In the heat of the debate are (L–R): Joe Amendola, Bart Carpenter, Luis Garcia, Ron Reahard, Heather Haynes and Tony Dupaquier. Not pictured: moderator Kevin Jacobs.

In the heat of the debate are (L–R): Joe Amendola, Bart Carpenter, Luis Garcia, Ron Reahard, Heather Haynes and Tony Dupaquier. Not pictured: moderator Kevin Jacobs.

What was supposed to be an exchange of training philosophies turned into a debate over the one nagging issue that continues to hamper front-end departments: the divide between sales and F&I.

“I feel like this is the same conversation we were having 15 years ago,” said JM&A Group’s Heather Haynes. “We have to get rid of the walls in the dealership.”

Haynes was in to Las Vegas to serve on “The Idea Exchange: Trainers’ Best Practices for Sales and F&I,” a panel led by Alaco Enterprises’ Kevin Jacobs. She was seated alongside fellow training experts Joe Amendola of Resource Automotive Inc.; GSFS Group’s Bart Carpenter; American Financial & Automotive Services (AFAS)’ Tony Dupaquier; Safe-Guard Product’s Luis Garcia; and Reahard & Associates’ Ron Reahard.

The group touched on a range of challenges facing today’s F&I manager, but panelists and even attendees seemed intent on driving the conversation back to the dysfunctional relationship between sales and F&I.

Building Value

Haynes suggested that dealers consider combining the roles of the sales and F&I managers — a suggestion not everyone was on board with. The idea became popular during the downturn, when dealerships were looking to do more with less.

Some panelists attributed the disconnect to a lack of understanding of what each department is trying to accomplish. Others said that the F&I manager holds the key to solving the problem.

“The business manager today has to be engaged with the entire sales team,” said Dupaquier. “The sales team needs to see the value in F&I.”

No panelist seemed ready to call for an industrywide transition to the hybrid manager, but each agreed that today’s market dynamics call for an F&I manager to be active on the showroom floor. Doing so, some panelists said, would help to eliminate some of the bad habits they’ve seen while on the road.

GSFS Group’s Carpenter, for instance, noted that F&I managers have a tendency to stick to “hip-pocket” products like GAP and service contacts. “If a guy trades his car every two years, you’re probably not going to sell him a service contract,” he said. “F&I managers need to step out of their comfort zone, because there are tons of other products available.”

What would break that habit, said Resource’s Amendola, is a needs-discovery interview. From his experience, the interview can lead to a potential increase of about $200 per deal.

Reahard offered his own take. “Some F&I managers sit in their offices trying to create the perfect menu instead of talking to the customer,” he said. “A menu doesn’t sell the product. You do.”

Garcia countered by noting that there are limits to how far the F&I process should migrate onto the showroom floor. But he did agree that today’s F&I manager does have to be active in the showroom. “I don’t want sales selling service contracts, but I don’t want them road-blocking them either,” he said.

Bridging the Gap

For dealers who are not prepared to blend the lines between sales and F&I, panelists suggested a cross-departmental training initiative. They also suggested that dealers seek out a single training provider. This, they added, would create a common language between the departments.

Safe-Guard’s Garcia said he believes the real problem is rooted in the fact that today’s salesperson doesn’t view a job in automotive retail as a career. He added that most salespeople have become transient as a result of the economic downturn.

“When you ask someone why they sell cars, they often say they’ve just lost their job,” Garcia said. “It takes more effort than ever to work with salespeople.”

Reahard added that dealerships also need to get better at investing in their F&I and salespeople, adding that dealers need to get away from the “Got get ’em, Tiger!” training program. “Formal training and coaching is how the F&I foundation gets poured,” he said.

Recruitment also is an issue, noted panelists. Haynes suggested that dealers look from within, putting sales staff on a plan that allows them to rise through the ranks. Panelists also noted that dealers simply have to get more sophisticated with their recruiting efforts.

“Running an ad on Craigslist isn’t cutting it,” Dupaquier said. “We need to go out there and recruit.”