers showed off the solution’s lease-return functionality, which guides users through five screens and a series of questions and check-offs before asking the customer to provide an acceptance signature right onto the iPad.

The presentation ended with staffers wirelessly printing out copies of the inspection sheets — a feature that wasn’t available during the pilot program. That functionality became available last November when Apple released its iOS 4.2 Software update.

“That was the last piece of the puzzle,” Kirby says. “Without it, you would ground the vehicle and then tell customers you had to walk over to a desktop computer to do everything you were trying to avoid. Wireless printing, along with the signature capability, really did take the mobile initiative to the next level.”

Comment

  1. 1. Joel Kirby [ October 16, 2011 @ 02:44PM ]

    Thats my daddy!:)

 

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