Today, there are more than 30 online car-buying options pining for your customers’ attention. Lost in this race to speed up the transaction — and, in the process, capture more customers — is the F&I manager. Ecommerce platform makers believe they can incorporate the F&I process and can be successful using written descriptions of what those protections can do. But let’s think about this for a minute.

It’s true F&I deals with the doom and gloom of car buying, while salespeople get to live in the hopes and dreams of car buyers. They get to paint pictures of driving up the coast while F&I managers deal in the sometimes harsh realities of car ownership. And it’s not an easy job. It requires precision and skill, which is why F&I training is so invaluable. It’s also a thankless job, as the constant drumbeat of complaints about process times would indicate. It’s what fuels the efforts of these technology companies.

There’s only one problem: Most marketers will uniformly agree that marketing copy needs to be succinct yet descriptive enough to capture the attention of the reader. And in the end, it must compel the reader to take action. Now, for many of these online car-buying processes, the F&I product presentation is reduced to a couple of lines of copy designed to convince online shoppers they need to protect their investments. But can “copy” really sell F&I products? Or are F&I pros still critical to that online process?

I posed that exact question, along with a few others, to F&I trainer Ron Reahard. “Just because you present something, doesn’t mean something is going to be sold,” he said. “Online shoppers need human beings to answer their questions, and they want to engage with the same person at the dealership as they did online. So having someone answer their questions online is key.”

Survey Says
Two recent studies on car buyer expectations and behaviors offer several important F&I implications to consider. In Cox Automotive’s “Car Buyer Journey 2018,” analysts note that dealers “should strive to shorten the deal-making purchase process — particularly through streamlining F&I paperwork and negotiations — in order to enhance customer satisfaction and improve loyalty and retention rates.”

Source: Cox Automotive's 2018 Car Buyer Journey Study

Source: Cox Automotive's 2018 Car Buyer Journey Study

The good news for traditionalists, according to the Cox study, is half of the 2,050 car buyers surveyed were walk-ins, meaning they had no contact with the dealership prior to their first visit. To put that in perspective, only 26% listed a phone call as their first contact, and only 17% said email.

Now, when asked to rate their satisfaction on a scale of one to 10, 77% gave the test-driving process an eight to 10 rating. The bad news is when the F&I department was factored in, satisfaction declined to 59%. And when asked what part of the process took longer than expected, 64% said “financing and paperwork.”

The Cox study, which was conducted by IHS Automotive on behalf of the firm, also found that nearly one in four buyers are not aware of F&I products prior to going to the dealership. The product with the highest percentage of consumer awareness was prepaid maintenance at 40%, with GAP and service contracts registering consumer awareness of 35% and 35% respectively.

“Since purchase is much higher among consumers who are already aware of the products before going to the dealership,” the study notes, “dealers should offer F&I educational resources on the dealership website (which buyers say they prefer) and provide opportunities for consumers to learn more about F&I on their own during the sales process (e.g., on an iPad while waiting for preparation of paperwork).”

The problem, at least according to EY (Ernst & Young)’s “Automotive retail 2030,” is more than 80% of dealers do not plan to expand their online presence by 2020. “While a customer presently prefers to purchase a vehicle offline, a large part of the purchase journey is already digital,” EY’s report states, in part. “Yet most dealers do not plan to invest in increasing their presence online. They do spend a significant amount on marketing to acquire customers; however, most times there is a wide gap between the dealer’s perception of their current initiatives and the actual customer experience.”

Source: EY's Automotive retail 2030.

Source: EY's Automotive retail 2030.

The data collected in these two reports indicate to me that online shoppers still need to warm up to the idea of purchasing F&I products. For now, it’s like a blind date, where you don’t know much about the person you’re meeting.

If technology can help, we must ask ourselves where a dealer should invest. But more apropos, what technologies are available to dealers that support F&I revenue? Let’s look at four technologies that can help the F&I process, including three that are currently available and one that is emerging.

1. Available: Soft Credit-Pull Technology
With the average time spent at a dealership being the No. 1 complaint among car buyers, soft credit-pull technology is helping to smooth out the transition from the showroom into the F&I office. And it makes sense. After investing a few hours selecting and negotiating a price on a vehicle, fatigue becomes a big factor by the time the customer reaches the F&I office. And who wants to buy something they can’t see after a stressfully long negotiation? This is where soft credit-pull technologies can help speed up the decision-making process, making customers more open to discussing F&I protections.

