Today’s world is increasingly “connected.” We are armed with phones and tablets, constantly plugged into our social networks, emails, texts and phone calls. We have any information we could want at the tip of our fingers – and the car-buying process is no different. Before even walking through the dealership’s doors, consumers have researched every aspect they can of the car-buying process.

In fact, research shows a staggering 98% of all car shoppers are researching their cars online before stepping foot onto a dealer lot. They are spending anywhere from two to eight hours comparing models, features and trim options. But what about F&I? Unfortunately, consumers don’t have access to much information regarding F&I products. A Cox Automotive study found one of the biggest obstacles we face in F&I is low consumer awareness — customers simply don’t know enough about F&I products, what they are or how they bring value.

Multiple studies point toward the need for F&I to go online, with the information becoming more accessible to the consumer. Customers aren’t happy with the current car-buying process, and even dealers think the process should go faster than it already does. Wouldn’t accessible F&I information help speed along this process, alleviate stress for the F&I manager and appease customers, building a stronger connection to the dealer overall?

Are dealers worried if customers have advance knowledge and a basic understanding of these products, they won’t buy them? Maybe they feel a lack of polished, customer-facing information built for online viewing is an issue? Are dealers worried about losing the “personal touch” of the face-to-face interaction? Here’s a breakdown of why each of these points shouldn’t be stopping our industry from embracing the Internet.

Transparency. Customers are far more likely to be open to hearing about F&I products if they feel like both the process and the products are transparent and open. Research shows consumers who walk into the office with a firm grasp as to what the products are and what value they bring to the table are far more likely to actually make a purchase decision than those who come in blind. While many dealers, agents and providers have thus far resisted efforts to make F&I product information widely available to the public for fear of commoditizing them, or starting price wars, the opposite can be true as well; dealers who present the products as valuable differentiators can use the information to give them a competitive advantage and capture more business. The goal here is to drive demand in a transparent way, so consumers know exactly what they are walking into when they step onto the dealership lot.

Online Presentation Capability. As product providers, we need to give dealers the capability to showcase our F&I products on their website. If dealerships can list their vehicle inventory online they should be able to list their F&I product lineup online as well. If F&I products are presented in a valuable and easily understandable way, then customers will be able to review and discuss the products best suited for their lifestyle. In fact, car shoppers say they are 71% more likely to purchase F&I products if they can research the products at home. RoadVantage has started to address this issue by offering free videos and electronic point-of-sale materials to dealers, but that is just the tip of the solution. The market is headed in this direction, and all providers will need to be able to provide their dealers with the information customers are seeking, in a form that makes it engaging and as easy to incorporate onto a website as it is into a face-to-face presentation.

Dealership Relationships. There have been fears that offering more of the process online will lead to less of a “personal touch,” but the reality is that for many consumers, that shift is already happening. Consumers are looking for ways to streamline and optimize their buying experience in nearly every other facet of their lives. Those in the industry who embrace this philosophy and find ways to build more value into the experience across the board will ultimately find the most success. Providing F&I information online will enhance the face-to-face interaction because customers will have an opportunity to research, review and understand the true value of F&I products in advance. This can spark a natural conversation in the F&I manager’s office – if the customer walks in the door already asking about specific F&I products, the F&I manager’s job is much easier, and the entire F&I process is faster and less painful for all involved.

It’s understandable that many have fears about commoditizing F&I products. However, consumers are demanding information about coverages and features, not necessarily pricing. The ultimate goal is to help dealers convey the value proposition for F&I products, just as we do with our printed point-of-sale materials. As an industry, we can cater to the Information Age without commoditizing our products.

Another common fear is that by sharing information online, consumers will walk in the door with a firm decision already made about the products before the F&I manager gets a chance to talk to them. But how is that any different from the situation F&I managers already face every day? Research shows that many consumers already enter F&I managers’ offices believing they are out to sell them something they don’t need. On top of that are the articles and publications dedicated to telling consumers all the reasons they shouldn’t buy F&I products. However, research indicates that when consumers research products online, they are actually more likely to see the value, and to come in with an open mind. Yes, there will always be a few consumers who simply refuse to even listen to a presentation, but that is no different than it is today — and more information might actually decrease the number of those objections F&I managers have to overcome.

The bottom line is that online shopping for every product a consumer could possibly want is becoming a way of life. If we are proactive about educating consumers and showcasing the value of our products in the same way manufacturers showcase value for their brands, then everyone — from the provider, to the dealer, to the consumer — will win.

Author: Garret Lacour

Garret Lacour, CEO of RoadVantage, is a 30-year F&I industry leader. Garret co-founded Innovative Aftermarket Systems (IAS) in 1984, starting with just one product. As IAS’ CEO, he helped to grow the company to a full-suite ancillary products provider, the first in the industry to adopt menu selling and multimedia F&I presentations. Garret also helped shape the F&I industry with creative new products and ideas. During Garret’s tenure as CEO, IAS evolved into a $100 million company and when sold in 2007, it was the oldest of only three full-suite national providers. Garret founded Vantage Administration Services, LP and the RoadVantage brand to leverage his industry experience and perspective to build a better automotive aftermarket ancillary product company, from the ground up.

Digital Dealer