Carmakers must understand that seamless IT systems are just as important as the mechanics when it comes to attracting and retaining customers, the former Nissan chief operating officer and Salesforce automotive director tells ComputerworldUK.

Patrick Pelata was prised away by Marc Benioff and friends after he quit his role as chief operating officer at at Renault and Nissan following a corporate espionage investigation gone awry.

With his insider knowledge, Patrick Pelata now works with carmakers looking to roll out the cloud-based CRM software to its workforce. 

“I’m seeing a lot of players already getting their share of value in the market", Pelata says. Because of traditional manufacturing’s steady business process and models, the automotive space is now “an open game”, he adds.

“In automotive, you have a high entry barrier, but when the cards are turned the entry cost in the ecosystem is much lower and a lot of new players are stepping in. If carmakers aren’t moving as fast, of course they are going to suffer. They might lose their position in the value chain.”

However, carmakers are beginning to speed up, he says. “They have moved a lot in the last two years. But is it fast enough? This world is moving fast, and Google is not a slow mover.”

“We are in the phase of Darwinian selection” he adds.

Carmakers must become software companies

Carmakers’ main competition is businesses with big data, Pelata says. The likes of Google, Apple and telematics start-ups are muscling in. IT must align itself with the business to integrate and utilise its backend applications to learn as much about their customers as possible, he says.

“There is no reason why Google should know more if they [carmakers] really put together their best knowledge on the dealership side. They know a lot of things – they should be able to be more relevant, faster and stronger. They need to become software companies too.”

But legacy software with silos of customer data will put car manufacturers at a disadvantage when competing with the likes of Google. “They are missing that”, Pelata warns.

The former Nissan lead says he sees a ‘big movement’ for IT teams in the automotive space integrating their customer relationship management system across their brand, but that businesses should be linking up their CRM to its dealers, call centres, quality departments and even with the car itself with improved connectivity.

Complete re-design, or move to the cloud?

They also need to use their CRM not just as a database, he says, but as a means of “processes and systems to act with this data”.

“Today carmakers have data in so many different systems about their customers and about the car, but you need them both in a place to easily gather. To do that carmakers either try to re-design – which will take years, or they could extract what is really relevant from the cloud.”

The front-end is crucial too, he says. IT must work to ensure the customer's experience of a brand is the same regardless of whether they are interacting with the dealer, maintenance or marketing. 

“You need systems that will allow you to make this available on any touch point with the customer – which is difficult because customers need a seamless experience. They just want the brand to answer their queries fast – they don’t care if it is a dealer or a brand answering them. Additionally, they want the brand to remember who you are so that when you get to a different desk you do not have to explain who you are.”

Changing culture to highlight the importance of IT for the business

While carmakers have traditionally invested in research into technology for car mechanics, now the industry must focus on its IT and technology for its employees and partners to be future-proof.

“They may be good at interfacing with the car and will have engineers working on suspension, the seat, the ergonomics to make sure you are comfortable. But now it is about how to make your experience with the telematics, the call centre and the dealer consistent. Carmakers are not used to doing that and they need to do it now. They need to collaborate around customers’ physical interaction with the car, but also with the brand the customer has chosen.”