Car giant Ford has deployed a portal to cut costs and improve access to information for 7,500 motor dealers across 18 European countries using 15 languages.
The portal, called DealerConnection, allows Ford's 37,000 users at dealerships across the continent to view warranty checks and pricing guides, order vehicles or parts and find information on upcoming vehicles, car credit products and services.
These jobs would previously have been carried out separately through a range of applications, which was time consuming.
Dealers have access to the car manufacturer's corporate marketing and sales, after-sales, parts and financial systems, as well as specific content and applications for their country.
As a result, Ford has been able to implement a centralised back office system across all 18 countries.
Ford, the second largest car manufacturer in the world, built the portal on Plumtree's Corporate Portal software.
Paul Landray, Ford's European marketing, sales and service information technology manager, told vnunet.com: "The project has delivered benefits to our dealers as well as to Ford.
"Prior to the dealer portal, most communications and circulars were sent via physical media - paper - to our dealers.
"This resulted in administrative costs for both Ford and our dealers, who were then often inundated with multiple communications from the various departments within our company."
Paper-based communications were costly because of the printing and posting costs, and information became out of date very quickly, as it often took up to five days to prepare, print and mail information.
"The portal makes life simpler for our dealers and our national sales companies by bringing everything together through a single access point. Now up-to-date documentation is available in real-time and version control is assured," said Landray.
Ford also implemented a Dealer Self Administration (DSA) tool set to allow dealers to do their own user administration, such as creating new users and resetting passwords, which has cut costs.
"In terms of benefits, the DSA tool set has been a huge success from the dealers' perspective as it has saved them both time and money," he added.
The applications are web-based via a secure extranet, with Ford using a single secure log-on for each user at each dealership, so they do not have multiple log-ons and passwords to remember.
"Having logged on to the portal each application is then just a hyperlink away and their portal user identity grants them the appropriate level of access for each back-end system," said Landray.
But because many of Ford's applications were built before the launch of the portal, getting up and running "has required significant transition effort", he added, including removing bespoke security and using the single dealer log-on module.
The system has significantly improved Ford's contacts with its dealers. But Landray stressed that business sponsorship was critical for such an important project to succeed, along with "a robust governance process" to address the business and technology challenges.
"Architecture - including choice of the key enabling technologies - is critical, and you must be ruthless in ensuring it is adhered to," he said.
Landray recommended phasing delivery so that users get a base product quickly, and so their feedback can then built back into the development cycle.
"Last, but by no means least, communication is key to all stakeholders and in overcoming any initial resistance to change," he said.
The biggest problem was the complexity of European landscape, and managing this while minimising the amount of bespoke customisation.
"We selected Plumtree because it was already successfully in use on our own Ford intranet corporate portal [myFord.com]. The clear objective was to limit the amount of customisation of the product while still managing customer expectations and needs.
"Leveraging the product capability and the skills of our IT personnel allowed us to overcome these challenges," he added.
MyFord.com is used by 250,000 employees and is one of the largest corporate portals in the world.
Landry said: "We have found our approach has allowed us to respond quickly to business needs. For example, when the business came up with a need to have more control over the look of the pages, our developers were able to build a portlet quickly to meet their needs.
"Because Plumtree handles the security, the user interface and back end meant it was only the business rules that needed to be changed."
Ford is now ensuring that all dealer-facing applications are integrated into the portal. It is also looking at ways of improving the targeting of information to individual users, and investigating what benefits can be achieved at low cost from the latest Plumtree technology and portlets.
But Landray said: "The great thing about this type of portal is, once you have it, you start to see all sort of possibilities. It really is a core piece of our dealer infrastructure.
"As our business changes the portal is a key tool for our combined Ford/dealer response to the competitive pressures in the European automotive marketplace."
Ford's European network consists of: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Hungary and the UK.
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