“The soft pull product is being used in the online sales processes that the consumer is enjoying. Dealers are seeing this, and many are now using soft-pull technology at the beginning of the sales process with great results,” said Bob Lettis, vice president of strategic alliances and business development at 700Credit. “They are seeing an enhanced sales process that can take as little as one hour and delivers a more refreshed and happier customer to the F&I office — just like the process does online.”

Soft-pull technology is also a great predictor of an online shopper’s intent to purchase. As a former F&I manager, I knew a “shopper” was a potential “customer” once they decided to fill out a credit application.

2. Available: Chat
Online chat is evolving to now include an F&I perspective. In fact, online chat is now helping dealers improve the online-to-instore transition for shoppers. One way online chat is driving F&I profits is when it’s used with soft-pull technology. For example, while engaging in an online chat, these tools can be used to prompt online shoppers to share their address for a soft pull.

Recently, 700Credit announced integration with ActivEngage’s live chat platform. Eric Schlesinger, vice president of strategy for ActivEngage, said the goal is to “provide actionable data on customers so that the dealers can sell the car.” He also views online chat technology as a way to “humanize the internet to create the dealership experience in a virtual world.”

Humanizing the experience is definitely an important point. Think about it: When making one of the most important and expensive decisions in one’s life, it makes sense that the individual would want to speak to another human. I know I would.

3. Available: Digital Retailing
If you have studied the countless digital retailing platforms available today, you’ve probably heard of the term “omnichannel.” It simply refers to a multichannel sales funnel combined with an integrated customer experience. For a customer, that means being able to shop online from a desktop, mobile device, or in a brick-and-mortar store and the experience is seamless.

The problem for dealers is there are more than 30 digital retailing platforms from which to choose. So there is a lot to consider when choosing the right solution for your organization. Of course, the platform you choose needs to have a dealer-centric focus. And one key indicator that a particular solution puts the dealer first is the platform’s approach to the F&I process.

See, in today’s margin-compressed environment, a strong F&I process is critical to remaining profitable on those short deals. One person who understands that is Darwin Automotive CMO Jeff Stafford, who talked to F&I and Showroom about the company’s omnichannel digital retailing platform.

“We originally got into the digital retailing space to help our dealers ensure that the F&I portion of the process was represented properly and to their expectations,” he said. “We achieve this by not only educating online customers about F&I products but also offering an intuitive and prescriptive solution that matches products to the VIN. Through this, Darwin Online is able to offer the right products on the right vehicle at the right price, as well as by matching DMS payments across all 50 states.”

Source: Cox Automotive's 2018 Car Buyer Journey Study

Source: Cox Automotive's 2018 Car Buyer Journey Study

4. Emerging: Web Real-Time Communications
Web real-time communications, or WebRTC, is a ubiquitous type of technology that is already available on most web browsers and all new smartphones. The technology offers the ability for online shoppers to click on a video call link and be connected instantly with a dealership’s sales staff. When this technology is applied to the F&I department, the idea is to include an embedded video call link on the dealership’s website or even in a customer email communication.

With WebRTC, when a serious online shopper has questions about credit or financing, he or she simply clicks on the link to go face-to-face with an F&I manager via video chat. The F&I manager can now use a shared screen to assist with the credit application, answer any questions or concerns the customer has regarding the security of his or her information, and even conduct a soft sell of his or her F&I protections.

Now consider that, according to EY’s “Automotive retail 2030” report, 80% of customers buy from the first salesperson they come into contact with, whether in person or over the phone. And if 90% of car buyers begin their car shopping online, could live video be the missing link for online shoppers to experience your brand?

What these four technologies have in common is they’re designed to facilitate a smoother transition into F&I by either speeding up the credit approval process or helping to educate online shoppers about F&I products. More importantly, they are designed to not only keep F&I managers relevant in today’s Digital Age, but also make F&I great again. And that’s why they need to be part of whichever digital retailing system your dealership chooses.

Michael Sung is a 20-year industry veteran and the founder and CEO of CaZam Inc., a provider of video chat tools using web real-time communications technology. He can be reached at [email protected].