One system that can solve those myriad problems in the dealership: Is it a pipe dream?

Asbury Automotive Group doesn’t think so. It believes that one system that integrates customer relationship management (CRM), computerized sales desking, the F&I menu and the dealer management system (DMS) will be the cure for some serious dealership ailments, chief of which is the length of a customer’s stay in the dealership.

“Probably the biggest criticism of the auto industry right now is how long it takes somebody to buy a car and get through the F&I department,” says Charlie Robinson, Asbury’s vice president of finance and insurance, citing J.D. Power and Associates’ 2006 Sales Satisfaction Index Study, which put time spent by customers in a dealership at an average of three hours, and the time spent waiting between sales and F&I at 31 minutes. “So we thought that an electronic and unified system would speed that up.”

A unified system with all-electronic files also means fewer mistakes and incomplete forms, which reduces costs from rejected deals and high contracts in transit — translating into faster funding and great cash flow results. It also helps in the compliance effort, allowing for electronic data storage and automated disclosures.

This was the vision Asbury Automotive had when it set out in 2004 to achieve an integrated dealership system.

Sales Process Overhaul

The scenario Robinson envisions is a customer and salesman walking the lot until the customer lands on a specific truck. They walk into the showroom and the salesman swipes the customer’s license; now the customer’s info is in the CRM system. The salesman sits the customer down and asks a few questions, plugging the additional data into the system.

The salesman then goes to the sales manager for the pricing options on the truck. The desk manager pops up the desking tool on his computer, and the customer’s information is already there from the license swipe — no need to fill out a buyer’s order. The sales manager sends the salesman back with a printed preliminary buyer’s order, which the desking tool automatically generated to include nine payment options based on term, down payment and whether it’s a buy or lease. No handwritten four-square necessary. The salesman shows the customer the payment options, the customer picks one and the salesman prints out a final buyer’s order.

Because the customer’s information already populates the system, the handoff between the salesman and the F&I department is considerably less than the 31-minute wait J.D. Power reported in its study. From there, the finance manager makes the F&I presentation, finishes the deal, and hits a button to send the information to accounting. The deal then goes into the DMS and is booked out.

Key to achieving this streamlined sales process is using an electronic desking tool.

“We feel the desking portion is the next revolution for the industry right now,” Robinson says. “Along with speeding up the sales transaction, it gives the sales desk an image boost.”

Robinson compares it to the way electronic F&I menus transformed the finance office a few years ago, by holding finance managers accountable to consistent and complete presentations, and by helping make a more professional impression on the consumer.

“The customer believes what’s printed out of a computer far more than he does what somebody inside the dealership is going to say or write on a piece of paper,” Robinson says.

After the desking tool was developed, the integrated system was finalized and was initially implemented in a few test dealerships. After about a year of testing and correcting issues, Asbury began piloting the system in four states. Twenty-two of Asbury’s 87 dealerships are now using the integrated technology, and they are already reaping the benefits, particularly from the desking component.

“We’ve seen a happier customer, improved revenue and a faster process,” Robinson says.

And unlike in the past, all customers are now getting exposed to leases, and more of them are leasing as a result. Customers are also making larger down payments because the system asks for them, whereas the salesman might not have. The desking tool also shows aged inventory so the salesman can unload it first.

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Electronic F&I

After the integrated applications of the new system were developed and implemented, the project moved to the next phase: Secure electronic versions — mostly PDFs — of the dealership’s F&I forms.

“The first step in the F&I eForms project was to create a consolidated archive of all the forms that Asbury needs to utilize,” Robinson explains.

There are also an average of 15 to 20 forms per deal, depending on how many documents, proof of insurance, and state-equipped forms. Asbury has been working with states, lenders and vendors to acquire the required forms, and all of Asbury’s pilot dealerships have at least 50 percent of their documents in electronic format.

The other two main elements of the F&I eForms project are electronic signature pads and laser printing. The laser printers have full-color and duplex capability. The technology is such that the printer actually controls the content of the form and where the data is placed on that content. This solves the prevalent problem of misaligned information on the traditional impact forms — forms that are fed directly into the printer and overlaid with the customer’s information.

Common errors from impact printing include data being shifted to the wrong fields, fields that are altogether blank, and checkmarks in the wrong boxes. A seemingly minor issue such as a blank field creates more work for F&I managers, who have to go back and correct these errors. This can ultimately result in increased contracts-in-transit and slower funding.

Robinson says automated alerts for disclosure or missing forms are also being built into the technology. These features employ what is referred to as “smart functionality,” which tells the system to automatically identify which forms F&I managers should be using through the process based on the particulars of the deal. The alerts will ensure that managers don’t forget any forms that are needed to complete the financing package, or for compliance.

Bumps in the Road

The journey toward a paperless dealership is not without its challenges. For one, getting all of the necessary forms from states, lenders and vendors is an ongoing effort with no end in sight.

“The states are where we see the most difficulty,” Robinson says. “All of this titling work should be able to be done electronically, but it’s still being done by hand, and the states seem reluctant to give up any control.”

Because dealerships don’t have all of their forms in electronic format, training F&I managers on the new system has been tricky. The finance staff is faced with having to keep straight which deals are or aren’t electronic.

“It’s confusing to people to have to do some deals 30/70 electronic, some deals 50/50, and some 60/40, depending on who’s involved in that particular deal,” Robinson says. “Our people have probably become a little frustrated. Maybe we shouldn’t have termed it ‘electronic F&I’ until it was all electronic.”

Electronic F&I will also remain a misnomer until dealers can transmit forms to states, vendors and lenders electronically.

About 5 to 6 percent of Asbury’s finance contracts are currently funded electronically. The e-contracting-capable lenders Asbury works with are Chase, Wells Fargo and Nissan Motor Acceptance. From his conversations with DealerTrack and RouteOne, Robinson predicts that e-contracting is still 12 to 24 months away from making any significant progress.

“Everybody’s been talking about e-contracting and how the benefits are too great to ignore, but it’s one of those rare cases where we in the automobile industry are a little ahead of the curve and waiting for the people we depend on for products, relationships and financing to go electronic,” Robinson says.

So the journey continues.

“The system is a work in progress; it’s never ending,” Robinson says. “There will still be some more changes, many challenges, and more enhancements before we’re done.”

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