Wireless programs improve shop efficiency, but only with proper infrastructure support
Fixed Ops Journal
DETROIT — Connected cars, tablet computers and cloud-based software are putting heavier loads on the wireless networks of dealership service departments.
That demand creates opportunities for efficiencies, but only if the information technology infrastructure — bandwidth, connectivity, Wi-Fi coverage — is up to the task.
Inadequate infrastructure can lead to slowdowns in service bays, dissatisfied customers and frustrated technicians. Up-to-date technology offers its own rewards.
Service advisers at Vaden Automotive Group's 10 dealerships in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina carry Apple iPads and write repair orders at customers' vehicles. The tablets, using cloud-based software from Xtime, scan vehicle identification numbers and produce customer data instantly.
• This story appeared in the April 24 print issue of Tire Business
Dawn Newsome, fixed operations director at Savannah, Ga.-based Vaden Automotive, said the advisers' tablets also "educate the customer through video."
"If a customer doesn't understand what a brake flush or an alignment is," Ms. Newsome said, "I want them to see a video right there (on the tablet) to show the customer what it means for them."
Ms. Newsome said tablet use has contributed to a 23-percent increase in revenue per customer-pay repair order at Vaden dealerships over the past two years.
Need for speed
Such advantages require modern computer networks and good Wi-Fi coverage, said Gregg Manson, vice president of performance management at Xtime Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based developer of customer-retention solutions.
When wireless tools don't work properly or run slowly, Mr. Manson said, "the perception is the tool is failing, when it's not the tool at all. It's the infrastructure at the store."
Mr. Manson describes working with an unnamed new client last year, whose pipe — or main broadband Internet connection — transferred data at the relatively slow speed of 5 megabits per second.
"The pipe coming into the store may have been brought in maybe six or seven years ago," Mr. Manson said. At that bandwidth, he added, Xtime's products wouldn't run smoothly and would require an upgrade in connection speed.
Erik Nachbahr, president of Helion Automotive Technologies, an information technology provider in Timonium, Md., recommends that his dealership clients upgrade to a fiber-optic Internet connection from broadband.
Fiber-optic installation represents an initial expense, but Mr. Nachbahr said such connections, which cost about $1,200 to $2,000 a month, often replace multiple older, slower broadband lines costing similar amounts.
For the bandwidth of the pipe to reach connected devices, he said, it must pass through switches and Wi-Fi access points, which have separate costs and shelf lives.
Some auto makers and dealership management systems recommend or require specific network equipment, such as cloud-based products from Cisco Meraki, an information technology company in San Francisco.
At the least, they say, dealerships should opt for enterprise products, rather than consumer products intended for home use.
Enterprise-grade switches typically cost a dealership between $1,800 and $3,500. Wireless access points can run $400 to $1,000 apiece.
Such cloud-managed products allow even novice users to control and monitor network traffic efficiently, analysts said, adding that dealerships also must consider the density and location of access points.
"You can tell where a 40-bay shop used to be a 24-bay shop," said Cole Balderson, senior financial officer at Ourisman Automotive of Virginia. The company, a regional unit of Ourisman Automotive Group, upgraded wireless networks at each of its six dealerships in 2016.
"The structure can actually interfere with the signal, which means you have to add more access points," Mr. Balderson said. Otherwise, he warned, wireless tools — not only tablet computers but also diagnostic service equipment — will be of limited use or will run slowly.
For a service lane, peak capacity is often determined by the increasing number of engine control unit updates that technicians perform, he added.
Wayne Kronstadt, corporate operations manager of the Len Stoler Automotive Group, recalls that because of sluggish technology, "we got a lot of employee complaints about things running slow, particularly during peak periods" of service activity.
The Owings Mills, Md., group operates nine dealerships in Maryland and New York.
"When customers have to wait too long to be written up, it reflects on your (customer service index) numbers and the customers' general demeanor," Mr. Kronstadt said. "That doesn't set the stage to satisfy them or upsell something they may need."
The Stoler Group updated its IT infrastructure in 2015, expanding bandwidth and network speed. The company's collision business has become a test laboratory for tablet-based tools, Mr. Kronstadt said.
Network slowdowns can occur even at dealerships with up-to-date technology.
Dan Hoban, development director at Nuspire Networks, a computer security service provider in Commerce Township, Mich., recommends that dealerships practice "network segmentation."
"What you want to do, just by good security practice, is segment the customer network from the dealership network, and then apply different rules," Mr. Hoban said.
Filtering out content that eats up bandwidth, such as streaming video, and segregating the Wi-Fi service provided for customers can open up more capacity, he said.
"Our support team dreads March Madness (the annual men's college basketball tournament)," Mr. Hoban said. When customers and employees are streaming tournament games, he added, "the amount of support calls just goes through the roof."
Blocking some online sites and addresses and engaging in network segmentation can ensure that only work-related traffic crosses a dealership's business network, and that this traffic gets priority.
Industry analysts agree that wireless demands on dealerships will continue to grow. Helion's Mr. Nachbahr said that as early as this fall, many new cars and trucks will have over-the-air updates to their software, requiring wireless coverage to extend across a dealership's lot.
Added Mr. Balderson: "I think it's pretty well understood that wireless is the future."
This piece originally appeared in the April edition of Fixed Ops Journal, which is published six times of year by Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business.
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