In front of a room of more than 60 F&I professionals, Dina Wilson, F&I director at Timbrook Automotive Group and 2012 F&Idol winner, stood at the dais and thought for a second. She and a panel of female F&I pros were discussing the advantage women have over their male counterparts when it comes to selling product in the F&I office.
Wilson scanned the room for a willing participant in the hypothetical customer interaction she was about to deliver. That’s when she spotted Justin Gasman, finance director at Boulder, Colo.’s McCaddon Cadillac Buick GMC, in the front row.
“Justin, you’re in my office. You say, ‘Well, you know, I lost my dog last week.’ I’m a male and I say, ‘Oh really? You lost your dog? Sorry to hear about that.’ And I move on,” she said. “From the female perspective, if you said I lost my dog, I’d say, ‘Oh really? What kind of dog was it? How long did you have him?’ I want to get more information. I’m more empathetic with him.”
Both responses, she said, were appropriate to the situation, but the woman’s more empathetic approach gives her a leg up in the F&I office. Women, she added, are simply more inquisitive.
F&I trainers Luis Garcia and Rick McCormick didn’t disagree. Garcia, owner of Avid Insurance, went as far to say that women would make up his F&I dream team, while McCormick, national account development manager at Reahard & Associates and a regular contributor to F&I and Showroom, said the ability to tap into the emotions of customers is why he believes women are the future of F&I.
“We don’t sell service contracts in F&I, we sell a feeling, and women do that naturally,” McCormick added.
Such differences, along with the struggles and perception of women in the industry, took center stage during “Doing It Our Way: Women in F&I,” one of two F&I manager-staffed panels featured at last month’s F&I Think Tank. Held at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel, in Tampa, Fla., the all-day event preceded Dealer Summit on May 3.
Moderated by Wilson, the panel featured F&I pros Angela Barrett, Diane Uzelac, and Teasha McMillion — each bringing more than 25 years of experience. But the discussion quickly took on a life of its own, as other female automotive professionals in the conference room jumped into the discussion. At one point, it was as if panelists and female attendees were talking to each other. Wilson ditched her list of prepared questions and male attendees sat quietly as the discussion intensified.
The Trust Factor
The one tip the men in the room could latch onto was that the less-aggressive, more-inquisitive approach women employ is what helps them crack the distrust consumers have for F&I managers and the products they sell.
“[Consumers] want to make sure you’re there to help them and to be of service to them. So when they come back [to the dealership], they want to say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’” Wilson said. “To get that friendly atmosphere, you need to get to know them, and I think we have a tendency as females to get to know our customers a little bit better than some of the males.”
Uzelac said she keeps a basket full of treats for that very reason. It contains nuts, grains or Kind bars, which are especially effective when customers enter her office with their kids in tow. “They’re wild beasts by the time they come in. They’re starving,” she said. “Women, we have that caretaker thing going on.”
But the panel acknowledged that women can take those caretaker tendencies too far. McMillion, who operates a temporary F&I staffing agency, warned female attendees in the room to resist the urge to become the “mom” of the dealership. She recounted a meeting she attended at a client’s store. In the room were two women, a 19- and a 45-year-old. When the meeting was over, the latter stayed behind to clean up the room.
“I said, ‘Put that down. You’re one of the assistant sales managers. Put the rag down, you’re not the mom,”’ she told the woman.
Later that same day, McMillion caught the 19-year-old taking orders for a coffee run. “I told her, ‘You are not the Dunkin monkey. Don’t let them turn you into table wipers and Dunkin monkeys,’” she told the woman. “Some women might feel that if they don’t do these things, they’re not going to succeed. But they don’t have to.”
The panel, along with the female professionals in the room, also agreed that the softer touch they employ in the F&I office tends to work against them, particularly when it comes to negotiating time off to be with family. Barrett described it as the industry’s “ugly double standard.”
“I felt that, among my male counterparts, it was much easier for them to negotiate that time and go do the football games with the kids and the daughter-daddy dance and so forth,” she said. “But if we tried to be home with a sick baby for two days, the world came crashing to an end.”
The double standards don’t stop there. Women, panelists said, are expected to compose themselves in certain ways. As one woman in the room put it, men are allowed to be assertive, while women are viewed negatively when they do the same.
“You have a high-performing male in your dealership that throws things and screams at salespeople or whatever, they call him a high performer. What’s the word they’re going to call the women?” McMillion asked rhetorically.
Red Badges of Courage
The discussion revealed other unpleasant truths about the industry’s past. “How many ladies have been in the industry more than 25 years?” Uzelac asked. “How many [dealerships] said they wouldn’t hire a woman in sales?”
Hands shot up in response to Uzelac’s questions. Multiple women in the room described how their path to the F&I office started in accounting or at the reception desk.
But the industry has come a long way, both panelists and attendees agreed, and today’s female automotive professionals are blissfully unaware of what dealership life was like for women 25 years ago. Several attendees called on the female industry veterans in the room to tell their stories; others said the fact these newcomers are oblivious to their struggles means they’ve succeeded in shattering the proverbial glass ceiling.
McMillion capped off the discussion with this message to industry’s younger generation of female professionals: “You are just as valuable as men. We do things differently, but we all have to do the same job in the end.”