Photo credit: AUTOMOTIVE NEWS ILLUSTRATION

When F&I trainer George Angus first presented the F&I menu to groups of about 30 managers in the early 2000s, he was disheartened when only about six of them brought the process back to their dealerships. The menu, he found, presented a visually appealing platform to uniform sales processes. But most dealers wouldn’t budge.

“The greatest force on earth, greater than the wind, the tide or tornadoes, is the ability of people to resist change,” Angus said.

Angus persisted, continuing to conduct seminars on the menu for dealers. His tutelage, along with word of mouth from dealers, helped the F&I menu become an industry standard.

Now as president of F&I consulting firm Team One Group, Angus sees parallels between the industry’s long-ago adoption of F&I menus and its current adoption of digital F&I solutions, though pressure to modernize dealership operations with technology is putting screws on every element of the automotive industry, he says. Industry experts agree that digitalization of the F&I process is inevitable, but which tools will be uniform across the automotive retail terrain is less certain.

Dealers should be thinking about where the world will be in three years by modernizing and investing in technology now, said Andy Moss, CEO of California startup Roadster, which creates digital storefronts on dealer sites that allow consumers to buy vehicles online.

“It’s tempting for dealers to say, ‘I’ll get to that point in the future.’ Some dealers are going to say technology is going to solve everything, and that’s not right either,” Moss said. “It’s not like one size fits all.”

Phillip Battista, CEO of Darwin Automotive, a vendor of predictive F&I menu-selling tools, said that while manufacturers are in the business of moving metal, dealers are in the business of moving metal profitably. As new-vehicle margins tighten, dealers are leaning on other departments, such as F&I, for profit. There is a level of insecurity in the marketplace around dealers and digital F&I, Battista said.

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“That’s where it gets scary for dealers who understand the space. They don’t want people coming in with a check for the car. The dealers will not opt in to that,” he said.

Don’t be afraid

While Battista believes digital tools are key to increasing profits in the F&I office, dealers shouldn’t let the fear of being left behind drive investments in technology.

“The dealer really needs to understand that whatever technology they offer has to be incorporated into their everyday business practices,” Battista said. “Technology is great, it enhances what you already have; it doesn’t replace what you already have.”

Battista advises dealers to study vendors before signing onto their products. Speaking with and learning about stores that use the product or service can help dealers gauge whether it would be right for them. A company that cannot hold up under scrutiny, he said, is not worth the investment.

Mark Rikess, CEO of automotive retail consulting firm Rikess Group, says the adoption of technology in the dealership won’t work unless it’s top-down.

“If the general manager doesn’t use a tablet — whether it’s for reading a novel or sending emails — then it’s less likely that they’re going to want a tablet on the showroom floor or in the F&I office,” Rikess said.

All dealerships should be integrated with some digital technology by now, he said, whether it’s Reynolds and Reynolds’ docuPAD or Roadster’s digital storefronts. Sticking with the slow route, Rikess said, hurts all parties involved. Customer satisfaction and retention requires speeding the F&I process, and making it consistent.

Give customers control

Dealer technophobia may keep F&I information in the manager’s hands, but using tools customers are familiar with, and allowing them to explore options on their terms, gives customers the feeling of control in the F&I office.

“Customers today are stuck on their iPhones and Androids and iPads,” said Rebecca Chernek, F&I trainer at Chernek Consulting. “Now I’m giving this iPad over to my customer to get them engaged to choose these options their way. There’s so much you can do with this digital presentation.”

As with the F&I menu, increased digitalization brings the potential of increased transparency. Presenting product offerings and pricing for customers to peruse at the dealership or remotely before heading into the store, gives them a chance to learn about the product and calculate how it will affect their monthly payments.

Dealers who resist online tools to protect F&I profit miss out on the benefits of working with customers who have monthly payment estimates before heading into the dealership.

Those customers may be more open to F&I products after researching them independently.

Some experts also feel that the F&I menu, once so provocative, feels outdated simply because of the material it’s on.

“I feel like these paper menus haven’t been updated since I don’t know when,” Chernek added. “How engaging is that?”

Still, Angus said the desire for technology in the F&I office cannot outpace the value that’s required for a dealer to consider a costly switch.

“The main reason the technology is being sold and pushed is because we all think it has to happen. It’s not as simple as ‘Throw this iPad in front of someone.’ There’s a lot of laws they deal with in the F&I office,” Angus cautioned. “That’s one thing that may be getting overlooked.”

Some tactics employed with digital F&I, such as visual representations accompanying certain products, aren’t as effective as tech companies would like dealers to believe, Angus said.

“Certainly there’s been an oversimplification of why people buy F&I products,” he said. “Showing me a picture of a car that’s all torn apart doesn’t want to make me buy a $2,500 service contract.”

The adoption of digital tools in F&I offices is ongoing, but many experts believe standardization on a par with the F&I menu will occur in less than five years.

“The technology is going to take over,” Angus said, “especially those products that make the job easier, faster, and more customer-friendly.”