Your sales and F&I departments are supposed to be on the same team. Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know it in many dealerships. That’s because there is virtually no communication between managers before, during or after a deal goes to F&I. To take sales and profits from “woe” to “WOW!” in 2010, the F&I department has to upgrade its level of service from 3G to 4G — the next generation of selling F&I products.

This upgrade requires F&I to become more than just a secretarial service for the sales team. It requires F&I managers to get involved early in the sales process and step up, not back, when there is a tough deal or difficult customer. They must view themselves as financial services specialists who genuinely believe in their products. Most of all, next-generation F&I managers must be teammates with the sales department, not adversaries.

Can You Hear Me Now?

The first generation of F&I began in the ’70s, when the F&I function first became a separate department. Back then, the F&I sales process was based on assumptive selling. Managers in this decade were simply required to include the products in the payment and hope the customer didn’t notice. If they did, they were to assume the sale. You might hear a F&I manager say something like, “It’s a standard contract feature that’s provided for your benefit.” If the customer objected, the F&I manager would defend the products, overcome the customer’s objection, and again assume the sale.

In the ’80s, complaints forced dealers to move to the second generation of F&I: step-selling. With this technique, customers were forced to endure multiple features/advantages/benefits presentations for F&I products they had expressed no interest in purchasing. Every customer heard the same memorized pitch. Objections were overcome with “logic traps” designed to get the customer to say “Yes,” as saying “No” would clearly indicate he or she was stupid.

The ’90s brought us F&I 3G, also known as menu selling. As penetrations declined and the need for F&I income increased, dealers began to expand their product offereings. Not only did the F&I menu allow for these additional products to be offered, but it also shortened the presentation time. Menu software providers created even more sophisticated programs that allowed managers to create and tailor packages to each customer’s needs. Unfortunately, many companies simply inserted a menu into their existing process and kept right on step-selling.

As we begin the new decade, it’s time to upgrade your department to F&I 4G, or what is called customer-centered selling. If you’re not truly trying to help every customer, you’re costing your store sales and F&I income. Preventing those losses is a shared responsibility for the sales manager, the Internet manager and, of course, the F&I manager.

Satisfied Customers Don’t Come Back

Focusing on customer satisfaction does not mean asking customers to check the “Completely Satisfied” box on their survey report, because doing so is like watching the scoreboard instead of the ball. Today, we can’t afford to have any customer walk out of the dealership — or the F&I office — saying to themselves, “Well, that was satisfying.” Remember, customer satisfaction is really the lowest rung on the ladder, as every customer should at least be satisfied with their purchase experience. But merely having satisfied customers doesn’t guarantee they’ll come back, or that they’ll refer your dealership to their friends.

I recently saw “The Blind Side,” a movie based on the true story of Michael Oher, a young man who, with the help of a caring woman and her family, overcame early traumas and homelessness to become an All-American college football player and first-round NFL draft pick. It was the kind of movie I just had to tell others about in the hopes they’d see it, too. The same goes for a dealership’s sales process: When an individual wants to call his or her friends to tell them to go see a movie, you know he or she were WOW!’d by the experience.

If you want to succeed in the competitive months ahead, you better be focused on WOW!ing customers, not on getting them to check the right box on some survey. Today, we need customers walking out of the dealership going, “WOW! That wasn’t what I was expecting! What a great place to buy a car! I have to tell everybody what a great experience I had at this dealership. They need to go buy a vehicle there, too!”

Changing the customer’s perception of the dealership’s sales and financial services process requires changing the experience. We have to WOW every customer in every dealership interaction, and a customer’s purchase experience begins with their initial contact. Whether that happens by phone, online or in person, the customer’s WOW factor is determined by the ease of navigating the dealership’s sales process, their experience in the finance office, vehicle delivery and follow-up efforts.

