One could say the organizers of Industry Summit 2012 saved the best for last. On the final day of the Industry Summit, five mobile menu execs and an award-winning F&I director-turned-trainer gathered for “F&I Unplugged: Debating the Mobile Menu.”
The show program tabbed it as a debate, and the panel didn’t disappoint. If it were a focus group, software makers would have learned they have a ways to go to convince nonbelievers that the tablet menu is a natural evolution of F&I’s key selling tool.
Opponents in the audience, such as Alex Robinson, an F&I professional with Pueblo, Colo.-based Solon Auto Group, made clear they’re not interested without proof that it won’t put their jobs at risk.
“As a finance director, I have three responsibilities, which are time, profit and compliance,” Robinson said. “I want to know who you’re bouncing the compliance issues, the time issue and the profit issue off of.”
Kelly Wadlinger of Faulkner FIAT of Harrisburg, Pa., was even more direct. “Is there hard data showing customers are pushing for this?” she asked. “Or is this really the industry trying to push it onto us because it’s another moneymaker?”
The two-hour, two-session discussion began with five software makers taking 10 minutes apiece to demonstrate their tablet offerings. First up was OptionSoft’s Nick Sennett, followed by MaximTrak’s Jim Maxim, Jr., then Innovative Aftermarket Systems (IAS)’ Matt Nowicki, The Impact Group’s Mark Thorpe and iTapMenu’s Shawn McCool.
Solutions varied by design and approach, but the five software makers maintained that consumer acceptance of mobile devices, particularly the tablet, is what’s driving them to unplug the F&I menu. Maxim said vehicle manufacturers also are on board, noting that Nissan is extremely interested in mobile technologies. Adoption isn’t high right now, but he believes that will change in the years to come.
“We see 90 percent [of dealers] not being ready, while 10 percent want it,” he said. “Our company’s position is not to push a specific technology. But if a dealer wants it, we want to make sure it’s ready to roll.”
IAS’ Nowicki — who used the session to unveil SmartMenu Interactive, his company’s new tablet menu software — and OptionSoft’s Sennett described the similar paths their companies took to arrive at the mobile menu. The execs said their companies’ initial interest in the tablet was to create a tool that could adapt to current dealer processes, which is why their entrance into the category centered on a survey tool to automate the customer interview.
But Nowicki said the menu is due for an update, which is what the tablet menu represents. “When the menu was first introduced, it corrected a serious problem with step selling in the industry, and that’s still the case today,” he explained. “… And that’s why this is more of an evolution and not a real shift. Nobody up here is changing the way the menu process works. We’re just presenting it in a different manner.”
iTapMenu’s McCool, a former agent with 15 years in the car business, said his invention was meant to correct design flaws in current menu offerings, specifically the four-column structure that most current solutions offer.
Not all panelists seemed convinced the tablet is the next step. The Impact Group’s Thorpe, who demonstrated the company’s Fusion menu, said his company is preparing to release the next version of its interactive menu in early 2013. He added that he’s not sure tablets will be part of his software’s next generation.
“We’ve spent the last year in design meetings thinking in terms of what the capabilities are, how [the tablet] can be used more effectively to move the ball down the field,” he said. “But what I don’t want to do in the process of doing that is take any chance of unwinding 50 years’ worth of best practices.”
The Hybrid Effect
Joining the panel for its second hour was Tom Wilson, dealership development manager for American Financial and Automotive Services’ mountain states region. The former F&I Dealer of the Year made clear he’s not convinced the tablet is the next step in the menu’s evolution, but he let a 100-dealer survey he conducted do the talking.
“Virtually all the dealers I surveyed [said] they don’t even know what it is,” he said. “What dealers are saying is, ‘Show me, prove to me that it works.’ The other issue is they’re process-driven and they’re very comfortable with their processes. So the iPad has to come with instructions.”
McCool invited audience members to view user testimonials posted on his company’s website. He added that his company spends more time training users on process and workflow than demonstrating his tool’s features. “We’re very specific on our approach, and that is to get the deal, make the menu, go out to the customer before buyer’s remorse sets in, make the presentation there, come back in, update your DMS, print off your docs and then bring the customer into F&I for the first time,” he said.
Wilson then questioned the timing of the mobile menu. He said dealers in his region are still recovering from the Great Recession, adding that they are more interested in getting employees trained and their processes dialed in than investing in unproven technology. Those who are, he noted, tend to be highline dealers who view the mobile menu as a chance to move to the hybrid manager concept, where the roles of sales and F&I are combined. That statement set the debate in motion.
