Saphura Long focused on changing the CRM landscape in automotive and other sectors
By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
The entrepreneur is Saphura Long, her new start-up is named Gratis Tech, and its latest product is called autoWALL™. With a name like that, it is obviously focused on the automotive sector, but Long clearly believes her two-way CRM product has implications for a number of businesses that need to establish and maintain a strong relationship with customers or clients.
In a recent interview with teknovation.biz, Long described her earlier work in CRM and how that experience inspired her new company.
Long was born in Iran where her father was an Admiral in the country’s Navy. The family immigrated to the U.S. after Ayatollah Khomeini came into power. She earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear physics. Along the way, she worked for Combustion Engineering in Chattanooga before starting her nearly two-decade journey in customer relationship management in 1994.
As the spouse of Nelson Long, a multi-franchise automobile dealer in Chattanooga, she understood the importance of maintaining a solid relationship with customers. Long also has gained valuable insights into the technology products and services available to dealers.
She founded her first company, ReckonUp CRM Solutions, in the mid-1990s. With the emergence of the Internet, Long re-designed the company’s initial products to be what she describes as a “web-based, comprehensive, enterprise-level tool.”
In 2007, she sold the company, which had 500 dealership users, to izmocars and became the latter’s Vice President of CRM, a position she held until the end of 2010.
“For the years and years that I was providing a CRM, I could not understand why (automotive) dealerships failed in using the tool,” she said, adding that she knows that “dealerships spend a good deal of time on reputation management.”
Long ultimately decided that conventional CRMs, including the one she developed a decade ago, provided a “one-directional monolog which means that you are not building a relationship with the customer.” In her view, dealerships were simply “pushing” information to people.
So, at the beginning of 2011, Long started an 18-month journey to develop a two-way CRM product that is marketed under the autoWALL™ brand. Just as she had focused on the web a decade before, Long closely observed the emerging impact that social media was having on individuals and incorporated many of its strengths into her new CRM package.
The keys for her latest endeavor are its two-way, secure communications platform that provides value for both the dealership and the customer, and the control that the customer has.
“We hand customers the key to their own profile,” Long explained. “The customer is in the driver’s seat of the relationship.”
In a blog post earlier this year, Long talked about autoWALL™ serving as a “community networking tool,” connecting all customers, employees and even prospective customers of a dealership. She cited as one example a customer who wants to contact a favorite service advisor, but cannot recall the name or email address. Using autoWALL™, the customer can access all of the vehicle’s service records and readily find the individual’s name.
The autoWALL™ also allows customers to schedule service and interact easily with dealership employees about questions. The dealer can post service or sales specials on its “wall” or webpage without having to email everyone individually, and individuals interested in a new vehicle can define their specifications in their individual profile. There’s also a revenue side for the dealers by allowing others to post offers.
“It’s the wave of the future in client communication,” Long believes. She only launched the new product in mid-2012, but has already gained a good deal of attention.
Long was a speaker at the recent “13th Digital Dealer Conference and Exposition” where her topic was “Putting the Customers Back in CRM.” During the event, she was also recognized as an “Innovation Award” winner and, more important, identified 50 prospective customers for autoWALL™.
“We are a hard core technology shop,” Long says. She has filed for a patent on her product and is currently seeking mezzanine funding to expand quickly to add more web designers.
While the initial focus is on a market she knows well, Long says that the CRM “can be expanded to any vertical with a large customer base.” One such market is healthcare, inspired in part by her daughter who is a physician.