Adam Marburger of Ascent Dealer Services shares how small F&I agencies can compete against corporate giants.

Adam Marburger of Ascent Dealer Services shares how small F&I agencies can compete against corporate giants.

Adam Marburger knew he wanted to be an F&I manager the minute he started selling cars at a Wood River, Illinois, Nissan dealership.

“I literally asked every single day until they put me in that position,” he says. “I was 22 years old when they promoted me to F&I manager.”

The professionalism of the role and the ability to meet with every customer attracted his interest. “I’m a social guy. I love talking to people,” he says. “And let’s also be clear, my 22-year-old self also knew these guys made a lot of money and that appealed to me, too.” 

The now owner of Ascent Dealer Services quickly realized there’s a lot more to the role and that he had a lot to learn. 

First, he discovered he had to inject structure, discipline and organization into his work. He explains a car salesperson gets the deal written up and puts the right paperwork into the deal jacket, then walks away. But an F&I manager touches every deal.

“You are not only responsible for your deals, but you’re also accountable for everyone else’s deals. And you in charge of keeping everything compliant and for giving customers the experience they expect,” he says. 

He also uncovered a need for humility. “I thought I was the best. I didn’t need coaching, I already knew everything,” he says. “I quickly realized that was far from the case. To succeed in F&I, you need to understand you are work in progress and you don’t have it all figured out.” 

This mindset kept Marburger in F&I at some level over the last two decades, but his entrepreneurial nature led him to launch new ventures as well, one of which was Ascent Dealer Services, a firm that helps dealerships elevate and innovate F&I sales. 

Marburger started Ascent Dealer Services in 2019 right before the pandemic held the country hostage for over a year. He explains he made a great income but wasn’t happy and needed to try something new. He worked for another agent for a year and a half before launching Ascent Dealer Services, which has since become a sought-after agency for F&I products, coaching and training.

“Now I tell people if you can master the F&I office, you’re an entrepreneur,” he says. “You may work for a dealer, but you possess the skill set to do anything you want.”

Coaching and Mentoring

Coaching and mentoring increases job satisfaction and performance, boosts professional development, builds problem analysis and strategic thinking skills and increases self-confidence. With benefits like this, one would think every F&I provider would offer coaching.

“But I started Ascent because I noticed there was a severe lack of professional coaching and mentoring,” he says. “People would come in and do fancy word tracks, but they had little relevance to the objections F&I managers really encounter.” 

Marburger developed the Exit Strategy Closing Series of coaching to close these gaps. This strategy focuses more on exit strategy and less on tactics like payment manipulation and repair scares.

“We specialize in what I call ‘hard no’ objections,” he says. “It’s pretty easy to payment manipulate and extend the term, but those things will not work with the difficult customer. That training put us on the map and separated us from other coaches.”

Marburger believes all F&I product providers should offer coaching to dealership F&I departments. “Whoever provides products to the dealership should have some due diligence in place to help the dealer scale their department,” he says. 

He then describes the steps for coaches to follow.

  1. Get buy in from the dealer. Successful training comes from the top down, he explains. “The dealer must let everyone know of his commitment to continuous coaching,” he says. 
  2. Understand the culture of the store and the retail customer.
  3. Identify the personality type of every member of the F&I team. “I do this through one-on-one interviews and assessments,” he says. “Then I customize training to the individual.”
  4. Listen well and build a relationship with people. “Once we do that, we can get to work,” he says.
  5. Develop accountability. “That’s the part that is most difficult for people to swallow. But it’s the most profitable part for everyone,” he says. Ascent Dealer Services provides both in-person and virtual training. “We record every single coaching session and send a follow up to the dealer principal, general manager and F&I person,” he says. 
  6. Use data to keep growing. “We look at the data every Monday and share it with everyone,” he says. “Then we coach to the deficiencies. But the real magic happens one on one. It’s critical that we get into the head of the person we are coaching and understand their career and life goals.” 

Taking on the Giants

In a presentation titled “How Small Agencies Can Take on the Giants,” Marburger talked to attendees at the Agent Summit about changes they can make to compete with larger agencies.

He starts the talk by stating, “dealers can get F&I products from anyone.” Then he asks, “So, what are you willing to do to set yourself apart and serve that dealer?”

He reminded attendees that Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) of finance and insurance agencies dominated the market in 2021. The industry saw around 12,855 completed deals across the U.S. and Canada, for a total transaction value of $1.86 trillion. Based on current trends, 2022 will bring more of the same.

In a market where agencies keep getting bigger and bigger, smaller F&I agencies must highlight their value proposition, which includes flexibility and personalization, according to Marburger.

“There is a lot to be said for large companies, but a huge ship is very difficult to steer,” he explains. “When you are small, you’re nimble and can do things differently. A lot of dealers don’t want that corporate feel, they want a personal touch. There will be a place for small agencies forever.”

While coaching can set up an agency for success, social media helps an agency grow, he adds. Marburger notes he grew Ascent Dealer Services from a small two-person operation to a national entity using social media to advertise and grow the business.

“Today, 90% of all of our business is an incoming lead on two platforms: Linked In and Facebook,” he says. “By creating relevant content and posting consistently, I built a little empire. I don’t have to cold call. I don’t knock on any doors. I have 12 agents knocking on doors for me. Social media is how you take on the big agency and dominate the space.” 

But relevant content looks different from two years ago, he adds. In 2020, the pandemic made the market a little soft. Today, F&I sales average $2,000 a car. Now, relevant topics include: 

  • How to deal with difficult customers. 
  • How to convert customers in an engaging conversation that overcomes objections. 
  • How to use digital retailing to improve F&I sales.

“We found dealers in some markets need more help with digital retailing,” he says. “But most dealers also need help with cash transactions, finance transactions and with selling products to customers who don’t want them.”

Besides the right topics, Marburger recommends, “Have fun with your content. Be real. Put yourself out there. And be authentic.” 

He stresses a dedicated marketing team presents the best way to boost online presence. While it is an expense, he says it will pay off in spades.

“You need a marketing team and must be relentless in your marketing efforts. You need someone who understands email blasts, video, social media and other factors,” he says. “For a smaller agency to dominate, they must move away from knocking on doors and reach as many people as possible.”

He adds, “Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a worthwhile investment to hire a marketing team. You cannot convert a sales lead into a sale without marketing. I tell people to double down on their marketing efforts and the sales will follow.” 

Ronnie Wendt is an editor at Agent Entrepreneur magazine.