Thursday, September 23rd at 11:00 AM ET
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24 minute read
Jason’s orange-fueled personal branding aside, we not only saw him at the Digital Marketing Strategies Conference (DMSC), our director of OEM and industry relations, Alan Krutsch, had a great chat with him and with Hunter Swift, vice president of product and self-proclaimed brand evangelist for Stella Automotive AI.
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Coming up voice over: People make the customer experience. This technology sitting in an iPad laying on a table doesn't do much until you have a human being that follows a process that does what human beings do best, which is engage, build relationships, and build trust. The technology speeds it — yes, technology can introduce some transparency to the process to help the customer along — but the best experiences I've had as a customer are when I met somebody that was really nice and really helpful and had a good attitude and got me what I wanted.
Announcer: Welcome to the “Strategy with Jason” podcast. Tune in for everything you need to know to stay in the know regarding the automotive industry. Here's your host, Jason Harris.
Jason: Hey, hey! What's going on podcast nation? It is Jason Harris here. Thank you for joining me on another episode of “Strategy with Jason”. We are in beautiful, sunny Napa Valley, California at the DMSC event hosted by the one-and-only Brian and Glenn Pasch.
Today, I have some amazing guests with me. I have Alan and Hunter with me. Guys, thanks so much for taking the time, getting out of the conference to come out and jam with me. We're going to have some fun chatting.
But before we kind of get into our topics, I love kicking off these podcasts with a little origin story. I’m always fascinated to find out how people got started in the business. Alan, I'll start with you, and then Hunter I'll ask you the same.
So, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in this crazy little world we call the automotive industry?
Alan: Second career for me. I was in the fashion business, and I got fired. I thought, “Should I go into the car business?” and, well, that’s because I had a friend in the car business. I said, “Look, I need something to do kind of part-time until I get my thing going again.” That was 20 years ago.
Jason: And so, it’s been a 20-year part-time job for you?
Alan: Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Jason: And tell us a little bit about FUSE Autotech.
Alan: So, FUSE Autotech is, uh… The easiest way to understand this is that we make financing a car simple. It’s a point-of-sale system for a car dealership. It allows one person typically to sell the car, sell the financing, and reduce the time it takes to sell the car from maybe the typical two-to-three hours down to less than an hour. So, it's all about productivity. It's about giving the customer price and payment transparency and some control over the process.
Jason: That's awesome! I'm glad that you chose this 20-year part-time job for yourself. Um, Hunter, tell us a little bit about you and how you got started in this crazy world called the automotive industry.
Hunter: Unfortunately for our industry, I don't feel like too many people aspire to be in the industry.
Jason: They don't just wake up one day going, “Hmm, I should go sell cars.”
Hunter: So, it was actually one of my first jobs out of high school. I was selling cars, and then years later I ended up joining a CRM company called DealerSocket. I was there for 13 years. And there, I kind of really learned about the customer experience, the customer follow-up sales process, and in my opinion CRM is the most neglected data there is, by the way.
Jason: Oh, 100%.
Alan (nodding): Yeah.
Hunter: So, you know, we were just coming out of the conference, and people were talking about DMS data, and DMS data is very outdated. You have all this updated information in the CRM, and no one uses it. That's kind of my pet peeve.
Anyway, I've been working with dealers for about 18 years, from CRM to advertising. Now I’m with Stella Automotive AI, which is a conversational AI product — an artificial, intelligent, digital voice assistant similar to Alexa or Siri, but for the dealership phones.
Jason: That's awesome! As I was listening to both of you guys, in both areas, you guys kind of
touched the dealership so much. Has it changed in the last 24 months? I mean, our industry has just fundamentally kind of went from here to over here. I think there have been more changes in the last 24 months, and probably the entire decade prior to that, so I would love to kind of get from you guys what has been one of the biggest changes you guys have observed in the last 24 months. Hunter, I’ll start with you.
Hunter: Typically, when a customer calls into the dealership — let me talk about from my perspective and what I'm seeing right now, what's fresh — on average, we're seeing about 45 seconds before the phone actually even rings the dealership. You're going through a prompt like, “This call is being recorded. Thank you for calling the dealership. Press one for sales, etc.” If you time that, the average is 45 seconds right then.
