Salesforce seeks to unify automobile supply chain with Automotive Cloud

For years, auto makers and dealers have used Salesforce for CRM — but it’s involved a hodge-podge of company-specific customizations. Now Salesforce is hoping to sweep that away with Salesforce Automotive Cloud, a dedicated platform for the auto industry that sticks close to industry standards on data exchange.

This new offering has arrived as auto makers rethink their relationships with dealers and intermediaries who handled face-to-face customer relations and local inventory since the pandemic made online auto sales and touchless delivery seem desirable. Until that point, few consumers wanted to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a car they had never seen or touched.

Michael Ramsey, a VP and automotive analyst at Gartner, said Automotive Cloud offers a way for auto makers to take back control of their branding.

“At a basic level, Salesforce built this because they could see that the auto companies were suddenly in need of actually delivering customer experience rather than relying on dealers to do it,” he said.

Achyut Jajoo, Salesforce’s company’s GM of manufacturing and automotive, pointed to moves Ford is already making to impose a new way of working on its dealers. “They basically want them to become more experiential,” he said. “The dealership of the future would actually look more like an Apple Store.”

Automotive Cloud is intended to help auto makers get closer to their customers by analyzing data not just about one person and their vehicle, Jajoo said, but their entire household and all interactions with dealers on one screen.

“And because we have that data, we can now recommend to dealers what next best action to take,” he said. “We’ve created tools to do this in a more declarative fashion, rather than custom coding.” The tools include a rules engine that can look at the data and fire off alerts and recommendations.

By gathering data from their dealers in one place, auto makers will also have a better picture of the market, Jajoo said.

“Now you can run performance analytics: what cars are selling, which make, model, model year, in which geographies, which dealer is performing better — all of those types of things,” he said.

Maintaining standards

One of the things that lubricates data flow around and between enterprises is compliance with standards. The US auto retail industry realized this almost two decades ago, and came together to create the nonprofit corporation Standards for Technology in Automotive Retail. STAR’s members include the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA); automobile manufacturers such as Ford, GM, BMW, and Toyota; and IT vendors such as Microsoft, Nuspire, and Tech Mahindra. Many of STAR’s IT vendor members have offices in Detroit, once known as Motor City and increasingly becoming a hub for technology companies.

STAR deprecated its original flat file exchange format long ago, and now publishes over 200 XML message formats for Business Object Documents (BODs) covering everything from exchanging sales leads through arranging credit, selling the vehicle, servicing it, and ordering parts for repairs to resell it.

Salesforce adheres to STAR’s standards, making sure all necessary fields are available in its platform, said Jajoo: “Salesforce as a platform is API first, so it becomes easy for us to exchange information between parties.”

The company has created templates to facilitate that data exchange. “It’s an ecosystem play,” he says. “We extend this data out for your partners, whether they’re dealers, agents, or other third parties.”

That means companies adopting Automotive Cloud should be able to continue exchanging data with those using other STAR-compliant platforms.

But there’ll be more work involved for CIOs who have already built their automotive CRM systems on the Salesforce platform, as they’ll have to unwind years of customization in order to adopt Automotive Cloud.

“For legacy car companies, it will be a big leap to adopt the platform wholesale because most already have a pretty robust Customer 360-type database,” said Gartner’s Ramsey.

Toyota Financial Services is one of the companies looking forward to the migration challenge. Its digital information officer is excited by the potential Automotive Cloud offers to build more meaningful relationships with customers.

Accelerator peddling

Salesforce isn’t the only company targeting CRM solutions at the automotive industry. Microsoft offers an “automotive accelerator” for its Dynamics CRM product — but, as with Salesforce’s previous efforts, this is more about making it easier for customers to develop applications on top of the vanilla CRM tool to meet their needs, and less about providing a turnkey solution.

“Automotive Cloud provides a modular way to connect customer, car, dealer, and other parts of the organization together that need customer info, like finance, warranty and connected vehicle services,” said Ramsey. There needs to be something like this in place to manage customer IDs and all the interactions between companies, he said, adding, “I’m sure other companies will follow with some kind of vertical offering like this, but right now it fits in a niche that’s a step above a standard CRM and is something closer to a customer operating system,” he said.

CIO, Cloud Management