Taking the angst out of the F&I process
Shortly after joining Byers Ford in Columbus, Ohio, as general manager about two years ago, Chuck Greene became frustrated by the delay between when a customer agreed to buy a car and when that customer entered the finance and insurance office.
So he launched a pilot program to speed up the start of the F&I process.
The pilot was such a hit that Geo. Byers Sons Holding Inc., which owns eight dealerships selling 17 brands, put it in all of the group's dealerships nine months ago.
"People are used to the old way of doing things," Greene says. "But once they saw my numbers jump, they said, 'Maybe we'd better try it.'"
Many dealers, F&I managers and automakers decry the cumbersome, time-consuming process of getting a customer -- who has just agreed to buy a vehicle -- from the sales desk to the F&I office, in part because the delay drags down customer satisfaction scores.
It doesn't have to take that long. To speed things up, F&I managers and dealership consultants recommend the following:
-- Have the sales staff, not the F&I manager, enter all the customer's data.
-- Make sure the finance manager talks to the customer at some point during the sales process to build rapport.
-- Have the finance manager create a personalized F&I menu for the customer.
"The time that customers get antsy is the time from when they say yes to the time they get into the finance office to sign the paperwork," Greene says.
"We fill that void with communication. They're already friends with the finance officer before they get back there."
Ending the 'unpredictable'
Byers Ford sells about 1,200 new and used vehicles a year. There are two finance managers at the dealership.
Before Greene implemented the pilot program, Byers Ford's sales process was "unpredictable," Greene says. It could take 60 to 90 minutes to move a customer from the sales desk to the finance office. Customized F&I menus were rarely presented to a customer.
After a customer agreed to buy a vehicle, he or she often would be left waiting while the F&I manager processed the credit application, set up other paperwork or finished with another customer. Only after that was done would the customer be brought into the F&I office to sign forms and be offered other F&I products.
Greene's changes began with having the sales manager enter the customer's main information into the computer. Previously, the dealership waited until a deal was struck and had the finance manager do it.
"We've streamlined the process by putting all the information in at the sales desk," Greene says. "The finance manager has to just verify the information is correct with the customer. That's a 15-minute savings right there."
Another way to streamline the process is to have the customer complete as much paperwork as possible via e-mail or an online credit application before coming into the dealership, Greene says.
Once a customer agrees to buy a car, the finance manager greets the customer. The finance manager confirms the customer's contact information and explains the delivery process.
"The customer is still in the salesperson's office at this point," Greene says. "The customer does not need to be hauled all over the dealership into that mysterious room where the guy is going to try to sell them something like the Wizard of Oz."
Profits, CSI rise
The key to Greene's system's success is that there is already a rapport with the finance manager before the customer enters the F&I office, and the finance manager will have created a customized menu of F&I products.
"Based on the interview, we know the customer's driving habits, so we can tailor a service contract that best suits their needs," Greene says. "You don't want them paying for a 100,000-mile service contract when they only drive 60,000 miles."
The pilot was so effective that Byers Ford's gross F&I profits rose by about $300,000 in the first year.
How? The personalized menus resonated with many customers, as did the faster turnaround of Byers' sales process. For those reasons, Greene says, plus the rapport many customers had with the finance manager once they got in the finance office, customers spent an additional $250, on average, on F&I products vs. what customers had spent before Byers Ford implemented the new process.
The new process also whittled down the time between when a customer agrees to buy a car and when that customer enters the F&I office from an hour before to less than 30 minutes now. And the store's customer satisfaction scores went up.
Greene conducts weekly training sessions with role playing to reinforce the process. But he says it'll be difficult to speed the process further because of increased regulations on documents that dealers must present to customers for signatures.
Automakers want speed
Mike Conn, business manager at Dryer & Reinbold Inc., a dealership in Greenwood, Ind., says many automakers are addressing the issue of the time it takes to get a customer into the finance office. Lengthy times hurt CSI scores, he says.
"I went to an Infiniti management training class, and that was their No. 1 concern: the time to get into the finance office," Conn says. "The customer's clock starts ticking the minute they say, 'Yes, I want to buy the car.'"
Conn handles about 100 deals a month as the finance manager at Dryer & Reinbold, which sells Subaru, Volkswagen, BMW and Infiniti.
Conn tries hard to meet each customer at the salesperson's cubicle first because the customer is already comfortable sitting there.
"I'll engage them in conversation with things like, 'Who's getting the car?' We'll talk about their driving needs and why they chose that car," Conn says. "I'll ask them how many miles a year they drive, when do they get it serviced and have they had this brand before? That allows me to put together a menu for them."
Conn says manufacturers have different expectations of how long it should take to get the customer into the finance office. In general, they'd like to see it take 15 to 45 minutes. Some days Conn can achieve that. Other days he cannot. It all depends on store traffic.
Dealer Vince Sheehy admits his dealership group, Sheehy Auto Stores of Fairfax, Va., could do a better job at introducing the finance managers to the customers during the sales process.
Sheehy Auto Stores ranks No. 31 on the Automotive News list of the top 125 U.S. dealership groups, with total 2011 new retail sales of 15,669 units.
But Sheehy, president of the group, says unpredictable traffic flow makes it challenging to adhere to an efficient sales process.
"I can tell you that our plan is to always have an F&I officer with a customer early on," he says. But that doesn't happen "if they have four deals backed up in the finance office."
Sheehy vows to improve that going forward because when finance managers can talk to customers earlier in the process it results in more tailored F&I menus -- another thing his dealerships don't do enough of now, he says.
"We want to build a little rapport," says Sheehy. "But the big win is to find out what the customer is really looking for."
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