Since 1999, Jenny Trostel has proudly stomped on a longstanding tradition when it comes to her F&I operation. The owner and general manager of Saab of Baltimore (Maryland) says she broke from convention not only to improve her CSI, but to also make her dealership female friendly.

Trostel’s dealership is what one might call a “box-free” environment, as she’s moved the F&I process up to the dealership’s sales consultant area. She calls it a “we-come-to-you” environment, and says it is one of the things she’s done to repair the image of the two departments her female customers complain about the most: F&I and service.

“Women say, ‘I hate buying a car because the auto business is one of the last male-dominated businesses,’” says Trostel. “Women come in and men ‘honey’ them to death and say things like, ‘If you don’t understand, maybe you should bring your husband or boyfriend in.’ There’s still too much of that going on.”

There are other morsels of wisdom Trostel has gained through her years of experience, such as female customers disliking the F&I experience because managers don’t fully explain terms and conditions —leaving women to feel forced into a corner and talked into buying products they don’t want. That exact situation is what sent one F&I manager packing, and further committed her to her we-come-to-you approach.

In November 2006, Trostel made another move to make her dealership more female friendly. She became one of the more than 150 dealerships to have either completed, or be in the process of becoming certified through Ask Patty — an organization started by Jody DeVere, president, and Peter Martin, CEO, to help dealerships attract, sell, retain and increase loyalty with women consumers.

“Many F&I managers try to get you to sign and rush through the paperwork, and women want them to explain everything in terms they understand,” says DeVere. “When someone speaks in a language you don’t understand, you automatically become fearful that they’re trying to get something over on you and rip you off. Women predominantly go into dealerships with that feeling anyway.”

By the Numbers

For those that question the importance of addressing the female consumer segment, DeVere simply points to the numbers.

Women purchase more than 50 percent of all vehicles sold in the United States each year and influence about 80 percent of all vehicle purchases, she says. Martin notes that many dealerships set aside certain amounts of their advertising budget for Internet advertising, nonprime advertising or advertising to specific ethnic groups, but fail to focus on 50 percent of their customer base.

“Even though dealers know the math, it sort of goes in one ear and out the other,” says DeVere. “Dealers need to take action based on the market definition. If the environment you’re selling in is directed toward a man, you’re financially missing the mark.”

And Ask Patty definitely hasn’t missed the mark.

Work on the Ask Patty project began in March 2006. In May of that year, DeVere and Martin launched the Ask Patty blog, allowing readers to ask questions about purchasing a vehicle. By July, the askpatty.com Web site was launched, and Martin and DeVere have been on a public-relations whirlwind ever since.

By October 2006, Ask Patty graced the pages of The New York Times business section, and its consumer tips began appearing in national publications, such as the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Even talk radio shows, such as National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, jumped on the Ask Patty phenomenon. In all, Ask Patty has appeared in at least 23 publications, Web sites, blogs and radio shows since its debut last July.

“Ask Patty has definitely captured the attention of the media,” says DeVere. “It’s been really exciting. Patty’s time has come and the market is responding.”

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Visitors of askpatty.com have access to 46 female automotive experts —all volunteers — through the site’s Q&A section. It also features a side-by-side vehicle comparison tool and more. Because of the amount of F&I-related questions the site has received, DeVere says askpatty.com will soon be adding several female F&I experts, as well as offer an online credit application that will allow women to get pre-approved and then directed to a female-friendly dealer.

Certified Marketing Program

DeVere and Martin didn’t stop there. Seeing an opportunity for dealers to promote themselves as female friendly, Ask Patty launched its certification program last September. The training, which takes about 90 days, costs $1,000 to get started. Ask Patty requires sales and service to be involved in the training, but many dealers have taken it a step further by requiring all dealership personnel to go through the program.

Training is facilitated online through Maddox Smye, a consulting company. Dealerships going through the program are also handed a textbook, entitled, How to Get Rich Selling Cars and Trucks to Women. A final exam completes the certification program, and throughout the course of the dealership’s 12-month contract, it receives educational reinforcements sent through e-mail or by phone. Additionally, Ask Patty helps set up an advertising and marketing plan.

“Our training is by far the best in the industry because we work on trying to teach (dealership employees) how to be better communicators and understand how to sell to women,” says Martin.

And the roll call of dealerships onboard with the certification program can definitely attest to that. Recently, Asbury Automotive signed up every one of its Florida dealerships, and Toyota and Northwood University are exploring their involvement in the program. And a quick review of askpatty.com’s press area will show numerous examples of dealers taking advantage of the Ask Patty phenomenon, including several Ask Patty-certified dealers who were featured on CBS Channel 2 in Chicago.

The Road Ahead

Looking ahead, Ask Patty is also launching My Car Page, a virtual garage in which women can receive regular service reminders based on the make, model and year of the vehicle. It will also include messages about recall notices, gas prices and traffic reports. Women interested in automotive-related careers will also soon be able to search Ask Patty’s job site.

Although in its early stages, Ask Patty has already had 700 or more dealers contact the site interested in becoming a “female-friendly” dealership. According to DeVere, it is very encouraging that dealers see there’s a need to do something about the way they market to women.

Martin notes that Ask Patty will soon start tracking CSI scores at its certified dealerships.

“I truly believe that Ask Patty will improve CSI,” he says. “Eighty percent of CSI surveys are completed by women. If you can provide a better experience for women consumers, it should naturally improve your dealership’s CSI.”

What’s different about Ask Patty is that it not only offers advice and provides women with a safe environment to ask questions, but it also provides a turnkey marketing solution to dealerships.

“We bring all the pieces together to develop a program that works in a dealership environment,” says Martin. “Ask Patty is the best solution out there. We spent a year working with it before we brought it to market. When we give it to a dealership, they see it and say, ‘This is what we need.’”

For Trostel, who has become the resident F&I expert, Ask Patty fulfills a longstanding need in the industry to educate F&I managers, sales managers and service employees on selling to female consumers.

And since joining last November, the move is already paying dividends.

“The process of buying, financing and servicing a car shouldn’t be stressful,” she says. “You should be able to go look at a car and feel comfortable asking a variety of questions; not feel pushed into purchasing a vehicle. Today you don’t really sell a car; you assist a person in purchasing a vehicle. And that’s what Ask Patty allows you to do.”

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