LOS ANGELES - American Honda has developed a new computerized dealer communication system that will replace the barrage of videotapes, binders and flyers that lands in dealer mailboxes every day.
Imagine that: Having all the service bulletins, finance programs, product comparisons, newsletters and more updated every morning and in one place.
The Honda Interactive Network will be installed at Honda and Acura dealerships over the next two years as dealers replace their computer systems. The new Honda Interactive Network replaces a simpler older system.
'Our old dealer communications system was very transactional - ordering, selling, billing, warranty - but was limited as far as what it could do,' said Dave Heath, American Honda Motor Co.'s senior manager of automobile sales communications. 'The new system is informational while not losing any of the elements of the old one.'
2 SIDES TO THE NETWORK
The Honda Interactive Network actually has two sides to it - one the customers see and one dealership personnel see.
The customer side uses slick brushed-metal kiosks that are in the sales area, and sometimes in the service lounge as well. The kiosks will have far more than comparison charts. They also can access videos of the history of Honda and the dealership. There is access to the Honda Web site and the dealer's used-car inventory.
There also are two parts of the kiosk that Honda hopes will benefit both the salesperson and the customer.
The first is a short interactive screening process that walks customers through their preferences. No products are mentioned, just a series of general questions. After the questions are answered, a short list of appropriate Honda vehicles is placed on-screen. That saves the salesperson from having to pry the psychographic information from the customer.
'We're not trying to replace salespeople here. But given how big the market is, it is difficult for a dealer or salesman to be all-knowing. We just want to make their jobs easier and improve their credibility,' Heath said.
The second part is after the customer buys the vehicle. A videotape called 'Now that it's yours' details the delivery experience and goes far beyond what most salespeople would offer in terms of information. This allows customers to come back at their leisure after the sale and review exactly what their new car can do.
'How many salesmen will tell a customer how to change the oil or change a flat? This video does that,' Heath said.
THE DEALER SIDE
But it's the dealer side of the network, which runs through all the dealership's computers, that Honda has emphasized.
Everything that previously was on the printed page has been put on the network, from updated listings of promotions to breaking news to the monthly dealer newsletter to information on long-gone models. There's even a search program that allows a dealer to find anything in the American Honda database on, say, regional incentive programs for 1998 Passports. A chat-room format allows Honda's top salespeople to download best practices, sales trends and hot tips on the market. The package also includes e-mail access and limited Internet surfing.
Honda saw that many automakers were using satellite communications for training videos and business announcements but decided against it.
'How many dealers want to or can take time away from their business for a 2: 30 satellite broadcast?' Heath asked.
The old system also was based on a mainframe, which made data updates difficult, as opposed to 'extranet' servers running Windows NT on the new version.
Honda also decided that any permanent or near-permanent fixtures of the network should be part of the computer's hard drive. Product-comparison data and incentive charts are updated frequently by downloads from American Honda; videos of the workings of the VTEC engine system or double wishbone suspensions are in the dealer computer's hard drive, Heath said.
Although Honda's Internet 'pipeline' is not large enough to download full-length videos, it is good enough for short (five minutes or so) videos to be downloaded after-hours.
The network won't replace in-person training; Honda still will do that.
The outside vendors that helped Honda's information systems group included Steton Technologies, which constructed the systems architecture, and Comdisco, which did the actual installation of the network.
Said Gus Chavez, sales manager of Rosen Honda in Waukegan, Ill., one of the pilot program dealers: 'It works out nice. We have computers that can show customers a lot of things, and that wasn't available to us before. It comes in handy. The salespeople use the comparison guides a lot.'
Another benefit to Honda is instant feedback of customer ordering preferences.
With more benefits, though, come higher costs. The old system cost $240 a month; the new one will cost $640 a month.
'It isn't just the network. It's the content,' Heath said. 'We used to charge $50 or whatever for each information packet that went out. Now all those are part of the Honda Information Network.'