Sharon Kitzman and Eric Schlesinger talk on Dominion DMS VUE Points

Sharon Kitzman Interviews Eric Schlesinger on the VUE Points Podcast

Written By Eric Schlesinger

Sharon Kitzman:  Hello and welcome to VUE Points. Dominion DMS's video podcast series where we highlight our vendor partners. I'm Sharon Kitzman. I'm president of Dominion DMS. And today I'm speaking to Eric Schlesinger. He is the Chief Revenue Officer for ActivEngage. Eric, it's been a month, almost to the day, since the last time we chatted about the industry and your solutions, our solutions excetera. I'm excited to hear what is happening at ActivEngage post NADA.

Eric Schlesinger:  Yeah, I mean, I think as I explained to you, NADA this year, for us, it was the first time in the 17 year history of the company that we ever took the step and exhibited. So, you know, I've exhibited in the past with previous companies and stuff like that. So my expectations were, they were set pretty low from the standpoint of, of expectations, and what we're going to get. It ended up being, you know, a great show for us whether it was from the booth presence of people coming and seeing us, or the visibility that we had walking around and being able to have conversations as an example with you at your booth, and so forth. And I think that this NADA, we had a little bit of a different tone than a lot of them in the past. Dealers were much more engaging, they were much more eager to find out information to learn about you and your company, versus in in the past, where you quite often found them walking around, head down badge turned around, so you didn't see the color of it or anything else. But it was it was great, and it was great to see everybody. You know, the last few years have obviously been interesting when it comes to large gatherings, like NADA and stuff like that, but we're back. And it felt really good.

Sharon Kitzman:  That's a great way to put it. This was my 33rd NADA. It definitely felt like pre pandemic NADA energy and, to your point, engagement from dealers. So well, that's fantastic. You know, Friday and Saturday, were just crushed. But Sunday, everybody has a little bit more time on their hands. And as I kind of walked down the the main street or the main drag there in the hall, I can't even count. I don't have enough fingers, I guess I should say, to count the number of times that I saw the term 'AI' . It felt like everybody was pitching artificial intelligence, whether it existed or not. At least they were wanting to talk about it, because it seemed like it was it was the buzzword. If you think about how much AI can really do to help dealers, it is there a place for it? Or is it just the latest buzzword?

Eric Schlesinger:  No, there is a place for it. And you're right. I mean it, you know, it has been, it has been one of those buzz words in the past. But with the introduction of ChatGPT, you know, in December of 2022, and then companies starting to go and to use it and to find places for it. There are absolutely places for any business, to be able to go about utilizing some of these tools. And I'm going to preface that no matter how you use it, you do still need to backup whatever it is that you're getting out of it with your own research, your own conclusions and so forth, because it's not perfect. It absolutely has a place in things like business processes, looking for ways to write things like policies or to understand certain nuances. Remember that these systems were built in many ways to be able to act as super search engines more than anything else. And to be able to present answers, to what it is that you're asking questions about. And they're also limited on the data set. So if you use ChatGPT as an example, depending on which version if you're using 3.5 or 4.0, the data set that's inside of it only goes to a specific date. It's not connected to the internet, where it's able to pull in, current information, current data, it's always been curated. That being said, where I believe that AI does not currently have a place especially in the automotive industry is on the consumer facing side of things. In real time conversations. You don't want AI necessarily being the one that's answering the phone, and explaining that it's your personal assistant. I had one dealer telling me how he got this and how many times he's listened to the phone call to people on this, and they just sit there and go, 'Hell no!', and hang up the phone, because they want nothing to do with talking to, a computer. The same thing comes when it comes to messaging, live chat. I think we've all heard the story so far about the customer who was able to get the Chevy dealer, like in Wisconsin, and there was there were two things. One: he was able to buy a Tahoe for $1, I know how expensive they are, as well, and Two: he was able to get it to write code in Python, on the dealer's website. So that might not necessarily be the place. I mean, let's face it, buying a car is a pretty emotional and complicated thing. I don't think we're there where computers are telling us how to do that yet.

