The Big Picture

Ford links Web Sites, databases for a better view of customers.

Ford Motor is beginning to realize the benefits of a long and quiet campaign to integrate its customer relations and information systems.

It has been linking its customer channels — its dealer and manufacturer Web sites, its call center, its onboard information service — to create a long-sought single view of the retail consumer. And its hooking up these channels with new databases in the back office to help target its marketing.

The idea is to match up all the separate bits of data collected about customers like pixels on a television screen so that the image becomes far clearer, said sources familiar with the project.

While other automakers have programs to unify customer data from all channels — General Motors created a division, eGM, to work on linking the Web sites and other consumer initiatives, analysts generally give Ford the lead.

"Ford tries to reinvent itself internally," said Thilo Koslowski, Gartner Groups automotive analyst. "Its probably the better model in the long run."

Some of the early returns at Ford are promising, according to one consultant involved in the work. Ford has been testing its new customer data strategy in pilot projects to help market the Ford Focus and F-series trucks, measuring such factors as customer retention, satisfaction and sales closing rates, said Scot Eisenfelder at Accenture.

Without giving specific results, "the improvement levels I have seen are unbelievable. Its not 10 [percent] to 20 percent — its in the range of 100 percent improvements, which to me is almost incredible, its so good," Eisenfelder said.

Eisenfelder said these returns will subside at some point, as Ford capitalizes on unrealized opportunities. "The big jump has been huge," but later on, it will be a matter of fine-tuning and maintaining the gains, he said.

Much of the effort has been coordinated by Ford ConsumerConnect, a 16-month-old unit created to take Ford into e-commerce, according to Dirk Heitzman, global manager of information technology at Ford ConsumerConnect.

Some of the automakers latest initiatives involve its call center, Percepta and its onboard wireless service, Wingcast. Ford wants to link its vehicle and customer history databases to the call center. It also needs a way to link Wingcast to Percepta.

Sometimes calls that go to Wingcast need to be routed to Percepta, and the callers data needs to be transferred with the call, Heitzman said. Ford ConsumerConnect has engaged webMethods to help on these projects, and may do so on future projects, he said.

At the same time, Ford has been working to create a central database, called the Customer Knowledge System, that will handle data concerning more than 40 million customers worldwide. This will tie into more than 200 Ford Web sites across the globe, representing its major brands — Ford, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda Motor, Volvo — as well as its service offerings, Ford Credit and Hertz; its sales site for consumers,; and its sales site for dealers.

Its necessarily slow going, said Kevin Prouty, an analyst at AMR Research. "It touches every single part of Ford," he said, noting that engineers are starting to use common data models to work better with marketing.

Heitzman acknowledged that it makes a difference. "The more we commonize them, we can reduce our cost. Our time to market is much quicker," he said, declining to share specific results.

The point of the campaign, which analysts believe costs millions of dollars, is marketing. As they begin to use the Internet to design, manufacture and sell cars, automakers, traditionally focused on production, have had to reorient themselves toward customers.

Ad Costs Rising

One problem is that the cost of mass-market advertising automakers have long used has been growing at two to three times the rate of inflation over the last five years.

"Its a huge number, and its getting less and less effective," Eisenfelder said. "Breaking through the ad clutter is getting tougher."

Automakers now want to spend more of their marketing dollars at the individual level. From 1 percent or 2 percent three years ago, that number could rise to 20 percent industrywide, Accenture believes.

It depends on an automakers ability to get its computers to talk to each other.

"The integration of the various Web sites hasnt been difficult. Whats more difficult is the integration of the back-end legacy systems with the Web sites," said Chris Porch, vice president at Trilogy Software, which Ford hired to handle integration of its Web sites.

Most Web sites were built quickly to create a presence on the Internet, but werent tied into legacy systems such as inventory and customer information.

"Theres a lot of data, information in different places, that has to be updated, so you dont promise something you cant deliver to customers," Porch said.

More important, this is a critical step toward "build-to-order," the industry vision of letting customers order fully customized cars over the Internet, he said. Ford now pulls such information nightly from its dealers computer systems.

The technical obstacles arent as daunting as the latent organizational resistance.

Dealers have long sought to protect their data from the manufacturers, which remains a channel conflict for all automakers. It may be just as difficult within Ford, which seeks to manage its customers across the enterprise, rather than bottled up in brands. If the company learns a Ford owner may likely buy a Jaguar, will Ford be willing to give up the customer to Jaguar

"Its a very real hurdle. Anytime a customer crosses departmental or organizational boundaries, youll have some issues," said Baba Shetty, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Thats only part of the price the automotive industry must pay to learn about its customers, according to analysts agreed.

"Marketing will be the key to success in the auto industry. Thats the power to be realized from organizing these databases," said Koslowski at Gartner.