Show and Tell -- Team members gather at the Torrance campus to learn about the creative work of their colleagues on display at the recent Innovation Fair. More than 1,100 people attended the fair, perusing the 138 projects culled from 1,548 entries.
Like the fictional character from the Middle Eastern folk tale that inspired it, the Aladdin application developed by Gupta Wijeratne and his IS team sounds magical. But the technology manager is quite certain it could become real—perhaps sooner than most in the automotive industry might think.
And it appears many of his fellow Toyota Motor North American team members agree. Wijeratne’s brainchild was awarded the Dealer Innovation prize in the recently completed Innovation Fair, based on scoring by two executive committees as well as—for the first time in the fair’s nine-year history—team member voting.
All told, 138 ideas were submitted by teams at Toyota Motor Sales, Toyota Motor North American Manufacturing & Engineering and Toyota Financial Services. The primary purpose of this corporate brainstorming session? To give forward-thinking team members an opportunity to put their best ideas forward with the chance of securing funding that could lead to actual implementation.
Making Magic -- Chief Information Officer Zack Hicks (far left) presents the "Dealer Innovation" award to the Aladdin team, which includes (left to right): Sainadh Kasturi, Shashikiran Suvarna, Christine Xu, Brent Thayer, Sheila Cabrera and Gupta Wijeratne.
The Magic of Technology
Aladdin serves as a fascinating case in point, suggesting how Toyota might use the latest interactive technology to create the automotive retail environment of the future.
Also amazing: all of the pieces came together in just three weeks. Wijeratne pulled off this feat by assembling a diverse group of team members and business partners. IS Analyst Sheila Cabrera and Infosys partner Shashikiran Suvarna played lead roles. IS analysts Brent Thayer and Christine Xu and Infosys employees Anil Mannem and Sainadh Kasturi
provided additional support.
At its core, the system is comprised of three components:
Dealer Configurator -- Sales managers at Toyota dealerships could use this and other related screens to set parameters for how they wish to market the vehicles in their inventories. Aladdin is designed to give dealers complete control over this part of the sales process.
- A magic genie—A powerful configurator that resides on Dealer Daily, Toyota’s proprietary online communications and applications platform. This system gives the dealers complete control of how they price and market their inventory.
- A magic lamp—An application that runs on a mobile tablet (such as an iPad) and/or a desktop Web browser. When a customer “rubs” it, they get the product and purchase information they need and want (vs. what the dealer thinks is important).
- A magic carpet—The delivery of a new Toyota vehicle to a customer, whether that be at a dealership or on the back of a flatbed truck that transports the vehicle to the buyer’s home or place or business. It’s the final step in what aims to be a true customer-first process.
“It starts with the dealer,” says Wijeratne. “They can use the configurator to set rules for how each vehicle is priced and how that price might change over time. A sales manager would make updates once a day or at least once a week. But once everything is configured, their vehicles we be available to be sold 24 hours a day, seven days a week—in real time. It would be completely automated.”
Customers would then use the interactive application—the magic lamp—to engage with the system. Initially, they’d be invited to set up a profile with basic information, such as name, location and preferred communication method. They could upload information about their trade-in vehicle, if they have one. And, most importantly, they could configure the vehicle they want at the price they’re willing to spend.
“This isn’t about what the dealer has on the lot,” says Wijeratne. “This is about what the customer desires. It’s about what they want to buy.”
Customer App -- Here's a suggested response from dealers who have vehicles in stock that come close to matching the customer's expressed preferences. From this screen, the customer can review the dealers' offers and, if they choose, make a one-time counter offer.
Within minutes of clicking on the submit button, the customer would receive a list of offers from multiple Toyota dealers that come the closest to matching their request. Each offer would include a price. At that point, the customer has one opportunity to submit a counter-offer. If the dealer accepts it, the deal is done and the store’s identity is revealed. All that’s left is to complete the paperwork and schedule the delivery.
Of course, not every customer will be willing such an expensive product sight unseen. To address that concern, Wijeratne has proposed additional plug-in technologies to give prospects a chance to experience the vehicle in question. For example, the system could facilitate the scheduling of a test drive. Another possibility: the customer could employ Google Cardboard, turning their smartphone into a virtual reality device.
“The customer could actually experience the vehicle from the inside out,” says Wijeratne. “Tools like this exist and are readily available.”
Meanwhile, as customers and dealers interact with the system, TMNA could collect highly detailed and valuable data on what’s really going on in the marketplace. Over time, this information could help guide decision making on present-day vehicle allocations as well as future product development.
Fellowship of the Fair -- Team members who contributed their time and talents to help produce and promote the Innovation Fair gather in front of the Torrance headquarters for a group photo.
Warrants Further Study
It sounds great in theory. But what about in reality? That’s to be seen. But Wijeratne says the Innovation Fair’s two executive sponsors—Chief Information Officer Zack Hicks and Vice President of Marketing Flaurel English—are supportive and want to know more. Also, Wijeratne is one of three Innovation Fair finalists who have earned trips to Japan this winter to present their ideas to the powers that be at Toyota Motor Corporation.
But no matter how all of that plays out, Wijeratne and his colleagues are already an Innovation Fair success story.
“Aladdin is initiated by the customers, not the dealers,” he says. “Some dealers might not be happy about that. But this is where things are going. None of us can stop it. Ultimately, the customer will have complete control. These days, that’s what customer satisfaction is all about.”
By Dan Miller