Sharon Kitzman:  Yeah, I heard you say something similar on a podcast recently, with Jake Davis at I think it's Volie Rally. And you said, you know, at the end of the day, people buy and service cars from people not robots. And while there might be efficiency gains inside the operation, when, when it comes to the consumer experience, dealers need to be really, really careful to squelch the AI hype a little bit and not look to I guess, save a buck in lieu of upsetting a prospect. So I guess, well-trained team members inside the dealership is still kind of number one priority.

Eric Schlesinger:  It absolutely is. I mean, we're hearing it as I'm sure you are, right now. It's now that we are I can say, I guess, officially post pandemic, and back to quote unquote, 'normality', dealers are having to teach, the salespeople that they've hired over the last few years in the stores how to sell, because they, they all got to this place where for a few years, they were, order takers, they were, as Apple calls it like the 'Apple Geniuses' where they were just educating the customer on the product, and the options that are available and helping them go through the ordering process. That's not in anymore, we need those people that are able to create those relationships to create those connection points, and to give that consumer the reason to be able to transact with that dealership. As I said, it does come all the way back down to people.

Sharon Kitzman:  Yeah. So speaking of kind of post pandemic, and looking forward, I guess, you come off of a great show, you've got lots of leads to follow up on I'm sure. Your client base probably saw some other things that they liked around the show, too, and are maybe kind of pushing you to expand your product offering. Is there anything you'd like to share with the audience today kind of about where ActivEngage is headed? There's, there's so much that's kind of tangential to the process that you facilitate for the deal or something like digital retailing or other solutions. I'm sure you're, you're getting inquiries.

Eric Schlesinger:  Absolutely. So when we made the decision, we really brought ourselves back to our core in 2020. Leading up to the pandemic, we were trying to create all of these different products and services and whether it was white labeling, or having it where my my sales team would kind of go into a dealership and almost just like, throw up on them, like 'look at all the different things that we can do.' And we realized during the pandemic, that messaging is our core like this is what we're super good at. And we recognize that the dealers at that time really needed us more than anything, because their staff was at home furloughed, any of those other things. So what we've done, in fact, is sat there and looked at ways to partner with other companies to be able to integrate with them, whether it's with their DR tools or with their service scheduling tools, so that we somewhat stay agnostic around it. But we do also see places for us to go and make our own improvements. We know we were just talking about AI and we are believers in AI. It's just how we use the AI versus being consumer facing. We are using it so that it's agent facing meaning that our customer engagement experts are having the ability to have answers given to them more quickly, to be able to have suggestions of how to answer things to help with training and facilitating and things like that. But where that communication still goes is from the agent, human North America agent to the consumer. So it's still this person-to-person. We also, as you may have seen it NADA, we launched a new product, it's really a product around telephone conversion into text messaging. And the basic idea, we call it Flip2txt. But the idea of giving that customer the ability when they call the dealership to not have to wait the average 70 seconds on hold, or not be the 23% that aren't answered, and allow them to simply hit a number and have that converted into a text conversation. And so now they can communicate in the method and the timeframe in which they want to communicate. So it's all just about how to improve messaging. Yeah.

Sharon Kitzman:  So it's interesting that you said stick to your core and what you do best. We have the same philosophy at Dominion DMS. As a DMS provider, you know, we're not really interested in anything outside of what dealers expect from a DMS in the core functionality around OEM integrations, third party integrations accounting parts, service, sales, F&I, but there are other DMS providers out there that are trying to be everything to everybody. And I just don't believe you can do it and can do it well, across the breadth of solutions that dealers need. So that kind of brings us back to our strategy in partnering with wonderful solutions like yours from ActivEngage in order to be able to offer dealer's choice. Maybe for the dealers who haven't heard about the integration between ActivEngage and Dominion DMS, maybe talk a little bit about what they could expect that integration to look like.