The ‘Mother’ Test

If you wouldn’t put your own mother through your dealership’s sales process, you need to change it. To WOW customers, you need to be easy to do business with. That means selling to customers the way they want to buy. Stop making customers wait while you load their information into the computer. Stop forcing customers to listen to memorized word-tracks and sales pitches for every product you offer. Stop making customers watch infomercials for products they have expressed no interest in, and stop using old-school manipulative sales techniques and self-serving processes.

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Instead, create an atmosphere that ensures every customer has an enjoyable, stress-free experience. In other words, make buying a car at your dealership fun, not an ordeal. Stop wasting customers’ time by making them listen to a product presentation they have no interest in hearing.

The key is to converse with your customer about their options, while the goal is to make them thirsty for your knowledge. When customers have an objection, avoid the confrontation by recognizing their concern and demonstrating empathy before relating a feature or benefit that applies to their situation. Selling F&I products is not about outsmarting customers, it’s about giving them the information they need to make better decisions.

Leader vs. Hypocrite

Like it or not, co-workers and customers will believe what you do long before (and long after!) they believe what you say. Too often, managers will say one thing but do another. True leaders lead by example. They believe in what they say, live by what they believe, and become successful because their actions clearly demonstrate their values. Remember, the attitude of the team reflects the leadership of the coach.

Your sales force will know by your words and actions whether you truly believe in your products or if you’re just trying to squeeze a little more money out of their customers. To be a F&I professional, you must possess the qualities of someone worth following. You can always tell you’re in the presence of a F&I professional by the way he or she treats his or her customers and co-workers. A F&I professional’s primary goal in every interaction is to help the other person.

Every F&I product we offer has real value for the customer, and F&I professionals must continuously reinforce that fact. The sales department knows right away whether or not a F&I manager believes in his or her products by the number of products he or she personally owns. If you don’t invest in the products you sell, you’re telling every salesperson in the dealership that you don’t see the value. That means you’re not a leader, you’re a hypocrite.

WOWing the Team

F&I 4G requires that the finance office serve as a valuable resource to customers, salespeople and lenders. That means F&I managers must be an integral part of the credit evaluation process, not secretaries who merely submit the deal or rehash it after it’s already been submitted by the sales manager. The sales and F&I departments have to be part of a delivery team. And everybody on that team has a responsibility to make sure every vehicle sold gets delivered.

A F&I professional has a responsibility to the dealership, the sales department and the customer to obtain an approval for every deal possible. That requires that he or she review the credit application and credit bureau report with the customer prior to submission to a lender. The purpose of the customer interview is to learn about the character and capacity of the customer. That information can shore up any weakness in the customer’s credit history or the deal itself.

The customer interview is also the F&I manager’s opportunity to build a case as to why the paper buyer should approve the loan despite any derogatory items. A paper buyer is much more likely to approve a deal or give you a way to get an approval if they see that you’ve researched and documented the customer’s situation.

The customer interview is also an opportunity to learn if he or she has any additional income and whether or not the credit bureau report is accurate. Remember, complete and accurate information is critical to building a case for lender approval, but only the customer can explain the circumstances surrounding his or her current financial situation and credit history.

The emphasis throughout the interview should be on helping to secure acceptable financing. The customer must verify the information on his or her credit bureau, clarify any discrepancies and provide additional information and insight into any previous credit problems. A customer interview should never be an interrogation; it should be a discussion on  his or her past credit history. Telling the customer in advance what areas need to be discussed and why it’s important to a lender helps him or her understand the credit process. It also reinforces the feeling that you are acting in his or her best interest.

Taking a walk on the WOW! side requires that F&I managers be an integral part of the sales process. They also must be focused on helping customers, not on selling stuff. F&I professionals also have to genuinely believe in their products, and WOW their team by helping to ensure every vehicle sold gets delivered. F&I 4G requires taking a walk on the WOW! side through a renewed commitment to helping customers and everyone on the dealership team.

Ron Reahard is president of Reahard & Associates Inc., an NADA University Preferred Partner providing F&I classes, workshops, and in-dealership and online training. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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