When you actually try to get a hold of somebody, you might be on a phone call for 45-to-50 seconds. If you're trying to set a service appointment on a Monday, you might be on for three-to-four minutes just to set a service appointment. So, it’s crazy.
Jason: Man, especially in a society that's full of headline readers who want instant gratification, 45 seconds must feel like a lifetime.
Hunter: Oh, it's crazy.
Alan: Press 2 to be ignored.
Hunter: Exactly. Well, half the time they're getting sent to the wrong department. They're getting put on voicemail. The reason for this is that dealerships are just understaffed. It's hard to find, manage, and hire good people. Right now, most dealerships probably have two-to-three listings for just somebody to answer the phone. Now, depending on minimum wage, that could be fourteen-to-sixteen dollars an hour, so you're talking $2,500 to $4,000 if you're in California, and that doesn't even solve your problem. If you can find one person that's really good, they can still call in late, they can still call in sick, and they can only be on one call at a time.
So, that's kind of where we're trying to come in and say, “Hey! Is there a way to relieve that staff?” Even the staff that they do have, they're busy handling easy, repeatable, mundane tasks that are taking their time away. When somebody's like urgently broken down on the side of the road and needs to get a hold of somebody, the staff are busy because they're doing the repetitive stuff.
Jason: Well, and I'm with you. I think that is a fundamental change that we've seen in our industry. We’ve become very kind of conscious of what that customer experience is. That's such a pivotal point.
I can see where we as an industry have learned to do a lot with a little. Yeah, all right. We've achieved profitability levels that we've never, I think, ever achieved, and we've done it with — I hate to say it but — a good portion less, in some cases almost 50% less, staff.
In the past, it's always kind of been that, if there was a problem, what we did was to say, “Let's throw a body at it.” I love the fact that you bring this up, because in the last 24 months there’s been a big pivotal change. That saying of “let's just hire another body to take care of it” is just not the case we're looking for.
Hunter: Even for a business development center (in the name is “business development”, so they should be developing business), 80% to 90% of their day is inundated with inbound calls, so they don't even have the time to do the stuff that you want them to do.
If you’re talking about customer experience, if you want to offer the best customer experience over the phone, what do you do? You come up with a really good script, and then you say, “We want you to do this, this, and this, and we want you to say this and ask for this.” But, when it gets busy, what happens is that they start taking those things out. They start seeing that there's a call on hold, so they speed through these things. Then, when the customer comes in, it’s clear they didn't gather all the information.
Jason: Well, it goes back to, “We need to slow down before we speed up.” 100%.
Jason: Hey, Alan, for you and your 20 years in the business, you've seen a lot of changes in the industry. What was one of the biggest changes you've observed in the last 24 months?
Alan: I'll kind of add on to your efficiency thing, where people are doing more with less, and like your AI product that helps dealers with the phone, there's a lot of automation starting to take place. The technology is starting to mature. So, one of the things I see is that dealers are now much more open to new business models, new ways of selling cars and engaging customers, and a lot of these are technology enabled. Now it just so happens that I'm in that business, but the point (and there are others, of course), the idea that — and I'll give you an analogy here:
So, when you walk into an Apple Store and buy something (and I'll admit it that buying a phone is easier than buying a car), you can't find the cash register. This place has some of the highest sales per square foot of any retailer in the world, and they don't have a cash register. It turns out every employee has a cash register in their pocket.
When we unleash that type of technology at FUSE, that opens up new business models, it allows people to maybe go to a one-person sales model. It allows them to get the customer involved. And this is one of those few virtuous cycles where customers like it better, it happens faster, and the dealer's margins are greater. That doesn't happen very often.
Jason: No. Look, I agree with both of you guys. It's the advancements and process and technology over the last 24 months that have been substantial, and I think what's (sigh) — I got this weird feeling, because I go back to the customer experience, which there's a lot of that being talked about inside the conference right now, and I feel like we're creating great technologies, all right (like both of what you guys are working on right now), to generate a better customer experience, but then I feel like we're dragging the dealership to embrace the process that those technologies bring.