Eric Schlesinger:  So if as a dealer, you're not aware of it,  Dominion DMS has taken a very unique and different approach to providing a DMS that is the core, so it's going to have those core pieces that you need, but then also recognizes that dealers utilize a lot of other providers, whether it's utilizing an ActivEngage, right, or, you know, for their messaging platforms, or if it's using, you know, Darwin for their desking capabilities or, you know, another one for their, like a Cox or so forth for their digital retailing tool. And the flexibility that, you know, Dominion DMS is going to be giving the dealers is for them to be able to have the knowledge that not only do they have this great core robust DMS system, but if they are using ActivEngage as their messaging provider that ActivEngage integrates into the Dominion, DMS ecosphere, and allows there to be some of this additional transactional aspects going back and forth. The initial ones that we're working on with you all, is service scheduling, and then we'll get into, like RDR reporting, so we can truly be able to give the dealer more robust reporting into understanding the ROI and so forth on what it is that they're doing with us, as well as what it is that they're selling. And we're excited.

Sharon Kitzman:  Well good! And, you know, if ever we can give you more data in a secure, of course, fashion, that's what we're looking forward to is to make this integration as efficient for our common client on the other side of the keyboard so that they're not having to reinput data.

Eric Schlesinger:  Absolutely. And as you said, always keeping it secure. Yes, that's a big thing these days.

Sharon Kitzman:  So we talked a little bit about how NADA felt a little bit different in a good way, right? Our industry here is ever evolving, though. And then 2024 There seems, seems to be starting off a little bit differently for dealers January there were some not great numbers posted. I think February recovered a little bit, but certainly more margin pressures and key OEMs are walking back their aggressive EV push from 2023 and inventory volumes are definitely back to where they want even if the mix isn't quite right yet. So as you and your team sit around and and hear I'm sure from dealers that you're working with about these changes and these new pressures coming at them, what do you talk about as ways that you can help them through these changing winds and tides?

Eric Schlesinger:  It's a, it's a really good point. And it absolutely has, you know, reverted, I think is somewhat of a better way to say it, I think we all have very short term memory and forget exactly what it is that we were going through as an industry through 2020 and into '21. And what we're seeing, again, is the need for high quality leads. Customers that are transactional, that want to go down the path and the process of buying a car, and not simply the quantity of leads, but more back into the quality is what they're looking for, so that they can work them better, create that better relationship with the customer. Because like you said, it is the aspect of back to 'well, hey, I understand that you really want the one with the black interior. But I have one with a great interior. You can go home with it today. Or we can order it and wait.' And so that also goes back to the part we were talking about earlier, of those salespeople that were, quote unquote, 'order takers' need now to be salespeople again, and to be able to sell those advantages of you know, getting your car today versus waiting for the order.

Sharon Kitzman:  And, maybe a little more work for less commission as well.

Eric Schlesinger:  Well, that's definitely the case. So yes, and then it also just goes into the service aspects as well. You know, service departments are super busy and super full. And it's taken people a month or two to get an appointment if they need like a diagnostic. So even the way in which that part of the business is being handled, creating, again, that relationship transactional aspect, because you don't want to give that consumer a reason to go down the street to somebody else.

Sharon Kitzman:  That's right. That's right. So it is changing times, as we mentioned, but it's also really confusing for dealers out there. Like you, I'm sure I had a chance to have many, many conversations with dealers at NADA, but a couple of nights, I actually got a chance to sit down, take a few minutes and have more in-depth conversations with a handful of dealers. And they all said it. They're just confused. There's so many solutions, a lot of vendors making a lot of new offerings in the market. And they're really confused about how it all fits together. And unfortunately, when people get confused, they tend to take the path of least resistance, which is to not do anything. Because they're not sure they're making the right decisions. So dealers thinking about, purchasing solutions and services from ActivEngage. Can they come to you? Can they get a clearer understanding of where you fit in, in the solutions, and who your partners are that can also augment those solutions?

