UPDATED: 11/09/18 2:40 pm ET -- corrected
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Dealer-FX’s reasons for upgrading its wiAdvisor product and also mischaracterized some of the technical issues related to service departments’ integration with dealership management systems.
TORONTO -- Service technology provider Dealer-FX hopes a "new coat of paint" on its signature wiAdvisor product will help win over some Fiat Chrysler Automobiles dealers.
CEO Gary Kalk conceded that wiAdvisor, the tablet-based software used at about 1,700 FCA dealerships mostly in the U.S., needed an update to satisfy dealers hungry for new features.
He's banking on wiAdvisor 3.0, as he calls it, to do the job.
From the moment a vehicle enters the service lane, wiAdvisor gives dealers access to real-time data and analytics about a dealership's fixed operations while helping to connect customers digitally.
Demand for wiAdvisor and similar products branded for other automakers has helped Dealer-FX expand employee count to 448, up 51 percent since the end of 2016, at its Markham, Ontario, headquarters outside Toronto.
Dealer-FX positions its products, which compete with the likes of Cox Automotive's Xtime and CDK Global's ELead1One, as unique in their ability to inject technology into the customer's arrival into the service lane while allowing dealerships to glean real-time data about their business.
WiAdvisor was an early success for Kalk at Dealer-FX, which he founded in 2007. But as the company launched software for other automakers in recent years, often with newer, better features such as multipoint inspection tools and e-payment service, wiAdvisor lost some luster.
"When FCA said, 'We're starting to lose a few dealers and the sentiment out there isn't overwhelmingly positive about wiAdvisor,' we said, 'Yes, because over a period of time, we haven't put a new coat of paint on it,'" Kalk told Automotive News.
- Company: Dealer-FX
- CEO: Gary Kalk
- Founded: 2007
- Headquarters: Markham, Ontario
- Users: About 2,500 dealerships in the U.S., Canada and the Middle East
- Automaker partners: Fiat Chrysler, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota, Lexus, Volkswagen, Audi
- Products include: WiAdvisor, a tablet-based program used by FCA dealers mostly in the U.S. The software allows service advisers to quickly download information such as vehicle history and active recalls and to complete write-ups in the service lane.
- Big picture: With a digital record of each visit, dealers have the data to analyze their entire service operation and pinpoint improvements. /li>
Dustin Lee, service director at Lee Auto Malls in Maine, said he’s ready to upgrade to the freshened software even though he has been dissatisfied with some aspects of wiAdvisor’s integration with his dealership management system.
"We like the interface. We like the ability to write the customer up from the tablet," Lee said. "I can't say that there haven't been any issues because there certainly have been some technical issues that stem from wiAdvisor's ability to properly communicate with our DMS."
Among those issues: reassigning a VIN to another customer after a vehicle changes hands.
When asked about the integration-related concerns raised by Lee and other dealers, Kalk pointed out that Dealer-FX works with DMS providers to develop integrations. He said the number of calls his company receives on such issues is negligible.
Most concerns, he said, stem from dealers’ desire for more functionality.
He also called the VIN issue a limitation of the Reynolds Certified Interface Program -- a challenge that applies to all third-party vendor integrations.
Tom Schwartz, a spokesman for Reynolds and Reynolds, said Dealer-FX is one of more than 150 third-party providers in the program. Schwartz said the program is "tailor-built" by Reynolds for each third-party product to help move data seamlessly.
"If a third-party vendor sees an integration issue with their product, they contact us, and we work with them to resolve the issue," Schwartz wrote in an email to Automotive News. "To the best of our knowledge, there is no open issue around product integration with Dealer-FX."
The updated wiAdvisor offers a host of new features. They include electronic inspection tools, the ability to monitor a vehicle on its journey through the service department, and a function that allows service customers to be texted when their car is ready. Customers can now use their cellphones to review inspection reports and pay their service bills.
Kalk says Dealer-FX, which sells its products for between $1,500 and $3,000 monthly -- including service and support -- wants to convert all wiAdvisor customers to the new version within a year and to get another 400 or so dealers on board. Kalk said 57 dealerships signed up the day it launched in September. FCA did not respond to a request for comment about the updated product.
Searching for why
Kalk, who has more than 25 years of experience in the automotive sector, is confident when talking about his company and its future.
He immigrated to Canada from South Africa as a teen and studied at York University in Toronto. Before he founded Dealer-FX, he was CEO of Marketrend Interactive, which offered marketing and customer relationship tools to about 3,000 dealerships. He sold that company in 2004.
He calls himself a fan of Simon Sinek, a motivational speaker, organizational consultant and author of the book Start With Why. Sinek argues that effective leaders and businesses know not just what they do and how to do it, but also why they do it.
The "why" for Dealer-FX?
To use mobile technology to transform the dealership service experience for customers.
In all, Dealer-FX provides fixed ops software to more than 2,500 dealerships in the U.S., Canada and the Middle East, notably stores representing Toyota, Lexus, Nissan, Volkswagen, Audi, Mazda and Mitsubishi.
How it works
A customer who pulls into a service drive equipped with wiAdvisor is greeted by a service adviser. The adviser plugs a "micropod" into an on-board diagnostics port and pulls the vehicle’s identification number, mileage and trouble codes. The information is then used to access warranty and recall data from the automaker.
Using a tablet, the adviser can complete a service write-up in minutes and review the repair order with the customer. As soon as the customer signs off, a service technician can start work.
"It's very easy for the adviser to present the maintenance to the customer with pricing because of the podding system," said Lee, the Maine service director.
Dealer-FX products including wiAdvisor and its MiCar program for about 125 Mitsubishi dealerships give dealers precise metrics about such issues as customer wait times and how long each step of the service process takes, Kalk says.
Frank Ferrara, a senior adviser to Dealer-FX and a former executive vice president of customer satisfaction at Hyundai Motor America, says the kind of data produced by wiAdvisor allows dealerships and automakers to pinpoint areas where they can improve.
"You can pretty quickly look at the data and determine if the dealer has solid processes," says Ferrara, now principal of the consulting firm Traction Labs.
As for processes at Dealer-FX? Kalk says it’s on his company to make sure dealers understand how to use its products. Some dealer frustration has stemmed from lack of familiarity with technology. Dealer-FX training, he says, focuses on the product itself as well as the importance of connecting with customers who expect a digital experience.
"We take the dealership through an overview of why we're trying to do this," Kalk said. "It's not just, 'Here's a tablet; go out and change the way you're doing things.'"
Lee said he finds wiAdvisor to be a net positive for his service departments and is looking forward to the new functions. "We love the idea of the electronic multipoint inspections," he said. "We're going to give it a go and see how it works."