Do you think we can sell more than 15 million units this year? How about 16 million? I do. In fact, I believe we might be undershooting with those numbers. After all, the experts tell us the Great Recession cost us a year and a half of retailing, or about 20 to 23 million sales.

So what are you doing to capture that lost business? That was the hot topic at this year’s NADA Convention and Expo in February. I know that was months ago, but I’m bringing it up because we’re talking CRM this month. And at the show, just about everyone from tech vendors to finance sources and even F&I companies were talking about what they’re doing to drive recession-weary consumers back into dealer showrooms.

What surprised me was the attention being paid to the finance lead. Given that I double as the editor of F&I and Showroom magazine, I’m not clueless to the power of a finance lead. My F&I manager buddies have been saying for years that the best way to capture a deal is by capturing the customer’s financing. Now it seems like the rest of the industry has come to the same realization.

Another surprise from the convention was all the talk about CRM tools from companies like Ally Financial and JM&A. Ally reps were talking up their new Relationship Management Center. Apparently, the company has discovered a better way to connect dealers to the two million leads it funnels to the market every month.

I like Ally’s tool because it symbolizes a change in strategy for finance sources. Back in 2012, there was a lot of talk among finance executives about working directly with customers they’ve financed in the past. They are their customers, too, they reasoned.

But I’m not hearing that this year. In fact, many finance execs are now saying those finance leads represent another way for them to strengthen their relationships with dealers. The reality is they’d rather have you serving up deals than putting more resources in the field. But we’ll take it, right?

Ally’s tool also doubles as a marketing fulfillment service. And by that I mean it helps dealers create direct mail and e-mail campaigns. All you have to do is grab Ally’s list of leads and you can push out your campaign to mailboxes and inboxes within 24 to 48 hours. You can even upload your own customer list and leverage the Ally brand for your promotions.

JM&A’s “Auto Sales²” is another interesting tool, especially for a company known for its F&I programs. But, as their execs will tell you, the company is in the business of helping dealers sell cars and, well, its CRM tool is designed to do just that. The tool first analyzes the dealership’s database of past deals and identifies customers who are in an equity position with their current vehicle. It then singles out those customers who can trade in their vehicle for a new or upgraded model based on the dealer’s inventory, current rates and incentives.

Through the downturn, mining your database was a huge topic. In fact, JM&A contributed an article on the subject to F&I and Showroom in 2010. Two years later, Auto Sales² was launched. Well played!

I didn’t focus on these two solutions because they’re the best available. In fact, there are some really nice service tools that operate similarly to JM&A’s tool, allowing service advisors to help ID possible trade-in candidates.

The reason I brought up Ally’s and JM&A’s solutions is because they symbolize a shift in approach. See, these new tools speak to today’s payment buyer, and these shoppers need their monthly payment to fit their budget. That’s why I also like those website widgets that allow consumers to shop your inventory by monthly payment. Companies like AutoUSA and Dealertrack introduced such features this year.

By the way, the individual who made the observation about lost sales through the downturn was Ron Lamb, president of Reynolds and Reynolds Co. His company revamped its Retail Management System because it felt every customer touchpoint in the dealership — from the parts department to the showroom — is part of an operation’s CRM efforts. And from what I saw from the tech vendors this year, Reynolds isn’t alone.

So, here’s the real reason I’m talking about this stuff: On Sept. 16-18, the magazine’s annual Industry Summit will host Greg Goebel and his Used Car University’s CRM Convention ( If you missed it last year, you need to be there this year, as Greg is gathering some of the top minds in retail to cover a wide range of topics. By the way, the CRM Convention is one of four shows taking place at our Industry Summit this year. Stay tuned for more.