Eric Schlesinger:  I believe, I'm sure that somebody will tell me differently. But I did even do a test the other day with a friend that happens to own a Sprinter dealership and his Marketing Director or CMO, quote unquote, 'mystery shopped' one of my guys, I knew it was happening. And, cuz I asked him, like, 'Give me all the feedback.' And he came back and said, 'Honestly, I got nothing to give you. He did a great job.' So I think that and they are now a customer. I think that we do a really, really good job of explaining what it is that separates us, what makes us different, who are our partners, and why we've taken the path to wanting to partner with other best-in-class companies versus trying to be the jack of all trades. So yeah, and we really like to explain why we've taken this approach of being agnostic, but also really making sure that everybody understands back to the thing we've already spoken about a couple of times. We believe in the power of people, and especially in this industry. I think it's one of the things, understanding it is a complex industry. It's a complex consumer, it's a complex purchase, and we need to be able to remember that and to be able to help that consumer through those complex issues.

Sharon Kitzman:  Yeah. And it's one of the most expensive purchases that a consumer will make their lifetime as well. So I saw on on your website that dealers can contact you directly, and that website is www.activengage.com. There's one E in the middle there.

Eric Schlesinger:  One E, but if they type in 2 Es, they'll still get there, we own them all.

Sharon Kitzman:  They can also find that website by going to the DominionDMS.com page, navigating to the partners section and then typing in something obvious, like 'Activ' or 'Engage'. Once they do that, and once they send a lead or an email, in through your site, what's the next step? Should they expect somebody to contact them? Is there a demo? How does the sales cycle work?

Eric Schlesinger:  They will typically receive a contact back from us if they provide a phone number, they'll be getting a phone call, it will be within typically five to 10 minutes. If they don't provide, obviously, then there'll be an email that goes back to them. Yes, they should expect getting a demo. And also, you know, us explaining what separates us. Demos aren't long, you know, we're not this, you know, crazy thing. It's going to take about half an hour, 40 minutes with me, that includes questions for assurances as well. If the manufacturer does happen to have any sort of a Certified Partner Program of the sorts, we are a part of each and every single one of them. So we've gone through all that due diligence as well.

Sharon Kitzman:  Yeah, that's fantastic. Okay. So as we close out here today, I kind of always asked the same question of my guests on the podcast. But since you and I just talked at NADA and I asked you that question, they're going to ask you a different type of question. We've been talking a little bit about AI and kicking it around in the industry and how real it is and how dealers should be thinking about it. So my question to you today is, what do you think the top benefit of AI is in the automotive industry as well as the top risk?

Eric Schlesinger:  The top benefit is streamlining processes. Looking at ways to simplify, looking at ways for efficiencies, whether it's through follow up processes, whether it's on, service scheduling aspects of things, or ordering things like, you know, parts and looking at ways in which to have best in time inventory aspects, and/or scheduling people and stuff like that. There are a bunch of risks, I mean, with any new technology and how it's used. We're at the very, very beginning o f AI, and where we are I mean, there are leaps of which it's going to end up going. It still has issues and problems, like we talked about earlier. The fact that a consumer was able to convince, you know, the AI to sell it for a Tahoe for $1. Or there's the aspects that there's this delusional piece to AI where AI happens to it dreams, in essence, and sometimes creates answers that are not correct, and you know, it's a delusion. The problem with that is, is that unless it's caught, it then uses the answer that I've just created, as fact, so that in the future when it's asked another question, and they can relate back to that answer that it already gave, that's wrong. It uses again, and cites it. So those are the types of places that we need to be careful, really, you know, checking, also making sure that the information that does give back to us is valid, before we just go and blindly implement something.

Sharon Kitzman:  Yeah. I do believe it is the future in the world, right, and not just our industry, obviously. But I think baby steps are definitely warranted. But with this ones. Well, thanks, Eric, for joining me today. Thanks so much for your insights into the industry and the great solutions that ActivEngage brings to its dealer clients. And again, I'm so glad that you had a great NADA this year. Best of luck to you and your team.

Eric Schlesinger:  Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Sharon Kitzman:  Thank you