Bill Wittenmyer jokes that he got his “real” master’s degree doing car-dealership work. He then became a partner in a company that got its start baking cookies and selling them to dealers to give to customers as expressions of gratitude.  

That company, now named ELEAD1One, does a lot more than make cookies these days. Deep in the dealership digital world, it recently launched DealBuilder, an online car-buying application that can be used either in-store or on a dealer’s website.

“Although DealBuilder can be used to complete the entire purchase process online, in the near term we think most customers will start their deals online and come into the dealership for the test drive and to sign papers,” Wittenmyer says.

There’s the potential to do it the other way around, he adds. “The customer can start a deal in the store, then finalize it from home or work.”

DealBuilder integrates with a dealership’s customer-relationship management system to enhance both functionality and the customer experience, he says.

In a Q&A with WardsAuto, Wittenmyer discusses how far he thinks online car buying will go; talks about the irony of customers supposedly disdaining price negotiating, yet initiating it; and polishes his crystal ball for a few predictions.

WardsAuto: Everyone thinks customer experience is a great idea. It has a nice ring to it. How do you actually deliver it?   

Wittenmyer: A dealer does that by giving options, not obligations. I hate to use the word “fear,” but a lot of people are scared of the online transactional aspect. So a dealer has to be aware of that.

The reality is, 100% of automotive retail is not going to be online any time soon, if ever. It’s just another option. It’s like leasing. There will be a percentage of people who do this. No one really knows what that percentage is, but dealers need to offer that experience option. It needs to be there.

The percentage of people who complete everything online will be low. But the percentage of people who do some or most of the process online will continue to increase. We talk about cutting time out. Then let them do it at their house.       

DealBuilder allows the customer the option of doing that research at home, starting and stopping the process, picking it up where they left off. It’s like Amazon. They can so all sorts of things.

They will want to come in to the store. Touch and feel the vehicle they’re interested in and have their current vehicle appraised, but that’s “experience.”

You must deliver when they come to the store. It can’t just end online. You’ve got to pick it up right where they left off.

WardsAuto: Time really is relative. Time spent at home, at your leisure, researching and shopping for cars is different than being at the dealership doing the same thing.

Wittenmyer: Sure it is.

WardsAuto: Sometimes there is that disconnect you speak of where the customer thinks, “Why did I do all this at home?”

Wittenmyer: You want to avoid the start-over, the dealership not knowing anything about you. If it is in the CRM, you can see absolutely what they did, what they completed or didn’t complete, and pick up right where they left off.

WardsAuto: Are customers identifying themselves as the ones who did the research? How does a dealership know?

Wittenmyer:Typically, they set an appointment when they are at the point of being ready to come in. But even if they didn’t set up an appointment, if they say who they are and that’s entered into the CRM system, DealBuilder automatically calls up their information. The salesperson can see the whole process.

WardsAuto:What are dealers telling you these days? What’s on their minds the most?         

Wittenmyer:When it comes to digital retail, everyone is a little bit skeptical and hesitant. They feel they are losing some of that control. Actually, they have all that control still.

They also realize there are a lot of disruptors right now. There will be more change in our business in the next five years than there has been in the last 50.

WardsAuto: What will some of those changes involve?

Wittenmyer: You have the threat of the Walmarts and Amazons. How does that look? Walmart just expanded another 250 stores involved in its car-buying process.

You have autonomous cars on the horizon. That’s going to be turning more to fleet. You’ll have fewer people getting driver’s licenses. Add in the mobility services like Lyft and Uber. Finally, you have car-subscription services.

How will all these things play out? Dealers are smart enough to change the process and offer up a lot of options.

WardsAuto: Will there be an end to vehicle price negotiating?

Wittenmyer: There are too many years of conditioning where people don’t feel comfortable taking the given price. If that worked, everyone would be one-price. It didn’t work when it was touted in the 1990s. Dealers didn’t want to go back and negotiate, customers did.  

WardsAuto: That’s an irony, that the customer typically is the one who wants to negotiate.

Wittenmyer: Every time.

WardsAuto: A lot of studies say customers dislike negotiating. But human nature says just because you dislike something doesn’t mean you won’t do it if you feel you need to.

Wittenmyer: Absolutely. The customer has been conditioned to believe there has to be negotiating on every aspect of car buying. They negotiate the car price, the trade-in, the monthly payment, F&I products and services. There’s nowhere they aren’t negotiating.

WardsAuto: Of those impending changes expected in the next five years, which will be the biggest?

One of the biggest will be the number of people involved in the process at the store. Right now, you’ve got a salesperson, sales manager and F&I manager. I think that will cut down to one, largely because of technology.

Dealers will need to get more efficient, which leads to compensation, the most expensive we have. F&I managers typically are the highest-compensated on a percentage basis. They could be the first ones to go.

It hurts my soul because I came from the dealership world. But I think we’ll see a dramatic reduction in the number of people involved in the process.

WardsAuto: Do you think the role will change for the salespeople who do remain?

Wittenmyer: Yes. Even the term salesperson will go away. These will be product specialists, customer-experience specialists. You’ll see a lot of all-in-one jobs. It’s no different than buying a suit at Nordstrom’s. You don’t have eight people involved in the process.

WardsAuto: That concept of one dealership person doing it all has been around for a long time now. It never seems to happen, though.

Wittenmyer: As vehicle sales margins continue to get compressed, we keep relying on F&I or the backend money. Dealers will be cautious messing with that. Just like they are cautious about messing with service, whether they know a lot about it or not. Their feeling is, “If it makes money, don’t mess it up.”

WardsAuto: You don’t want someone in retrospect say, “Whose bad idea was that?”

Wittenmyer: Right. Like, “Who’s the dummy who crashed this place?” But the progressive people will want it and the industry will demand it. Ultimately, so will consumers.

Everyone is worried about Amazon. We should be worried about ourselves. Amazon will just take advantage of what we don’t do.

WardsAuto: What about yourself. How did you get into auto retailing?

Wittenmyer: I was going to Georgia Southern for a master’s degree in business and needed to pay for it, so I started selling cars in Savannah, GA, in 1993. I spent the next decade in various positions, up to general manager. I got the real master’s degree selling cars.

Then I got fortunate enough to stumble across this great company in its infancy in 2002.

WardsAuto:The company started out selling cookies to dealers to give to customers?

Wittenmyer: Absolutely. It’s the same recipe today. The story is, one of my business partner’s father was a baker. My other business partner is a great marketer.

In 1985, they came up with a concept of dealerships giving cans of cookies as tokens of appreciation. They’d visit dealerships, driving around the Southeast with the cookies on the dashboard in the sun so they’d be nice and hot.

It was an early form of customer experience and retention. The cookie cans typically had the dealership logo on them. It was very innovative at the time.

Ten years goes by, dealers said, “That’s great, but we need to sell more cars, too.” So, we started a call center with five people working above a bank outside Atlanta. Now, it is one of the largest automotive-only call centers in the U.S. Then we got into digital.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com