The Internet is challenging just about every retail industry the more consumers embrace it for all of their shopping, buying and payment needs. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be an ally to the men and women manning the F&I office. Not only can it provide third-party credibility to your product presentation, but it can provide instant credibility to the producer by allowing him or her to provide customers with the latest facts, findings and figures to help them make an informed decision with regard to their options.
But there’s more we must consider when addressing today’s Internet shopper. They want things quick, easy and convenient. If we can’t deliver that, they’re not interested. For the F&I manager, that means we must be perceived as a valuable resource whose primary purpose is to help them understand and evaluate their needs, not as an adversary pitching products they think they don’t want or need.
Today, more than 90 percent of customers, according to recent statistics, begin their vehicle purchase online. They visit more than 18 sites, including Google, Cars.com, manufacturer sites and social media sites like Facebook, during their shopping process. Millennials — those born between 1980 and 1998 — will visit 25 sites on average before buying a vehicle.
We also know that Internet customers don’t like to negotiate. What they like is easy access to information, because they do their research, and lots of it. And they’ll shop for weeks, months or even years before pulling the trigger. What they want are product reviews, and they want to know what other people are saying about services contracts, GAP, etc., before they purchase them.
In 2010, ChannelAdvisor, a Morrisville, N.C.-headquartered provider of e-commerce solutions, issued results of a study that looked at consumer buying habits. According to the results, 92 percent of U.S. Internet users that year said they read product reviews. Of those respondents, 46 percent said the review influenced them to purchase, while 43 percent said a review deterred them from purchasing. Only 3 percent said the review did not affect their decision. And you can bet those results don’t change when it comes to obtaining vehicle financing and buying F&I products.
Yes, Internet customers want information they used to rely on us to provide them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need someone to help them analyze and evaluate the information they found. See, they want someone to help them make an informed decision based on the information you provide and that they researched, which means they’ll also want to run their decision past trusted family members for confirmation. But be careful. You don’t want to discredit the information they gathered. If you do, they’ll assume you’re either wrong, uninformed or lying.
As an F&I manager, you can choose to ignore the Internet, complain about it or adapt. For those choosing the latter, here are four steps to making the Internet your ally.
Step 1: Provide F&I information they want and need on the dealership’s website.
This can be accomplished by adding a “Financing” tab on your site’s main navigation bar. Just make sure it’s easy to find, helps bring more transparency to your F&I office and actually helps.
As for what information you should post to this webpage, start by listing all the lenders you have available, and then explain the reason you have multiple lenders. Customers need to know finance sources have different tiers, rates and terms. Customers also need to know that they offer different advances, that some focus on debt-to-income ratios, while others look at payment-to-income ratios. They also need to know that some sources include taxes and fees in their max advance, while others don’t.
Adding links to myFICO.com, annualcreditreport.com and the Federal Trade Commission’s website (ftc.gov) to your webpage also is a good idea. You may even want to provide a link to “Understanding Vehicle Financing,” a 2007 guide produced by the American Financial Services Association and the National Automotive Dealers Association in conjunction with the FTC.
The webpage should also contain a list of all the F&I products you offer, along with a simple explanation and a few benefits for each. Include prices for those products, but make sure to list a product’s price as $795, instead of $842. Using odd numbers adds credibility and legitimacy to your pricing.
You should also consider listing your F&I product vendors, along with links to their websites. You may even want to consider soliciting reviews from customers about their experiences with the F&I products they purchased. This can be in the form of a written review, YouTube video or even a Facebook comment or “Like.”
Payment calculators that allow customers to calculate their monthly payment with terms from 24 to 72 months are also nice resources for your website visitors. Include an affordability calculator, and explain the difference between payment-to-income and/or debt-to-income ratios. Also provide a link to an online credit application, and include an auto responder so they know their inquiry was received and that someone will be in contact.
The main purpose of this webpage is to get shoppers to want to talk to the business manager. That’s why articles like the Federal Reserve’s “5 Tips: Improving Your Credit Score” are so important. They can pique a customer’s interest just enough to want to know their credit score, or for a finance manager to chat with them online. Just be sure your webpage offers those options, and even asks if they’d want a business manager to review their credit application and credit bureau report. Heck, they may even be willing to hear about their financing options.
Step 2: Get F&I involved in arranging customer financing on the showroom floor.
For the F&I department to remain relevant, customers need to see the F&I manager involved in the financial process. That’s why, prior to obtaining a credit bureau report, salespeople and sales managers should be instructed to only use a “default” or average rate on new vehicles, and an average rate on used vehicles, no exceptions.
The F&I manager should always review the credit application and credit bureau report prior to submission to a lender, either in the salesperson’s office using their computer, a laptop or iPad, or in the F&I office. If you choose to do it in sales, then you’re really making the Internet your ally.