Alan: This is a really important point that you make, Jason, and that's that people make the customer experience. This technology sitting in an iPad laying on a table doesn't do much until you have a human being that follows a process that does what human beings do best, which is engage, build relationships, and build trust. The technology speeds it — yes, technology can introduce some transparency to the process to help the customer along — but the best experiences I've had as a customer (going back to that Apple Store) are when I met somebody that was really nice and really helpful and had a good attitude and got me what I wanted. The technology then enabled a really great experience and transaction.
Hunter: Absolutely. Well, and I mentioned that, you know, I came from CRM, and everyone asks, “What's the best CRM out there?” It's always the one that you use.
Jason (laughing): Exactly, right? Even if it’s a pen and paper.
Alan (laughing): Does that mean they’re all no good?
Hunter: But you’ve got a great point about when, with all these things, you're incorporating technology, the hard part for dealers is twofold: one is they've been very slow in learning new tools, and they really try to not change. So, if you come in and try to change a process, they're like, “Well, wait a minute. This isn't this isn't going to work for us, because — what, I have to change?!” The dealers that are most innovative are the ones that are willing to change versus those who think, “I don't know if my people are going to do it.”
Jason: Well, they're looking to change. I think that's the key here, right? To provide an amazing customer experience, we have to have a mindset around constantly looking at how we're going to evolve that, and it is truly an evolution of our people, process, and technology. It's never just one of those. All three have to happen simultaneously. When I think about the tech that you're bringing on, if the people don't know what's going on, the process has got to be unusually difficult.
Hunter: There's been a lot of technologies that do come in, and they're like, “Hey! We're a disrupter,” which is good, right? But if it disrupts things at the dealership, then they're not for it. So, it's just like balance. But I think the reality is that, in order to get something different, you have to do different things.
You have to look at a dealership and say, “Okay. Look, what are our problems?” or “Are you aware of your problems?” For example, the call example I gave where it's taking 45 seconds or three minutes…
Alan (laughing): Who knew, right? I thought you'd dial the phone, and it rings right away.
Hunter: But, at most of these conferences you talk about like, “Okay. What do you do once you have a customer on the phone?” They don't look at that process. Or when you're looking at your lead process, we look at how long it takes to follow up on a lead, but we don't look at all the things like, “What did the customer experience from the time they were on your site to the time that they submitted a lead form?”, and then “What's the expectation?” If you're not willing to look at that — if you're going to start a business, the first thing that you'd have to do is come up with a business plan, but I feel like no one's written out their plan for their customer experience. Like, what do you want your customers to experience?
Jason: No, and I think they don't know. I think, unfortunately, there are some amazingly progressive dealerships out there, but a lot of dealerships are looking at the technology to define the experience, and that's not what the technology is for. You must see that a lot, Alan.
Alan (laughing): So, I don't know if you guys have been behind any car dealerships. Because every car dealership in America, if you walk in behind them, there's a graveyard full of technology that was supposed to solve some problem — and they bury it back there…
Jason (laughing): That fax machine that's still sitting in the back…
Alan: …next to all the widgets they bought for their website and everything else. So, you know, in our company, we have a consulting division that's just as important as our technology — which is how to process map and how to get people onto a new process — and the real key skill is change management.
You brought it up, Jason — how difficult it is to turn the ship, because we're all human beings. We kind of like what's happening right now, even if it's a little painful, it's familiar. So, in getting people to change, what we find is that the biggest, most successful thing we can do is change middle management, because they can be the saboteurs.
You get a sales manager, a GSM, that wants to do positive change, then you've got something going. Conversely, if they decide it's not going to work, they’ve got a thousand ways to make that not work. So, that's kind of our focus. It’s leading change management at the middle management level.
Jason: I like that strategy, because that's not typically what's talked about. When we think of change management or lead management, it comes from the top down. But to your point, 100%, an idea is only as good as how well we execute it.
Alan: And those are the people that execute processes every day on the sales floor. They're the ones that are setting up car deals, that are training sales people, that are closing car deals, that are doing the workarounds in the technology when it's necessary. They're the ones that make the factory run.
Hunter: You bring up a good point. When a company like ours goes into a dealership to try to sell them, usually we're having conversations with the leadership — the owner and the general manager. In that meeting, they're talking about their needs, and we try to come up with a solution. We present all of our benefits and values, and then the dealer says, “Okay. Let's sign up!”
