The Great Recession caught most of the used-car industry by surprise. Many dealers assumed that the downturn would be short and mild, so they continued to add inventory at a steady rate. As a result, many used-car inventory-financing firms didn't make adjustments until it was too late.
Dealer Services Corp. (DSC), in contrast, got a heads-up from its newly deployed business intelligence system, says CIO Chris Brady. The self-service BI module of Information Builders Inc.'s WebFocus software allowed branch managers to see early signs of the economic slowdown, without having to get technical help from the IT department.
Self-service BI looks to be the next big wave in business intelligence. In a January 2010 report, Gartner Inc. pointed to growing demand among businesses for a "data discovery tool architecture" that provides end users with data and reports and enables them to navigate and visualize data in a "surf and save" mode. This means that data views can be stored for reuse or sharing. The self-service tools bring BI information to nontechnical users; they also benefit high-level analysts who need ad hoc reports right away.
At Carmel, Ind.-based DSC, which provides financing for about 10,000 car dealers, each vehicle receives a separate loan with its own conditions and payback schedule. "That's a lot of data," says Brady. The company originally used a basic transaction-reporting system, but that rapidly became inadequate as the business grew.
End users inundated IT with requests for more data and different views. The more technically savvy tried to do their own analyses with Excel spreadsheets, but that often resulted in inconsistent and inaccurate data, Brady explains. So the company looked for a BI system that would put as much querying power as possible in the hands of end users via Web-based query and reporting tools.
In addition to reducing the burden on IT and business analysts, WebFocus has increased the quality and consistency of data -- and has thereby improved the decisions that are based on that data, Brady reports.
When the recession hit, WebFocus' self-service module proved its worth by enabling branch managers to see which dealers had inventory that was aging past a certain point, Brady says. This was "a key indicator -- a very, very early warning sign," she adds.
Forewarned of the slowdown in inventory turnover, DSC was able to minimize the recession's impact. It tightened its lending standards and adjusted financial reserves. It also offered advice to troubled dealerships; one of the messages was "Stop buying SUVs; they aren't selling," Brady says.
As a result, "we definitely reduced our losses from bad loans and didn't start to see a negative effect until the very end of 2008," about six months later than competitors, she estimates.
One key factor driving the self-service BI market is the rapidly growing volume and complexity of data needed to make decisions. In today's volatile and cutthroat global business environment, business users need more information than ever, and they need it faster than ever.
Further, the recession has forced companies to lay off or stop hiring IT staffers and business analysts, forcing everyone to do more with less, says Jim Kobielus, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.