Now, when working with customers, show them — don’t tell them — your finance source list. Then, after obtaining a credit bureau, show them the dealership’s finance rate grid. This ensures consistency in payment and interest rate calculations prior to their financing being approved. Just make sure the customer’s actual rate is only shown on the menu after the loan is approved.
It’s also a good idea to let customers see you submit their deal to a finance source via credit platforms like Dealertrack or RouteOne. This provides you with an opportunity to talk with the customer about lenders having different tier levels, their emphasis on debt-to-income ratios vs. payment-to-income, as well as the differences in maximum advance, etc.
Remember, today’s business manager must be perceived as adding value in navigating the financial seas. That means acting as the customer’s personal advocate with the dealership’s finance sources. That’s why it should be the business manager, not the salesperson or sales manager, who communicates to the customer the dealer’s financing terms, APR and exact payment. Otherwise, the F&I manager isn’t perceived by the customer as having helped with their financing, or even someone they need to talk to.
Step 3: Implement an “Internet customer” F&I process.
Obviously, we have to sell Internet customers the way they want to buy, but we do need to differentiate between customers who are merely shopping or doing research online vs. those who are actually buying online. More importantly, we need to create a separate, step-by-step process for each. For example, there should be no rate quotes from the Internet department prior to obtaining the customer’s credit bureau report. Instead, give them a range of interest rates, which will allow them to plug in whatever rate they want to calculate a payment on the dealership’s website.
Remember, the goal of the Internet department, at least when it comes to F&I, is to increase, not reduce, the F&I department’s value in the eyes of customers. That’s why I suggest that the Internet department not issue “total dollars” or “drive out” numbers. That should be the job of the F&I manager. In fact, F&I managers should be the only ones taking deposits, which ensures they have contact with every Internet and phone-in customer. This prevents an Internet customer from taking delivery with a check in hand from a credit union without ever seeing the F&I manager.
And just as with a walk-in customer, the use of a finance rate grid after obtaining a credit bureau report ensures consistency, with the Internet customer’s actual rate provided after the loan has been approved. Additionally, the F&I manager should review the credit application and credit bureau with the customer prior to submission to a lender. That’s key when it comes to customers with less-than-perfect credit.
Remember, every credit-challenged customer has a story and it’s our job to hear that story. Use of an interview or applicant profile sheet when talking to the customer by phone can help you find reasons why the lender should approve the deal. Doing this also helps F&I managers discover why the customer needs their products.
The last step of this process is submission of the deal to a finance source. This, again, should be the job of the F&I department, not the Internet department. That’s because we need someone who is familiar with each lender’s deal structure, portfolio mix, look-to-book ratio, customer interview and scoring system. Sometimes you have to submit a deal to a lender you have some leverage with. And as with a walk-in customer, the F&I manager must be the one who communicates to the customer the dealer’s (lender’s) finance terms, APR and exact payment.
When it comes to presenting products, those website and YouTube links you posted on your website can be used to provide Internet customers with information they need to make the right decision. If the customer isn’t taking delivery of his or her vehicle at the dealership, or is planning on arranging his or her own financing, then the F&I manager must be prepared to present the customer with options using an online F&I menu. In fact, on any offsite deliveries, an F&I manager should always offer to review documents with the customer by phone.
Step 4: The Internet department and the F&I department must talk to each other.
F&I must be involved with an Internet sale early in the process, especially when the customer has questions regarding financing. But that means F&I managers must be available to help the Internet department sell vehicles, which means there must be good communication between the two departments about each and every deal.
While most dealerships and Internet salespeople make every attempt to get customers to visit the dealership, the reality is some customers are simply more comfortable completing the entire transaction online. So, it’s critical that dealers, F&I professionals and F&I product and menu providers adapt the F&I process to the way customers want to buy, not the way we want them to buy.
With that said, Internet customers are no different than your typical walk-in customer: We must discover their specific needs for our products before showing them how our products can help. Just remember that all customers are asking themselves why they need to hear about your products, which means you better add value to every interaction if you want your customers to listen to what you have to say.
But once you create interest in what you have to say, you better have something worth hearing. So, if you want to sell service contracts, you better know something about cars. If you want to create interest in tire-and-wheel protection, you better know what the aspect ratio of a tire is, as well as the cost of that low profile tire, alloy wheel and tire pressure monitor. If you want to sell environmental protection, you better know about thermoset enamel. If you want to sell paintless dent repair, you better know about metal memory, as well as what Consumer Reports and other Internet sites say about these products.
Every F&I manager has to make the Internet his or her ally by establishing and implementing an online F&I process that helps inform Internet customers about all the options available in connection with their vehicle purchase, enables them to evaluate their options, and creates interest in knowing more about the products we offer so they can make the right decision for them and their family. Remember, it doesn’t matter how today’s customer wants to buy. If they don’t buy our F&I products, it’s our fault! It’s that simple.
Ron Reahard is president of Reahard & Associates Inc., an F&I training company providing F&I classes, workshops, in-dealership and online training. E-mail him at [email protected].