Much has been made of the ongoing data-access debate. My question is how it impacts F&I departments. Several readers have said there are other more critical issues to be concerned about than whether the newest software tool can communicate with their DMS. I beg to differ.

During a recent visit to a dealership, I saw the indirect effect of this debate. Taking me through his department’s processes, the F&I director I met with popped open the dealership’s menu. It was an

OEM-branded menu system. Before running me through the selling features, he started to type in a fake deal. Before he finished, he stopped and shook his head. “We have to type in every deal because the menu can’t pull from the DMS,” he said. “Even on an OEM-branded menu?” I asked.

As a magazine editor, you learn that the less you retype something, the more you cut down on that one chance for error. It’s not a fail-safe rule, but it is a more “efficient and secure” way of doing things. So why are F&I professionals being forced to retype deal and customer information into a menu? It wasn’t like the dealership I visited was using some fly-by-night menu solution, where “unfettered” access could lead to an unauthorized individual possibly reaching and breaking through an OEM’s firewall through a dealer’s DMS.

But is that it? Is that the only link between this debate and F&I? No, not actually.

Other dealers I’ve talked to say the debate is also hampering moves toward e-contracting. One F&I director I spoke to said the hold-up on access has caused his managers to enter deal and customer info as many as five times to get an e-contracted deal to accounting. Gee, wasn’t e-contracting suppose to run things more efficiently?

The debate so far has really centered on the discussion between Reynolds and Reynolds, and Open Secure Access (OSA), a coalition that’s been doing the talking for many third-party vendors. Reynolds, by the way, was the DMS provider for the two dealers I mentioned previously.

There’s been little to report since the two squared off in February at the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA)’s annual convention. In late June, however, OSA released its finalized Data Security Guidelines and the floodgate opened again.

Reynolds, who hasn’t budged on its stance to allow OSA to govern DMS access by third-party vendors, responded with a release of its own. It announced that it had added to its list of approved vehicle data transfer partners. Two more releases followed. One talked about how its Reynolds Certified Interface (RCI) program surpassed 100 third-party companies. The other was about a new OEM integration initiative with General Motors and Chrysler.

Allan Stejskal, president of OSA, said Reynolds has made several solution providers wait since last fall for RCI approval. He also talks about the scuffle between Reynolds and Honda earlier this year over Honda’s use of ADP’s Digital Motorworks (DMi) to extract dealer data.

“OSA has no problem with Reynolds being another competitor in that [data transfer] space, not arbitrarily locking DMi out of the system,” Stejskal said. “That’s bush league.”

What’s bush league is this debate turning into a marketing tool for those involved, as well as those standing on the sidelines. The one thing the debate has done is forced dealers to consider debate-free solutions, and technology providers are responding. DealerTrack now has Arkona, and Microsoft should be ready to unveil its new DMS by the 2008 NADA show.

Bob Schaeffer, Reynolds’ director of data services, said the company’s contention with OSA’s guidelines is that they don’t go far enough in making third-party providers responsible for anything that goes wrong with the system. What he’d like to see is OSA establish a way to audit what is pushed and pulled from a DMS, and have the coalition establish a certification program he likened to ISO-9000.

As for why Reynolds is pulling modems out of dealerships, Schaeffer (who did review OSA’s guidelines contrary to some news reports) said the move involves the company’s continued effort to provide dealers with a more efficient and secure process of transmitting data. He added there are only two providers that require the use of modems (DMi being one of them). Stejskal says there are more companies than that.

It’s no secret what Stejskal thinks about Reynolds’ stance. As for Schaeffer’s contention that OSA isn’t going far enough, Stejskal said the certification program OSA is considering mirrors programs used by the credit card and healthcare industries. As for keeping third-party companies honest, he said that’s the core goal of OSA — to ensure full communication between dealers and their third-party solution providers. If anything, he said, the guidelines provide a way to keep these software providers accountable.

Well, thankfully both sides are fighting for what’s right for the dealer. However, this situation needs a remedy … and fast. There’s an indirect need in the F&I office.