Many dealers and F&I professionals remain wary of digitizing all or part of the financing and product selection process, despite promises of new efficiencies and increased penetration rates.  - Illustration by PhonlamaiPhoto via Getty Images

Many dealers and F&I professionals remain wary of digitizing all or part of the financing and product selection process, despite promises of new efficiencies and increased penetration rates.

Illustration by PhonlamaiPhoto via Getty Images

F&I and Showroom met with Bob George, assistant vice president at Dealer.com, to ask what dealers around the nation are saying about digital retailing, why online tools should complement, rather than disrupt, instore processes, and the components of digital F&I every dealer should have on their websites in 2020.

Bob, how long have you been with Dealer.com?

I started at Dealer.com way back in 2005, when it was a little startup company. I have since gone through various roles and I now lead all project management organization, from websites to managed services. So I grew up with the company, I live and breathe it, as they say, and I know the whole history of this place.

Are you a car guy or a tech guy?

Actually, my background is in architecture and auto journalism. I happened to meet one of Dealer.com’s founders. They needed to figure out SEO and I said I would give it a shot. I’ve learned a lot along the way. But my specialty is product strategy — assess the market, assess the client’s needs. And obviously I have a really close relationship with our head of engineering.

And you work with dealers.

Oh yeah. Most of my exposure is with big groups. Also some OEMs.

Read: Dealer Websites Fail Consumers in 3 Key Areas

Has a consensus opinion on digital sales and F&I emerged among your dealers?

If you think back to when dealers were first adopting websites in the early 2000s, the question was “Why do I need a website?” And the answer was brand awareness. You needed people to know who you were. You needed some SEO to drive traffic. Then you realized you could put your inventory out there and get leads — “internet leads,” remember that concept?

And they could only be handled by an “internet manager.”

We segmented them, which seems kind of crazy now. And then it became about quality leads — using data, incentives, all that good stuff. Then, suddenly, we had these emerging disruptors. They were going to do the direct-to-consumer thing and prove everyone wants to buy cars online.

A lot of vendors — and, honestly, ourselves included — started powering toward the digital transaction, trying to get people inking their paperwork online. And in the last year or two, there has been some pullback.

Dealers are saying, “You know what? People still want to come into the showroom. Studies are telling us 80% of them still want to drive the car, put their hands on it, before they write the check.” So it’s almost as though the industry overswung a bit.

Dealers still need a physical storefront. But you also need a digital storefront.

Where does that leave us?

Rather than replacing the instore visit, we need to think about how we use digital to prep people for the instore visit. What if we use it to expedite paperwork and expedite the process? Then the customer can spend their time at dealership on the fun stuff — choosing the configuration, getting to know the technology.

Dealers still need a physical storefront. But you also need a digital storefront. Just like the dealer website went from awareness to leads to quality leads, now it’s a digital storefront.

One common argument against making F&I part of that digital storefront is that it can’t possibly replace or do as good a job as a trained professional. If a website offers you a service contract, it’s easy to select “No” and move on.

Think about it this way: You spend all afternoon in the showroom. You finally get to a price you can agree on. Then they put you in the F&I office, where someone is telling you, “This car’s not that good. You need a service contract.” It creates this tension. And we’ve seen that, when you present nine different options, if they say “No” to seven and “Yes” to two, that’s a win for the dealer.

Better yet, you may say “No” to some but express interest in others. You’re saying you would like to learn more about that. At that point, it’s less about selling and more about enabling the customer to buy. Confront them and you don’t give them time to digest the information and make a decision. Empower them and they might see the value.

But I have seen dealers say, “No, I don’t want to put F&I out there. Our people know how to close.” And that’s fine. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a digital storefront. You can still use it to prep the customer.

Read: 25 Porsche Dealers Pilot Online Sales and F&I Platform

And some people would rather meet with an F&I professional. They may be repeat customers or referrals expecting a good experience. They may have questions or need counseling.

Moving F&I online is really about enabling people to engage and go at their pace. Our strategy is to enable people to engage online and, once we engage, create a linear and sensible process.

The analogy I use is like TurboTax. They’re good at saying let’s work on your deductions, mortgage interest, this and that. Don’t have a particular piece of information? Skip it. And it tells you that you have to go back.

So let people drive their own process. Don’t force them down any one path. Because a lot of people don’t know anything about F&I. The tools that guide folks through the process and respects their situation are the ones that work the best.

Now, if you want to get real trade-in values, that’s where it starts to modify your instore process. What the user inputs is not always going to turn out to be accurate when you see the car.

The customer didn’t get as much as they wanted. The dealer doesn’t agree on the condition.

How do you account for that?

In the digital retailing space, the trade-in is always a source of tension. The customer didn’t get as much as they wanted. The dealer doesn’t agree on the condition. At Cox Automotive, specifically at Kelley Blue Book, we have embraced that in two ways: using market data to more accurately predict trade-in values and with Instant Cash Offer, for which KBB guarantees the buy for the dealer. Knowing the trade-in is a place where there’s subjectiveness, KBB has worked hard to quantify that.

We tend to discuss digital F&I as a national topic, but what you can do online varies from state to state, correct?

State by state, yes, there can be restrictions. In every state, you will be required to physically sign at least a couple papers. And different states handle out-of-state sales and lease returns differently. The tools we’re talking about will guide you as far as your state will take it. And the tools that are most successful are the ones that don’t require you to drastically change your instore process.

In the early days, we would have a dealer really excited about digital, then put it on their site. And then nobody on their sales team would even look at it. But their customers did, and they would walk in, and sales would say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about” or “What you see on the website is not real.”

And the customer’s trust was shattered.

That’s the most important thing. If you’re a dealer and you want to do digital retailing, sales or F&I, the first step is rallying your organization around it. It’s a new way of thinking. The technology performs the best and drives the best experience — both online and offline — when paired well with an instore process that recognizes and rewards it.

How much information about F&I should be on every dealer’s website in 2020?

I think that in 2020 — or, honestly, in 2015 — every dealer should have real payments on their websites. Real finance offers, real cash back. Your competitors are all doing it. It’s the way this stuff gets marketed. Very few people pay the sticker price. There are millions of rebates and incentives. Showing actual factory offers, cash, and monthly payments won’t change your process. And it’s foundational.

Read: Good Recruiting Today Could Save Your F&I Department Tomorrow

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