The trajectory of an up-and-down career that included running a catalog business, fixing locks and selling commercial trucks skyrocketed for Tim Lavoie about five years ago. That’s when he moved into the F&I ­department.

Lavoie, now 42, was selling trucks for the Balise Auto Group — one of the largest retailers of new and used vehicles in New England — when the finance manager at his store was let go. That’s when he was offered a chance to learn the ins and outs of the finance ­department.

“I had zero formal training, so I had to teach myself and trust my instincts,” Lavoie says. “I had formal training after a few months and many of the things I thought were obvious were not really obvious.”

On-the-Job Training

Lavoie parlayed his opportunity to become the finance director for the entire group, which operates 19 stores in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The quick study now conducts his own monthly F&I training sessions that focus on the best word-tracks to close deals, effective menu presentation and a review of products offered. His sessions typically end with the “close of the month,” which Lavoie uses to both teach and recognize his producers.

But not every lesson is about how to close customers. A recent session, in fact, focused on how associates should replace their opinions with facts. Phrases such as “I think,” “In my opinion,” and “If I were you,” should be jettisoned, he says, because they can create a confrontational scenario with customers. In Lavoie’s experience, it’s better to let customers know they can do whatever they want, but show them the reports that lead to the producer’s product recommendation.

“Stop with that. It makes no sense. Less opinion and more data and fact,” he tells his producers.

So far, his techniques appear to be working.

Lavoie was promoted to finance director at the beginning of 2011. The auto group’s finance managers were averaging a hair less than one product sold per vehicle. They now sell about 1.5 products per vehicle. “That’s a 50 percent increase in the past two years in back-end product penetration,” Lavoie says proudly.[PAGEBREAK]

The F&I Formula

US Equity Advantage’s Cheryl Cain says Tim Lavoie is a genius at driving the business and keeping his team focused.

US Equity Advantage’s Cheryl Cain says Tim Lavoie is a genius at driving the business and keeping his team focused.

Cheryl Cain, regional account manager for US Equity Advantage in Orlando, Fla., has worked with Lavoie for more than three years. She praised his ability to wordsmith and cope with changes in the marketplace.

“He is the most creative finance genius that I’ve ever met in my career,” Cain says.

US Equity Advantage offers customers a service designed to accelerate their loan payments and boost their equity in their vehicle. The service allows consumers to make automated biweekly loan payments so a 72-month loan can be paid off in 66 months or less, Cain says.

Balise Auto is the top dealer using US Equity Advantage in Cain’s region. She applauds the comprehensive approach Lavoie employs when training, which she witnessed when he coached his producers on Cain’s biweekly service. That’s not the case with all finance directors, she adds.

“He’s probably one of the best at driving the business on his own and keeping everyone focused on all the products and services they offer,” she says.

It’s all about the process for Lavoie, which he boils down to a simple four-part formula: interview, prepare, present and print.

“The interview is about 40 percent of the work, the menu preparation about 30 percent and another 30 percent is closing and confirming documents,” he says, adding that finance managers are required to conduct a floor interview before a customer enters their office.

“There’s no excuse of being too busy to do it on the floor,” he says. “It prevents errors and speeds up the process. The interview is the most important part of the process. If done correctly, 70 percent of your work is done before the customer steps in the finance office.”

The interview enables the finance manager to gain information, correct any paperwork errors, set expectations for the customer and establish the relationship, Lavoie says. “That’s the key thing: establishing a relationship,” he explains. “We’re not building rapport. If you invite too much conversation, you encourage interruptions.”

Selling Without Selling

Lavoie subscribes to a less friendly, professional approach to F&I, which he acknowledges makes for a tough transition for a salesperson moving into F&I. As he says, everything that made a salesperson successful in the showroom gets thrown out the window when he or she enters his department, and for good reason.[PAGEBREAK]

“The second a customer feels they’re being sold in F&I, they’re gone,” he says. “We’re not selling in F&I, not convincing and not talking anyone into F&I. The customer knows when they’re being sold.”

F&I Director Tim Lavoie coaches his F&I team during his department’s monthly F&I training session.

F&I Director Tim Lavoie coaches his F&I team during his department’s monthly F&I training session.

That’s why Lavoie created dedicated interview scripts for his associates to follow — ideally, without innovation — to set expectations and establish credibility, not friendship. It’s also why he’s trained his sales staff not to try to sell F&I products.

“What I teach the sales staff is to plant the seed three times during the sales process,” Lavoie says. “They mention F&I products and that the finance manager will go over it with them later.”

This technique lets the customer know that a meeting with the finance manager will take place and that his or her questions will be answered. “It’s more important for sales staff to mention the business manager’s role rather than sell the product,” he says. “When a customer says they’re ready and we throw the F&I manager into the mix, they should be expecting that and not a surprise.”

Lavoie says that’s important because consumers have grown to associate dealing with any manager with a negative experience.

“The car business is the only business on the face of the earth that is completely backwards,” he says. “When you deal with a manager at a restaurant or at the movies, it’s because something is wrong. It’s only in the car business when everything goes perfectly fine that we need a manager.”

By getting on the floor early and explaining their role in the process, Lavoie believes finance managers can erase the expectations of a confrontation when told a manager has been summoned.

“What I love about the process is that when you follow it like clockwork, you don’t even have to work. It just happens throughout the day,” he says. “And before you know it, you have more PRU (profit per retail unit), happier customers and sold more product than if you were actually trying. It just happens.”

The Full Entree

Lavoie also streamlined the menu his producers present to customers. Currently, the menu contains six protections, which he admits is “kind of pushing it.”

“I’m a fan of a very small menu — six is maximum,” he says. “You don’t want to bore people. If you have 10 items, you’re just going to be boring them through nine just to sell one.”

Balise’s menu consists of a service contract, prepaid maintenance, GAP, tire-and-wheel protection, paint protection and LoJack vehicle recovery. Lavoie says the protections are grouped together to keep F&I managers from step-selling, a sales technique Lavoie compares to going to a restaurant and ordering the steak.

“You don’t want just the steak, you want to get the full entree,” he says.

Likewise, if a customer needs GAP and wants paint and tire-and-wheel protection, those should be offered together on the menu instead of one at a time, Lavoie says.

Changing Perceptions

Lavoie started his career with Balise Auto Group nine years ago and says he took the conventional route to get there.

“Just like everyone else, I screwed something else up and ended up in the car business,” he says, describing himself as a square peg in a world of round holes.

Lavoie was a true entrepreneur for years, having owned his own electronics, catalog and locksmith businesses. “I had great successes and flaming failures and was ultimately drawn to the car business,” he says, adding that he finds great satisfaction in knowing that he’s changing the perception of the car business one customer at a time.

“I’m blessed every day to work for Balise.”

Paul Chavez is a freelance writer based in Venice, Calif. He can be reached at [email protected]