March 02, 2015
Atlanta-area auto dealer links locations with Ethernet network
Updating the communications system at a giant Atlanta-area automobile emporium is streamlining the staff’s workdays and improving the customer experience.
The upgrade at Jim Ellis Automotive Group replaced a hodgepodge of aging T1 lines with an Ethernet network from Comcast that carries information over fiber optic cables and links the group’s locations.
“The difference is night and day” between the old and new systems for speed, efficiency, reliability and security, says Eddie Gonzalez, the group’s IT systems director. “We probably increased the bandwidth 20 times over what it was previously — for basically the same price point.”
When technicians need to use a laptop to access the command center of a car that needs service, they can make the connection from anywhere on Jim Ellis’s four campuses.
Cutting the fat
The system could benefit just about any regional or national retail chain that has medium-sized or large stores, according to Glenn Katz, vice president and general manager of Comcast Business Enterprise Services.
Ellis Automotive comes close enough to fitting that description. The single Volkswagen dealership that Ellis and his wife, Billie, started in 1971 has grown into 14 family-owned dealerships selling 10 brands of cars. The enterprise, which also includes a collision-repair center, operates at four locations in and around Atlanta. Linking those locations with an Ethernet network has benefited employees and customers alike, Gonzalez says. In just about every case, a change aimed at improving life for one of those groups has also made the experience better for the other.
Take speedier communications. The old system slowed to a crawl when too many of the group’s 1,000 employees used it simultaneously. Providing online services to customers taxed the system even more. On the old system, it could take half an hour to upload the 30 or so photos the company posts to its website for each of the 5,000 new and used cars in stock. Now, uploading the images has become nearly instantaneous, Gonzalez says.
“The car-buying public is doing a lot of their research online before they even come into the dealership, so it’s critical for us to have all our cars on the site in a timely manner,” he says.
The quick uploads cut some fat from the duties of the group’s photo staff, but the sales staff has something to gain from the efficiency as well.
“Car buyers are unique because they want this car in this color with this interior — and they want to pick it up right now,” Gonzalez says. Delays in uploading could mean a customer browsing the group’s online listings could move on to another dealer’s site because the black, low-mileage 2013 Audi A5 Cabriolet she’d been hoping to find wasn’t listed yet. That would mean a lost sale.
The improvements don’t end there. Prospects and salespeople communicate by email through online customer relationship management systems that the network facilitates and speeds up. Meanwhile, the group’s service technicians capitalize on the connectivity: When technicians need to use a laptop to access the command center of a car that needs service, they can make the connection from anywhere at the four locations.
That connectivity becomes especially important for technicians when a car in the collision center has mechanical damage as well as cosmetic flaws, because it facilitates diagnosis of the electronic and mechanical systems without moving the vehicle to another area, Gonzalez says.
Then there’s the auto retailer’s equivalent of line busting, which the group is just beginning to explore. Added bandwidth enables service representatives to wield handheld devices to write repair orders for customers sitting in their cars waiting for service.
Greater bandwidth has also enabled the group to extend guest Wi-Fi service. Customers could previously access the Internet only in lounges while waiting for vehicles that were in the service bays. Now they can log on from any spot. That could give rise to comparison shopping, though the group is willing to run that risk because the public has come to expect connectivity, Gonzalez says.
Comcast built in redundancy by providing extra fiber optic cables: If one suffers an outage, another steps in to take up the slack.
Behind the scenes
Ethernet also helps behind the scenes. Comcast built in redundancy by providing extra fiber optic cables: If one suffers an outage, another steps in to take up the slack.
“They notify me by phone if there’s an outage, but the users and our customers don’t even notice it,” Gonzalez says.
The group is using Ethernet Network Services for secure private communication among buildings and Ethernet Dedicated Internet when it’s time to go online, both provided by Comcast.
Ethernet connections have been uniting devices via local area networks since the 1970s. Later companies began to set up Ethernet connections between buildings, calling the result wide area networks; a WAN could connect a building in New York with one in Los Angeles, for example.
Ethernet networks can operate over the same cables that bring television, phone service and Internet access to homes and businesses, but they’re quicker and more scalable if they travel on fiber optic cables.
Ellis chose Comcast because none of the competing vendors could furnish an upgrade that included fiber optics, Gonzalez says, noting that competitors were still using local phone lines — essentially proposing a somewhat better version of what the group already had.
Rates and installation fees were competitive as well, despite the higher-quality service. Because Comcast fiber optic cables were already near the dealership, installation of the system came in ahead of the 90-day schedule; if the group ever needs to increase bandwidth, Comcast can add capacity without having to visit the site, Gonzalez says.
“In the past I had to order more circuits and have them installed. Now, I just pick up the phone. They don’t have to come on site.”
The scalability of fiber optics is almost limitless, says Katz, noting that Ethernet connections aren’t for everybody. Ellis had enough size and geographic spread to warrant using the Ethernet; retail chains with smaller locations, such as convenience stores or gas stations, can meeting their needs with T1 lines.
Installation at Ellis occurred about two years ago, at the same time the group was installing a core dealership management system to handle inventory, accounting, reporting, scheduling and other services. The system ties the 14 dealerships and collision center into a single business.
That tool operates over a private multiprotocol label switching system, and the Ethernet serves as a backup.