Then they tell the salespeople, “Hey! Tomorrow you’ve got to be in a meeting.” They don't tell them about why, and they don't say, “Remember how you guys have been complaining the last year about this, this, and this? Well, we listened, and we're investing into helping you.” They missed that, and then even sometimes when it's something that you do need to train people on, like the owner and the general manager aren't around, so then the people think that they can come in and out of training — like it's a tool, and it's optional.
I think that's one of the reasons why we have seen some cool technology come in, but it just doesn’t get embraced. If you don't have that middle management as a champion to say, “Hey! Look, the reason that we have this is to help, and this is going to do that,” and incentivize people to use the product and to change the process, then you won’t start to see actual change. Otherwise, it’s just like, “Oh, what's new this week? It failed last week. Wait a couple more weeks, and there's a new product that we might deal with.”
Alan: It's a flavor of the month.
Jason: But you know what? I'm actually going to give us as vendors a little bit of a hard time on this one, and I'll tell you why.
Alan (laughing): Wait a minute. That’s not what Hunter and I signed up for here.
Hunter (laughing): That’s not what we signed up for. Wait, why are we doing this podcast?
Jason: Look, I think as vendors we do a good job in training on the activities that are required to actually execute the technology that we're providing, but it's the handoff between technologies that we just kind of leave the dealership to figure out on their own. I'm seeing some of the most progressive vendors out there figuring that one out. Okay, so it's like, “All right. Digital retailing. I'm working this out now. At some point and time, they're going to call.”
So that's why I want to jam a little bit about that, guys. How do you guys think we can improve the handoffs from marketing to DR to the actual call, and then to the showroom? There's all these little handoffs, and I think that's the point where we, with technology and process, can provide this cool linear experience.
Then we get to the handoff from one system to another. It’s like, “(Caput noise). Okay, let me bring it back up. (Caput noise). Let me bring it back up.” But I’d love to get your thoughts on how we can better the handoff?
Alan: Yeah. So, you know, one of the things that strikes me is that there are multiple vendors trying to serve a dealership and help them improve performance, but these vendors don't talk to each other very often.
Alan: I sold my deal. I got a contract. Yeah, I got my implementation team, put it together, and we're going to have a meeting every 30 days and tell the dealer how wonderful they are for buying our product.” But you know, nobody's talking vendor to vendor, and nobody's having those meetings with the dealer to say, “Look, I can show you the performance of my product is excellent, but let's talk about something really important like — are your vendors and your people working as a team to increase market share?”
Hunter: Yeah. That’s a great point, because usually even if you're having a marketing meeting and decide, “Let's bring in all of our marketing vendors into this meeting,” the goal of that meeting should be how all of us can help the dealer. What happens in these meetings that I've seen is that it ends up being, “Well, my product vs. your product,” or there’s arguing about budget. If you think of it, like, we're all working together, and I think we've gotten away from a single source of customer.
The customer is interacting with the TV ad, they see us on Facebook, they go to our website, they see our gorilla on top of the dealership, etc. but there is not a single source that said, “Oh! That was the reason that that customer came in.”
So there should be this unity in regards to what we're doing, how we are doing, and it's a meeting where you might have to say, “Hey, this might not be the best for me,” or “Let's look at this process.”
If you notice this jumping back and forth, we as vendors should look at each other and say, “Well, how can we smooth that process?” because ultimately it's affecting the dealer, which ultimately affects the customer, which is the priority over my tool or your tool because if things don't work, then they're going to cancel one of ours.
Alan: That's right. I've been in a few of those meetings. In the best ones, there's something that always happens, and that's a manager at the dealership going, “Why don't you talk to him, and you guys can work together to solve it? It sounds like between the two of you, you could make that better.”
Hunter (laughing): Otherwise it's like, “It's not my fault!”
Alan (laughing): Hunter touched it last!
Hunter (laughing): Yeah, it wasn't my idea!
Jason: But that's something I actually did when I was a dealer principal. I actually did do this. I just thought, honestly, I'll tell you why I did it. It’s because I didn't want to meet with five different vendors. It was a time freaking suck. So what I would do is, actually, I would set out what our quarterly objectives were, and I would hand it off to all the vendors. I made the vendors meet without me present.
So they would get on a phone call, they would meet, they would discuss like, “Okay, you are the CRM company. Okay, you're the marketing agency. Okay, that's cool. All right. You're the third-party lead provider.” Then they would collectively kind of figure it out, and then I would have them present back to me. But that's the deal. The vendors have to be on board.
