If the electronic F&I menu had been invented any later than it was, it would likely be considered a product of the Internet Age. Instead, it’s one of a few tools poised to make a relatively seamless transition from F&I managers’ desktop monitors to a consumer-driven, web-based purchase and financing process.
When parts of the F&I process first began to move online, many dealers and agents were justifiably concerned that most customers would simply decline all the products they were offered. But as Joe St. John points out, those fears may have been unfounded. The former F&I professional and trainer and current head of digital retail for AutoFi believes car buyers appreciate transparency and are using good information to make good decisions.
“As consumers become more informed, F&I processes became more transparent. Interestingly, as dealership transparency increases, so does F&I gross profit,” St. John says. “Some of the most profitable automotive dealers in America have the most transparent practices.”
Agent Entrepreneur caught up with St. John as well as Jeff Stafford, CMO of Darwin Automotive, and Garrett Thorpe, COO of The Impact Group, to learn more about how their menus have evolved and how they drive F&I production and profitability in the real world.
You Can Do It Yourself
Each of our experts’ menus provides, as Thorpe puts it, “ultimate flexibility” for dealers and customers.
“The presentation can be delivered interactively or on paper, incorporating from one to four packages. Customer presentations may also be made remotely or, if the producer chooses, a paper menu may be emailed to a customer. Any parameter of the F&I deal structure may be changed on the fly,” Thorpe says.
The latest advancement at The Impact Group is Impact Menu, which allows F&I producers to create reusable templates for common credit scenarios.
“So as an example, a manager taking a subprime customer purchasing a high-mileage unit that qualifies for only certain product offerings could recall a customized template for that scenario with a single click,” Thorpe says. “There’s no limit to the number of distinct menu templates that may be stored by each F&I producer. And of course the presentation may be made on any device or screen size the manager chooses.”
Delivering presentations on smartphones and tablets was an important advancement, Thorpe adds.
“We’ve always been oriented toward providing our users with customization and flexibility options as a way of driving user adoption. The approach being that a new user shouldn’t have to change the way they like to do things simply to use our system. We’d rather work with that user to mold the technology around their own preferences and their dealership’s processes, so that we’re able to support them in areas where they’re naturally strong, but also give them a toolbox of options and capabilities to potentially lift them up in areas they’d like to improve.”
Stafford says Darwin’s menu can appear “anywhere” — from a one- to four-column piece of paper to a tablet to a remote connection to virtual customers.
“We’ve expanded the capabilities to offer a menu selling platform that can accommodate pretty much any finance manager’s selling style,” he says.
AutoFi’s system allows customers to take a self-guided tour or opt for an expedited, sales-assisted checkout, St. John says. With built-in connections to auto finance sources and F&I product providers, buyers are able to obtain firm offers of credit and view multiple options for protection products — fully configurable by the dealer — both before and after credit approval.
“Customers explore F&I products and include them in their larger purchase decisions,” St. John says. “The initial AutoFi platform began with a linear product presentation after the credit decision. As a result of dealer and consumer feedback, F&I product education is now earlier in the decisionmaking process. ... It’s been really incredible to see the numerous customers that are self-selecting products through the AutoFi system in advance of a dealership visit to finalize the purchase.”
Don’t Fear the Informed Car Buyer
Stafford said the evolution of Darwin’s offerings has been driven by a focus on “prescriptive” selling — designing software capable of leveraging the information the dealership knows about each customer to personalize their experience.
It’s a concept some F&I managers have been putting into practice on a daily basis for decades. And just as in the past, many customers bring preconceptions and misconceptions about the purpose or value of protection products.
So which is best — a customer who has researched everything there is to know about F&I products, one who has a general understanding of F&I products, or one who needs all products to be explained in full?
“A customer who has researched everything there is to know about F&I products, I would think,” Stafford says. “The knowledge is already there, now you just need to clarify their understanding and overcome any objections. It will definitely get you through the process quicker.”
“We don’t think it really matters, because the application is rich in capabilities with our dynamic risk assessment tools, multimedia, and product-specific collateral,” Thorpe counters, noting that customers who have been through the process before will experience the F&I presentation in a different way than first-time buyers. “The true strength of the F&I presentation is an F&I manager’s ability to help the customer define their needs and then satisfy them. What we do is organize that workflow into a simple format and provide them with tools they can rely on to add efficiency and effectiveness to the interaction.”
“To sell additional products to an informed consumer base, it’s necessary to build value through education. Customers need to know what they really risk losing when waiving potential benefits,” St. John says. Whatever the customer’s level of familiarity, “All of these present a real opportunity for AutoFi to help customers arrive at a win/win decision that benefits both them and the dealers. Many customers find themselves in the ‘general understanding of F&I products’ or ‘needs products explained in full’ segments. AutoFi assists car buyers with learning as much or little in advance as they desire.”
Thorpe adds that, throughout his company’s history, “We’ve always assumed we already had an informed customer,” a conceit he believes is reflected in the technology The Impact Group brings to market. “We think that’s a differentiator for us, truthfully. Our platform is easy to use and intuitive for both the producer and their client. Our presentation conveys transparency to the customer, which they deserve and appreciate, and is designed to be easy and fun for the producer to use.”
Change the Process and Sell More F&I
Asked what changes to the F&I sales process will be necessary over the next five years, Stafford is blunt.
“We will need to get better at selling F&I protection to customers that aren’t in the finance office,” he says.
That “radical transformation” is already taking place in dealerships around the nation, St. John says, and it reflects a motivation on the agent’s and dealer’s part to gain or maintain a competitive edge by keeping pace with customers’ changing wants and needs.
“I believe the industry will see a continual blending of the entire sales process — uniting the process from clicks to contracts,” St. John says. “Consumer experience plays a critical role in a dealership’s ability to differentiate itself in order to grow market share and increase profitability.”
“There’s always been a small segment of the buying public that finds the automotive buying experience so daunting that they’ll do anything to avoid setting foot in a dealership. Now, technology makes that theoretically possible,” Thorpe says.
Carvana’s recent success aside, Thorpe adds, most people don’t want to buy a car from a vending machine, because most people have questions and concerns a vending machine can’t answer or allay. They understand that a major investment should be facilitated by an expert — but not necessarily on the expert’s schedule and terms.
“We need to continue to evolve our supporting F&I technology so that the experience is easier and quicker for all stakeholders of the transaction and maintains continuity from the beginning of the customer’s experience to the end,” he says. “For our part, we’re going to continue to build on what we’ve done for the last three decades and focus our support for the F&I department and our users on providing the most customer and user-friendly tools in the marketplace.”
For More Information,Visit Our Website
How much information about F&I products should a dealership website provide? The more the better, according to AutoFi’s Joe St. John.
“Helping a customer understand the different risk factors and protection options is paramount,” he says.
The Impact Group’s Garrett Thorpe agrees, but there is one piece of information about F&I products he doesn’t want to see on dealer websites.
“We support the general concept of a dealer showing the benefits of their offerings so that their customers will know what’s available to mitigate the inherent risks of their purchase, but we stop short on disclosing any pricing,” Thorpe says. “There are just too many factors in that respect that can’t be accounted for without a more customized interaction or personal dialogue with the customer.”
Jeff Stafford of Darwin Automotive urges agents and dealers to consider the question from the car buyer’s standpoint.
“Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. How much would you want to know?” he asks. “If you as a consumer would want the opportunity to research and educate yourself — which I think we can all agree we would — you should have information similar to what you would include in a brochure or a link to a product video.”