In F&I, we tend to focus pretty heavily on the products. We sell the features and benefits to the consumers, and the profit margins to the dealers, and every provider of every product does its best to prove to agents and dealers alike that its offering is superior to all the rest. However, while it’s true that the product is incredibly important, it’s only half the story.

Just as critical, if not more so, are the relationships — between the F&I product provider and the agent, the agent and the dealer, the dealer and the consumer, and full circle back to the consumer and the F&I provider’s claims center. At every stage along the way to reaching the consumer, no product — no matter how great it is — will be sold if there isn’t a solid relationship built on trust and mutual respect backing it up.

Let’s take a look at each of these relationships and how they impact F&I.

1. Providers and Agents

Agents need to feel confident that the F&I provider’s products deliver what they promise, whether it’s about performance, longevity or any other feature. And when consumers call in with a claim, the agent has to believe that the provider will adjudicate the claim promptly and fairly, making the agent look good to the dealer, who in turn looks good to the customer. If something goes wrong along the way, agents have to trust that providers will back their products.

But that trust isn’t built overnight. It has to be established over time, through the actions the provider takes when asked to solve a problem or adjudicate a claim. It is strengthened when the provider returns calls, is responsive to suggestions and ideas, and follows through — delivering what was promised. It is the kind of trust that takes time to build, but can be shattered in an instant with one bad decision, one bad phone call, one bad claim response.

Let’s face it, many agents represent multiple providers. Each state has different laws and dealerships need different products for their specific customer base. It can be an arduous task to switch a dealership to a new provider, but when the agent gets wind of claims headaches the dealers are encountering, or a provider’s poor service leaves an agent with egg on their face, the decision becomes a no-brainer.

2. Agents and Dealers

The trust that agents have in their providers is then carried into the relationship with the dealers. While dealers are seeking popular, profitable products, the most successful agents focus just as much energy on service and follow-up. Dealers need to form the same kind of trust with their agents that the agents have with the providers: They need to know their end customers are going to be taken care of, because unhappy consumers don’t return to the dealership to buy more cars, and they certainly don’t invest in additional F&I products down the line.

The agent-dealer relationship is often built on personal connections, even more so than the agent-provider relationship. It is solidified over multiple in-person visits and follow-ups, until it becomes a partnership: Dealers tend to trust an individual agent whom they believe has their back. They trust their agents to bring the best products and providers to them — and to properly address any issues that arise. This is the kind of relationship that leads to more sales and better profits for everyone in the supply chain.

Since dealers are trusting agents to bring them the best, agents are staking their reputation on the products they recommend. As a result, trust in the F&I provider is again a key factor — and one frustrating claims call or a negative dealership report can send agents running to the competition.

3. Dealers and Consumers, and Back to Providers

While agents don’t directly impact the relationships dealers build with their customers, the reality is that agents do have a major hand in how the dealer-customer relationship progresses, since the products an agent encourages the dealer to offer can make or break the trust.

How many of us have heard horror stories about consumers purchasing F&I products and then getting the runaround when they try to make a claim? Customer complaints are almost never about the damage itself — the dent in the door, the key going missing or the stain in the upholstery — instead, complaints usually stem from the negative experience the consumer had when trying to get the coverage they thought they had purchased to pay for the damage. And that is where the trust collapses.

Oftentimes, dealers switch to a new F&I product provider because they can get a better price and everything seems great … until 6 to 8 months down the road, when claims start rolling in and the complaints come right behind them. Unhappy customers are going to blame the dealership for their troubles, whether the dealership was at fault or not. And the agent is the one who gets the heat from the dealer. The trust from end-to-end is shattered with a single bad experience.

The Most Important Connection

At the end of the day, it all comes down to the customer experience. The incident that spurs a customer to file a claim is often an already stressful scenario, and how the provider handles it can make or break every relationship along the way. If the customer experience is designed to be friendly, transparent and with a goal of paying the claim — as opposed to finding a loophole or having unreasonable exclusions to justify not paying it — then every relationship along the way is strengthened. The customer has faith in the dealer and is more likely to not only give them repeat business but to refer friends and family as well. Because the dealer trusts that the products will be backed the way they should be, the dealer is more likely to consider offering more products from the agent. And the agent is more willing to add additional products from a provider’s portfolio to their mix because they know, ultimately, it will bolster their own reputation.

Make sure your F&I provider has your back. Do they deliver what they promise? Do they answer the phone when you call, and do they return your calls promptly? If an issue arises, how does your provider address it? Are your dealers’ customers complaining about claims headaches, or does your F&I provider make your dealers’ customers feel good about their purchase? Is the focus on the immediate bottom line, or on the long-term profitability that comes with strong relationships?

Relationships are the heart of F&I. It doesn’t matter what the product category is, how much it costs or how good the penetration rate is — without the relationships to back it up, no one wins. It’s time to take a hard look at all of your relationships. Do you trust your providers? Have you done everything you can to bolster your connection with your dealers? If you want to improve product penetration and ultimately increase the profit margins across the board, your relationships are the best place to start.