I call it the vendor stew, by the way. You got a chunk of this, you got a dash of this, and it's like it's all going to taste good at the end of the day, right?
Alan: You’ve got to have the right recipe.
Jason: That's a good point, though. I mean, as vendors, I think it's our responsibility to start working closer with each other.
Hunter: Absolutely, and I think one of the other things about this handoff and just overall is that all technologies in our industry, we do a really bad job of separating shopping and buying.
Alan: Here, here.
Jason: Hmm. Okay, I like that.
Hunter: If you think about that in other industries, right, your shopping is different than when you buy. And, in our industry, the moment that you submit a lead, what do they do? “Oh, this guy's coming in. I better set up an appointment. He needs to come in and buy.” If somebody goes and calls and says, “Hey, can I get the price on it?”, it's like, “Can I run your credit?”
Going back to the Apple Store, that's the one thing, you go into the store, and they don't even try to sell to you. They let you try every single thing in the market.
Alan (laughing): They're so sneaky, like so diabolical.
Hunter: We want them to make a good decision. Or even, we want people to do research. But a tire kicker is actually negative, like the guy is wasting my time, when in fact we want them to do so. I use that as an example of all these tools that we have, they're all trying to get into the shopping, and that's where we have a conflict, because we're all trying to sell to the customer.
Alan: You know, even our vocabulary is wrong, because if somebody walks on the show floor, we say, “There's a customer on the show floor.” As far as I know, a customer is somebody who gives you money. “There’s a shopper on the show floor.” There's an opportunity to meet somebody that helped them on their shopping.
Hunter: Exactly. So now, when you look at all these vendors, if we can all say, “Okay, what is our job or our role in this life cycle? Okay, your job is to get people into the store. Your job is to get them into the CRM. Your job is to improve customer satisfaction…”
Jason: …and we take ownership of that customer journey…
Hunter: Exactly. So if you have this plan, you work with your different vendors, and you come up and you say, “Okay, this is what we want. This is the goal,” and then you can hold each one accountable to their goal, I think there's easier handoff, better adoption of these processes, and ultimately you’ll have better success.
Jason: I think that's up to us to ultimately do right. Like, we have to better that stew.
But I was thinking, as you guys were talking and I was listening, I’m like, “I like this. This is where it’s going, right?” But an idea is only as good as how we can execute it. So, I think that it’s ultimately up to us to come to the dealer and say, “Hey! Look, we're going to take ownership of this particular space.”
This is the one thing I've actually seen that's been a very pleasant thing to find out, but I feel like over the last 24 months we've seen more vendor partners than I would say vendor providers. It’s no longer enough that we just provide a piece of technology or a solution or marketing. No, we actually have to partner up. We have to partner up with them, and take ownership of what their objectives are so that we can just help them better.
Alan: Yeah, and I think that, you know, what you say is exactly right, Jason, but the dealer also has to be a partner.
Jason: No, 100%.
Alan: So building that trust, and then having the dealer lean forward is also critical, because that's where I’ve found my best partnerships. When a dealer says, “I'm going to count on you, and now you tell me what I have to do to get the best performance out of your company,” that's the challenge you want. That's somebody who's engaged, that wants to be a real partner, and so it's on both sides.
Jason: No, 100%. So talking about, kind of, the current, and then talking about what's happened, you know, I think what's going on a lot in there right now is talking about what does it look like coming next. What is next? That's why, I’ve got to be honest, this is what I love about Glenn and Brian: they do just an amazing job of not just putting out a conference and just
putting out a bunch of stats about what is currently going on. No, they will challenge the norm and really get you thinking about what is around the bend, what's around that corner, and I'd love to get your guys' thoughts because I think you guys have both very different unique perspectives as far as where you guys assist in the journey. What do you think is next?
Alan: I'll give you a general answer first, because I think that this is where — even though we solve very different problems in the dealership — Hunter and I are together on this. Stella and FUSE are together on this. It is a really simple statement: faster, simpler, easier is going to win.
When it takes three calls to get your question answered, that's slower, complicated, and harder. Okay, so that's what process management — as well as the new technology (the AI, the different transaction technologies like FUSE) — that's where we're coming together is to make this fast, simple, easy.