Tony Dupaquier, AFAS’ director of F&I training, stepped up to the microphone. Earlier that day, he had moderated a panel focused on the hybrid manager concept. He told panelists that none of the participants in his session have been able to make it work consistently.
“Not a soul is seeing one dealership working effectively by utilizing this term, ‘hybrid manager,’” Dupaquier said. “And what I wondered is, where did this come from? It’s coming from this panel right here.”
Panelists jumped to respond, with Nowicki taking the lead. He said his company works with a dealer group in the South that employs the hybrid manager, but said that operation isn’t doing it with electronic menus; it’s doing it with paper.
“None of us advocate hybrid managers,” he said. “The reason that comes up is people assume that when you say mobile menu, that means it’s going to be used in that type of situation. I think everyone here disagrees with that 100 percent.”
The talk of the hybrid manager baffled Zurich Financial Services’ Glenn Roberts. The business development manager said his company surveyed about 800 dealers between 2010 and 2011 to find out if the downturn had raised interest in combining sales and F&I duties.
The response was low, Roberts said, but he didn’t discount the belief that the tablet menu could drive up interest. That’s why he said menu makers need to define the mobile menu’s purpose.
“The question everyone’s interested in is, what exactly is the value of the technology?” he said. “We’re interested in the technology, too. And we’ve been talking to some of you guys, but we’ve not been able to isolate what the effect is.”[PAGEBREAK]
Getting customers engaged was Maxim’s response to Roberts’ challenge, but he said there are other benefits his company identified when it tracked how its MobileTrak system performed in the field in May: Out of the 11,000 transactions reviewed, profit per vehicle retailed (PVR) increased, on average, by $186. Producers also saved about 15 minutes per deal, he said.
OptionSoft’s Sennett said his company’s 44-store dealer committee experienced a 12 percent lift in PVR after they upgraded to the company’s tablet tool. Though Sennett couldn’t tie the dealers using his company’s tablet solution to one specific profile, he said they all had a common goal: to have an edge over their competition.
Thorpe said the goal is really to update a department that really hasn’t changed in the last three decades. He’s not convinced the industry is ready to take the mobile leap, but he does believe the adoption of interactive menus is long overdue, adding that such menus can help the F&I office appeal to customers who have been conditioned to fear it.
Where the panel disagreed, however, was on how much customers should dictate the process, which drove Chris Bonilla, finance manager for Washington’s Tacoma Nissan, to the microphone.
“I’m still trying to figure out why we want a mobile menu,” he said. “I want to close the customer and sell the products in my office, and if it’s just another sales tool, at the end of the day, I’m the best sales tool.”
Compliance was another concern raised by audience members. Nikki Munro, a partner with Hudson Cook LLP, said during a separate panel at the conference that securing customer information is a major concern for her when it comes to the mobile menu. An even bigger issue for her is how certain items are disclosed.
That’s exactly what one audience member spotted when he called out McCool for not showing the base payment on his menu. McCool, whose cloud-based menu system is designed to keep a permanent record of every transaction, said adding the base payment was a simple fix, but his answer didn’t satisfy everyone in the audience.
The Truth in Lending Act and Regulation Z require that consumers be informed about the cost of a vehicle — minus any additional product and services — on a monthly basis, based on a representative and statistically verifiable APR and term. Arguments have been made that the rule puts the onus on sales to make that disclosure at the conclusion of negotiations.
David Robertson, executive director of the Association of Finance and Insurance Professionals, said TILA, as implemented by Reg. Z, simply codifies the elements of the installment sales agreement, adding that it comes into play when negotiations are completed in sales and when the F&I manager reviews the agreed-to terms after the menu is presented.
“In theory, [the rule] comes into play after the customer has agreed to the cost of the vehicle,” he said. “However, for credit-challenged buyers for whom the need to find a willing lender is an integral component, the F&I manager may become actively involved in the purchase process.”
Audience members wondered if the mobile menu, if used in the showroom, does the same. Thorpe said he also has concerns about how the tablet menu is used, but reminded audience members about what’s at stake for menu makers as well. “We’re all trying to figure out where it fits,” he said. “But when it comes right down to it, we’ve got a really big responsibility, and that is to our primary constituency: the F&I managers using our solution. And along with that responsibility comes an obligation to do no harm along the way.”
One audience member left those opposed to the tablet menu to consider a constituency that could be the true determining factor. “I think we’re missing the point here, that everyone in this room is Gen X or baby boomers,” he said. “In the future, it’s going to be Gen Yers, and they’re going to want to use this technology. Bottom line, that’s where it’s going to go.”