Aston Martin has the good fortune to be a brand as well as — some would argue beyond — a product. For many, it will immediately conjure up an image of Sean Connery or Daniel Craig, behind the wheel of James Bond’s car of choice. For others, the 103-year-old company is synonymous with luxury, prestige — an aspirational lifestyle choice.
However, this cult-like reputation has its pitfalls, and Dan Balmer, who joined the high-end car company as general manager, global marketing two years ago, set about taking on some of the long-standing challenges.
One of these was the firm’s rather outdated approach to business applications — Aston Martin was still using an in-house, self-built CRM system until the start of 2016, one that relied on the nous of the employee who designed the system, another trained user and various Excel spreadsheets.
Balmer recounts the times when the original developer went on holiday, and no-one at the firm could run the CRM system. He says:
It was crazy. I had one person in my team who wasn’t involved in building it but he was a user, and he was pretty much the only user in the world that could actually interrogate the system to get a report.
And of course the report out was an Excel list and it was outdated as soon as it was produced, and there was a ‘take a ticket and wait your turn’ type process as well. It was very, very archaic. We had this in-house built CRM tool, which is impressive because actually a company the size of Aston Martin with 2,000 employees shouldn’t really be doing that.
Balmer feels the reason for Aston Martin’s slow move into the digital era was that it had traded too much on its design and heritage credentials as a brand. Before joining the firm, Balmer worked at BMW and subsidiary Roll Royce – both of which are Salesforce users – and had already gone through similar digital transformations there. He explains:
I was quite shocked by what I saw when I came to Aston Martin in terms of not having that thought process in place, but it was great because it was a blank canvas so we could start from scratch more or less.
Balmer joined the company in 2014, and it was shortly after this that the firm started thinking about how it could transform for the digital era. In late 2014 and early 2015, the Aston Martin management team sat down as a group to consider how to change its CRM landscape and at that point, realised it had two distinct needs: mapping the customer journey and putting its data into one place. Balmer explains:
Having learnt how not to do a Salesforce rollout in previous companies, I knew there are certain touch points you need to achieve to get things done. One of them was getting our CEO to adopt the projects as well, so it wasn’t a marketing push, it was basically a CEO pull. He wants data to be able to decide where we invest our money and he wanted that data to come from us and that got everyone switched on.
Another key objective was embarking on a digital transformation without losing the personal touch. Aston Martin used to build just a hundred cars a year, but was now increasing production. The firm had to find a system that maintained the personal relationship it had had with only a hundred customers while serving several thousand a year.
We needed an approach that would allow us to have a personal interaction and build up more intelligence about our customers. So you’re moving beyond just ‘I’m a Vantage V8 owner’ into ‘I’m a Vantage V8 owner who has had two or three used cars before, my interests are tennis and rugby, I live in the south of France during the summer but I live in London during the winter time’. That kind of intelligence there sparks a different level of relationship.
So our communications and interactions with them, whether it’s us or our dealers, can be a completely different discussion and you get back into the hundred customers per year type of relationship again, where you know that just from your memory. So that was the vision that we put in place.
After around seven years of relying on the archaic in-house CRM tool – which was actually originally designed as an ERP tool and then was stretched into CRM – Aston Martin went live on Salesforce in February this year. The project took 22 weeks in all, and 250 staff and 1,100 users across the firm’s network of 166 dealers are now able to use a mix of Sales Cloud – including Community Cloud for dealers – and Marketing Cloud. However, there is still work to be done on driving up adoption of the new tools. Balmer notes:
People have got to get used to using it in their daily lives. Before they’d been in a different process so there’s a bit of a lag in that area. We went live in February so we’re still very early on.
The launch of the Aston Martin DB11 (pictured above) helped propel the use of Salesforce across the business, as all of the information and data needed to sell the model was held within the new CRM system.
Marketing, IT and sales have now fully embraced Salesforce Chatter for communication, but on the engineering and design side, there was more initial reluctance. But this changed when Aston Martin held preview events for the DB11, which involved the engineers presenting the car to guests. Balmer explains:
I showed them on the app on my phone, how we were doing in terms of people coming to the event, interest, registrations. Nothing turns an engineer on more than data and they were just amazed by it.
They didn’t see marketing as a quickly measurable discipline before. I’m a former engineer myself, so I was able to show them that we can measure how we’re doing, so they’re now hooked on it and they’re applying for licences. A few prominent engineers will have access to the tool as well, and they’ll get sent dashboard reports as well.
Countryside to worldwide
There was also some negative perceptions among Aston Martin’s IT team, with one of the people in charge of developing the previous CRM system in particular querying the plans and citing it as an unnecessary expense.
Today he walks round with a Salesforce notepad and pen, he’s an evangelist now. He saw what we were talking about in the early days, that we needed to have a scale that was far bigger than our little world.
We’re based in the middle of Warwickshire in the countryside, and we need to have a scale of thought that’s global, that we can grow with. Frankly an in-house tool wasn’t going to do that.
Before opting for Salesforce, Aston Martin spent three to four months looking at different options and pitches. The firm considered Microsoft Dynamics, as well as specialist systems aimed at the automotive and retail sector, which the sales team were fully supportive of, due to familiarity. But Balmer saw a conflict between that automotive-biased approach and where the firm needs to go as a brand, outlining Aston Martin’s plans to stretch into other luxury products like yachts, apartments and hotels.
A major part of opting for Salesforce was also due to the ability to have fully live data anywhere. Balmer explains:
It’s a very powerful thing to pull out in a board meeting discussion, when I’m making a presentation about how we’re doing on our launch for example. Everyone’s got a phone now and looking at the screen, the data’s there. It’s great.
Balmer was also keen on the ability to use Salesforce to track dealer operations and results, and share information between them in an appropriate way. Beforehand, this process was email-based and vague, but it has now been replaced by a more intelligent operation.
There needs to be an intelligence that when a customer goes into another dealer, that dealer can see that they’re already an owner or they’ve been to another dealer, so they can be recognised as an Aston Martin owner at least and not as a stranger off the street.
So there’s a level of not data-sharing necessarily, but they have to see that the person is a customer of ours even if they can’t see exactly where he bought the car from and exactly his data. So it’s a very complex process to put the fences up where you need to have them.
Overall, Aston Martin is looking for its technology systems to help offer a ‘flawless customer experience.’ In view of recent outages that have affected some Salesforce customers, diginomica asked Aston Martin's CMO Simon Sproule whether the company is comfortable that the cloud provider can provide an equally flawless service.
Personally I don't think we have a choice but to commit to the cloud. We went deliberately cloud, to a company that is going to iterate. Yes you inherently have some risks in that.
As a business we put our faith in technology. I bluntly don't see we have a choice, so we go with companies we believe have the most robust support for their technology. There's no real alternative.
Happily for the car maker, Balmer says it has yet to be affected by any of these kinds of problems during its first four months of use.
We’ve not had disruptions in service, there haven’t been any faults or failures at all. The only challenge was how we segment and migrate our data across to Salesforce. That’s because we had a fairly messy situation before so it required a lot data cleansing and self-analysis. But that has taken us into a good state of affairs.