You know, I’ve asked the question in a couple of presentations, “How many clicks does it take to buy something on Amazon?” You probably know.
Hunter: Yeah, one click.
Alan: No. It takes zero.
Jason (laughing): He set us up for that one.
Alan: It takes zero. You can either get a subscription, or you can say, “Hey, Alexa. We're out of D-cell batteries.”
Jason: No clicks at all.
Alan: No clicks at all.
Jason: That's awesome.
Alan: Talk about faster, simpler, easier. And again, buying batteries is less complicated than a car, but think how complicated we make it. You know, nobody comes to a car dealership saying, “I wish I had an older, crummier car.” They’re all going, “I wish there was a way to make this fast, simple, and easy so I could drive something cool.”
Jason: Yeah, that's awesome. Hunter, for yourself?
Hunter: To piggyback off that, as I was giving you example of the call experience with what we do, you know, Stella is this digital assistant, this AI assistant that answers every call, so she answers calls in less than one ring, and she can route calls, she can answer frequently asked questions, but her biggest skill is her ability to set service appointments. She can set a service appointment from the time that the customer dials the number in about a minute and a half.
Hunter: So it speeds up the process, and what's funny is that at the end of the call, we do a survey asking to please rate this call one through ten. We get like 80-90% of people to do the survey, and we're like, “Why are so many people doing the survey?”, and then we realize that we haven't used up their patience. They're used to being on hold for two minutes, and then another three minutes, and now it's a minute and 30 seconds and they're like, “Uh, so what do I do now?”
It’s allowing us the opportunity to say, “Well, what else can we inject into this call?” Like maybe I could do an instant cash offer, or maybe I could do this. There's all these ideas, right? And so we actually think that we've made it too fast, and now we've got to use that time.
Jason: I actually like that, though, because I've been on an NPS score trip recently. I'm just so fascinated with collecting the net promoter score, because it's a piece of data that we never really kind of built triggers around, right? It’s more of like, “Hey, this is what your score is,” but that's about it. It’s never been actionable, and the one thing that I think we're going into right now in our industry is that we're going into the era of actionable data. It's not enough that we just have it. It's how we make it actionable.
I think in the last two years, dealerships have become way more data conscious, and now they're looking around like, “Okay, now what do I do?”
Alan: Yeah, now I’ve collected it, but what's the action that's going to lead to a better business outcome?
Hunter: Exactly. So one of the things that we're doing is based off the data when somebody calls, I will already know if they're an existing customer or not. I already know what people and already know what vehicle, because the phone number matched a customer profile. So now I'm speeding up that process, but think about if I go to book a flight, the first time you look at the flight, it says $300. You leave. You come back, and now it says it's $350.
That's all AI. They’re trying to say, “Hey, there's some urgency,” so they know when you come back the second time. If I go to my cable company’s site, and I clear my cookies, it has all these specials for the internet, etc. But after I’m a customer, it’s not available. There are no prices. I can just add services, right?
So if you think about what we're already seeing, these examples where the experience is different based off of your data, sure I think that's where the big key is, because right now every customer has the same follow-up process. Every single customer gets the same, and not every customer is the same. So if we have access to more data, then you can cater that more to each individual, and that's where you have a better, unique experience.
Jason: Look, I’m listening to you guys, and I know we're getting towards the end of our conversation, but when we put data into actionable strategies and we put the customer at the center of our goals and objectives, that's when things get really, really cool. And, for me, I really see that’s what our future is. It's putting the customer at the center of all of our processes, but using data to better enhance the overall experience.
This has been a lot of fun. I really appreciate you guys taking the time to jam with me today. Before I let you guys go, for everybody out there that's watching and listening right now who would want to connect with you, what is the best way to do so? Alan, I’ll start with you.
Alan: So our company is FUSE Autotech at fuseautotech.com. You can get me at firstname.lastname@example.org. How was that?
Jason: It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. Hunter, what's the best way to connect?
Hunter: Yeah, our website is stellaautomotive.com, and my email is email@example.com.
Jason: Hey guys, thanks again for jamming with me today. This has been a lot of fun!
Alan: Yeah, this is awesome!
Hunter: Yeah, glad you're doing this!
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