Needing to kick into high gear the proficiency and management of its national dealerships sales expertise, American Suzuki Motor Corp. relied on open-source software development to create a new virtual purchasing world for its finicky motorcycle audience.
Unlike the auto industry, which typically experiences steady sales through the year regardless of geographic area, the motorcycle industry is much more cyclical.
Challenges include multiline dealership responsibility, limited floor space and on-site inventory, extensive accessory options, and cold weather, which slows sales during winter months. In addition, customers come in prepared with Internet research.
Upon visiting various Suzuki dealerships across the United States, Steve Bortolamedi, dealer network manager for Suzuki, in Brea, Calif., realized that regardless of the promotion—such as for new models or options—the ultimate difference in customer satisfaction and sales lies in strengthening the dealership salesperson.
“Motorcycling is a real hobbyist sport, and theyre real tech heads. They know every little piece thats on the bike and every little detail, and they want more knowledge than the salesperson has,” said Bortolamedi. “You want to build a relationship and trust [with] the customer, and if you spend whatever time you have with not knowing the product, then youre going to have problems. … That was very disruptive to the sales process.”
Bortolamedi said that without sufficient knowledge of—or quick access to—information on myriad motorcycle makes, accessories, nuances and technical knowledge surrounding Suzuki and key competitors such as Kawasaki Motors Corp., American Honda Motor Co. and Yamaha Corporation of America, sales staff would often take the path of least resistance and let the customer lead the sales process.
To remedy the situation, Bortolamedi, with the help of Suzuki Marketing Manager Rob Lopusnak, decided to create a three-dimensional virtual-tour kiosk that could also act as a centralized database, training tool and tracking application.
“The biggest thing we were trying to bring out is we wanted the salesperson to be involved—what better to have than one place to gather all that information and take the customer through the whole sales process, right up to the point of purchasing,” said Bortolamedi.
To develop the application, called Suzuki Sales PRO (Professional Retail Outlet), Suzuki recruited Matrix Consultants Inc., of Santa Monica, Calif., to build the program and system to update 600 kiosks slated to be deployed around the country.
“Every dealership does something different, so we took the best practices of all the dealerships in the country, and we built a selling-approach system. Then we added in Matrixs expertise,” said Bortolamedi.
-source Database Alternatives Open Up”>
Working off a 3-D model designed by EON Reality Inc., of Irvine, Calif., Matrix had originally prototyped the product on Microsoft Corp.s Access to manage the database. However, the databases size forced Matrix to consider Microsofts SQL Server, but that move proved too costly.
That opened the door for open-source database alternatives such as MySQL ABs MySQL, said Margo Zenk, senior partner and technical director for Matrix.
“I was looking for an easy method to act as database from a Microsoft .Net platform, and I already had the experience of accessing MySQL using the ODBC interface to pull it into Microsoft [development] tools,” said Zenk.
“We did look at PostgreSQL and some other open-source options, but it was the maturity of the [MySQL] technology. I was crunched for time, and I just knew it was going to work because Ive made it work doing similar things in the past. Were moving to open source for the price.”
Zenk said she was able to get the Suzuki Sales PRO application up and running on MySQL in just under two weeks and had little difficulty getting the ODBC and MySQL interfaces operating smoothly.
Application developers are agreeable to using MySQL because of the technologys accessibility and simplified use within production environments, said Alex Roedling, senior product manager for MySQL, in Cupertino, Calif.
“We support close to 50 platforms, so if theyre trying to deploy on Windows, Solaris or Mac OS, the portability of the database makes it attractive,” said Roedling. “We have drivers for JDBC [Java Database Connectivity] and ODBC, so you can use basically any developer environment you want with their existing tool sets to develop against MySQL.”
Matrixs Zenk said Suzuki Sales PRO will be “100 percent” Linux-based by the end of the year. The application currently features an open-source database using Windows software to manage the visual 3-D model.
Despite suggestions that open source is a community-based technology lacking support, rising cost pressures are leading greater numbers of organizations and application developers toward the software-licensing flexibility that open source provides, analysts say.
“Do I buy more Oracle [Corp.] licenses and Sun [Microsystems Inc.] Solaris machines, or do I go with MySQL and commodity hardware? People are hesitant, but its becoming more and more clear that open source is something that needs to be looked at, especially if theyre using a big-iron database for their smaller applications—that tends to be overkill,” said Roedling.
The patent-pending Suzuki Sales PRO kiosks are located in 540 U.S.-based dealerships, excluding Hawaii, with another 40 to 60 sold. Fifty percent of the dealerships bought the kiosk on its introduction. Matrix has bought licenses to build 900 kiosks, and plans are under way to expand the kiosks to Europe, with minor model changes and language issues to be overcome.
The kiosks basically consist of Dell Inc. 260, 270 or 289 workstations atop a specialized stand. Matrix performs remote synchronization to install nightly content updates to every kiosk Monday through Thursday. The kiosks are backed up daily.
The customizable Suzuki Sales PRO kiosks let customers choose different motorcycles and select and configure accessories. The application provides competitive comparisons on models and makes, as well as videos and third-party reviews of some vehicles.
During each selection by a consumer, a finance calculator keeps a running total of what the person is spending on the motorcycle. The idea, Zenk said, is to show buyers that $2,000 worth of accessories does not translate into $2,000 extra per month but rather a slight monthly payment increase. Labor costs are also accounted for.
For those not yet ready to purchase, the kiosk produces a color brochure that includes their choices and specifications, the salespersons name, and part numbers for checking inventory, said Zenk.
A reporting feature within the application lets dealers check on up-to-the-minute performance of sales staff, how many accessories are being added and who may require additional training.
Kiosk enhancements under development include additional reporting tools and an interface from the kiosk data repository to the dealership management systems for streamlining contract production. Direct marketing tools using e-mail and an upgradable sales text-based ZIP code feature are designed to help dealers compute financing more quickly.
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