The best hitter on every professional baseball team and the best fisherman on every pier have one major thing in common: They have learned that skill alone won’t get them to the top. What will is their ability to get into the mind of their opponents.

We all have an idea of what we think is the best way to present products. Should we talk about products immediately after meeting the customer or after we have discovered why the customer needs them? When should we present the menu? Should we conduct a customer interview at the salesperson’s desk or in the F&I office? Should we use an iPad in our presentation or the traditional paper menu?

The plain answer is it really doesn’t matter what I think or what you think. It’s what the customer thinks that matters. We should filter everything we do in the F&I office through the prism of our customers. See, their behavior and preferences are changing frequently, which means the manner in which we presented products several years ago is obsolete today. Yes, the principles of selling are timeless, but the manner in which they are carried out isn’t.

Just think about Redbox, the service many detractors in the video rental market said wouldn’t work. Well, the concept did work, and Redbox is outpacing the companies that used to dominate that market.

You see, those who refuse to change and adapt to customer behavior and preference get left behind. The same thing can happen to any F&I professional. So let’s look at two important ways we need to adjust our presentation to match what customers think and like.

1. Customers are interested in what they do and what they like.
If we stop talking about ourselves and start listening to our customers to learn more about them, we will have the clues to what will lead them to buy. That’s why the most effective tool in the F&I office is “You told me earlier...” When we repeat something a customer told us, they know we listened to them and that they’ve been heard. When that happens, the chances of them buying our products rise dramatically.

Remember, customers don’t buy our products because of what they hear; they buy because they feel they were heard. And that’s why there’s a direct correlation between your ability to listen effectively and the level of your success. I have yet to find a top-producing F&I professional who can tell me otherwise.

My recommendation is that you follow the 70/30 rule, which says customers should talk 70 percent of the time while you talk 30 percent of the time leading up to the menu presentation. So, if 20 minutes passes before the menu, the customer should be talking for 14 of those minutes, which means you need to use open-ended questions to get them talking.

Recently, while reviewing a video of an F&I transaction, I counted 17 things I learned from the conversation. I learned 12 facts about the F&I manager, including where he grew up, what he drove, which F&I products he buys and how long he’s been in F&I. Unfortunately, I only learned five facts about the customer.

I also watched the customer respond to the question: “What brought you in to buy a car today?” She responded, “My husband has been given 12 months to live and he wants me to have a new car before his time comes.” The F&I manager’s response: “That’s great. So what are you trading today?”

What a missed opportunity that was, right? And guess how many products the F&I manager sold to that customer. That’s right, zero!

Getting customers to talk about themselves is not a trick to get them to buy; it’s what they like to do. So let them! If we let them talk about what they do and what they like, they are more likely to be comfortable with the process and listen to what we have to say. And isn’t that the goal? So, stop talking and start listening.

2. Customers want to know what their options are.
Customers like to review their options, and they like a process free of pressure to buy a product someone else thinks they need. That means we should only lead the customer to buy only after we have established their need for our product.

We all know customers are wary of entering the F&I office, where someone is going to pressure them to buy products they don’t want and think they don’t need. So, can you imagine the relief your customers will feel when you change the experience? If we want to change the outcome of our F&I presentations, we must change the experience.

See, when the pressure goes down, customer resistance does too! When a customer says, “No,” welcome it and agree with their decision. Here’s an example: “Absolutely, the last thing you want to do is increase your payment. If you thought you were going to have problems with your new Lexus, you would buy something else. Am I right?”

What I did with that statement is remove the pressure from the sales balloon, which provides me with the opportunity to follow up with this: “You certainly don’t have to buy anything you don’t see value in. However, you said something a minute ago that really got my attention …”

3. Use the menu as it was intended.
The menu should first be used to make a nonthreatening disclosure of the customer’s options, not to sell. In other words, don’t sell the first time you run through the menu. Simply tell customers what each product is and what it does.

Even something as simple as the layout of the menu can put a customer at ease. They expect us to try to sell them an “extended warranty.” And by listing the option first on the menu, they think, “I knew they were going to try to sell me that.” And that’s when they stop listening.

So, why not list a product they are not familiar with first and place the service agreement further down on the list? You never know, customers might like it. Just remember that it doesn’t matter what we like, it only matters what they like.

For example, I recently visited a mid-line restaurant with my wife. We discovered it had changed its menu to use terms like “accompaniment,” or side order. And each main dish now listed a suggested side order. Simple enough, right?

See, someone in the restaurant’s home office decided that using a term like “accompaniment” would enable the business to be perceived as a more upscale restaurant. Did it work? Well, not exactly.

Our waiter seemed to be very good at his job; however, he had been recently trained to use this new term in his presentation and order-taking role. And unfortunately, accompaniments became confused with side orders, and side orders became confused with accompaniments. He was obviously uncomfortable with the change, and it made the entire effort to order confusing at best. And, well, both of our orders were incorrect.

More importantly, because of the confusion, we opted to finish our meal and leave instead of ordering the dessert we were interested in. So, in the end, the restaurant sold less product and we left with a very disappointing experience.

Someone on that restaurant’s board forgot the concept of putting the customer’s wishes before management’s. If customers don’t like the process and the experience, it will always lead to lower sales and higher frustration. That’s true whether you’re staring down a pitcher, a fish, a restaurant, or a customer in the F&I office.

Rick McCormick is the national account development manager for Reahard & Associates. E-mail him at [email protected]