Former Ford exec Matt VanDyke on jump to Shift Digital

That was before the pandemic accelerated the use of technology for both brands and dealerships. Now, VanDyke said, he has a chance to work on a bigger scale with more dealerships and brands and make progress on a “really unique opportunity” to improve the customer experience.

VanDyke, 50, spoke with Staff Reporter Lindsay VanHulle. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: What attracted you to Shift Digital?

A: Shift is a 14-year-old company that’s grown pretty significantly over the years to have about 700 employees, and Shift provides digital marketing services for brands, OEMs and [thousands of] dealers. In recent years, it’s expanded into other verticals, like motorcycles, powersports and boats.

We help brands and dealers with digital marketing and the platforms that we support, provide analytics and insights on shoppers, so dealers and brands can use us to help independently measure their partners, like websites and digital ad providers. And that provides dealers and brands with transparency on performance and effectiveness of the things that they do to drive their businesses forward.

What did you learn from your time at Ford?

It’s such an exciting time to be a part of the auto industry, as there’s so much growth and change in the retail environment. That’s evolving so quickly with the changing media environment and demand acquisition, the online tools and the evolving sales process. I’ve learned so much from Ford and Lincoln dealers about what the opportunities are to grow that and evolve that. Also, really, the opportunities of the changing dynamics in the industry with the EV evolution.

What digital trends are making the biggest impact on the industry?

It’s in the digital retailing arena because customer preferences are evolving. My dad’s never going to buy a car online, but my kids are certainly comfortable with it. It’s been an extremely difficult vertical to crack for e-commerce.

It took a number of years for the ecosystem and digital tool set to catch up with where customers wanted simplicity online, and it’s a still-evolving process.

The biggest thing people probably don’t talk about right now is how those online tools really integrate into the customer experience process at the dealership. Because for the most part, the vast majority of customers don’t just want to start and end something in one online session. They come in and out of the experience. There is a high degree of human interaction with dealerships. And creating that — call it in-dealership experience that complements what customers want to do with a digital tool set — that’s where there’s real opportunity for magic and progress to be made.

What makes that a big opportunity?

It’s just really disjointed. When dealerships don’t have their people trained on how those tools work, how they can pick up seamlessly and advance the process, customers are often getting frustrated. And they don’t want to start over, and they don’t want to be sold something else, and they don’t want somebody to basically take them down a traditional path of years ago. They really are looking for somebody to help them navigate this new environment that ultimately should be saving them time.

With whom does the opportunity lie? Vendors? dealers? Automakers?

It’s just absolutely on all three. What the brands realize is they have to do it in partnership with the dealers because there’s so many things they have to agree on. At its simplest form, when it’s through a franchised dealer network, it’s the dealers’ inventory, and it’s the dealers who are setting the final prices. So what really has to happen is the dealers and the brands need technology and tool sets that answer the complex questions, but then they have to have the agreement on what makes sense for their brand.

How does a company such as Shift Digital help navigate what brands want and what dealers want?

If [consumers] are on a certain website platform, clicking through a digital retailing tool, and then that goes into a black hole for dealers or brands in terms of what’s happening with those customer analytics, they’re not in a good position. So what Shift can really help to do is provide dealers and brands with insights of what’s happening on the dealer website platform and how they’re integrating with chat tools that could be from multiple providers and digital retailing tools that could be from multiple providers. So we really help enable choice and flexibility.

Shift Digital last year experienced a data breach that affected Volkswagen and Audi dealers. That predates your time at Shift, but can you talk about how the company is focusing on data security?

Shift takes data security and privacy as the most important thing that we do. It is absolutely mission critical. When the issue occurred, Shift worked with the impacted client and every one of their partners to explain what the situation was and, since then, has gone even further. Redoubled all data security initiatives, processes and evaluations. It was certainly something that, as I was coming into the company, I wanted to have a good understanding of it. And I have a really high degree of confidence that Shift has handled that in a very, very appropriate manner and remains vigilant about it.