LAS VEGAS – It’s relatively easy getting Internet car shoppers interested in a dealership’s online vehicle inventory. After all, they are looking to buy a car.

But they’re not so much in the market for finance and insurance products. Buying those typically comes after the vehicle purchase, if at all. A dealer can sell a car without F&I products, but not vice versa.

Yet F&I is finding a place in cyberspace. Some skeptics question whether the dealership department lends itself to a complete digital customer experience. But dealers are seeing a growing interest there.

“We are looking at the Internet customers and how to handle them because our dealers are demanding that,” says Alan Bond, vice president-national sales for GSFSGroup. “We’ve put a process in place.”

He and other F&I company executives at the annual F&I Conference and Expo here discuss modern ways, online and off, to present automotive extras such as extended-service warranties, gap insurance and maintenance plans.

As digital dealerships expand, the F&I industry looks at options to what traditionally has been in-person selling.

Most car buyers close the deal at the store, then visit the F&I office for a product presentation.  But some want to stay online throughout, Bond says, explaining ways to accommodate them. “We ask if the customer has a webcam. If they do, we can show them the product menu.”

IAS does something similar, says Jeff Jagoe, senior vice president-sales and marketing. “We email the Internet customer a video presentation. It shows all we offer. It’s wrong to think you can’t sell F&I online.”

A sales fundamental applies whether the customer is online or off, Bond says: “If the F&I manager doesn’t create a need in the mind of the customer, that product won’t be sold, regardless of the technology.”

But in-store presentations remain the most effective, says Joel McGlamry, vice president-finance operations for Hennessy Automobile Companies, an 11-store Atlanta-based dealership group.

“We do attempt to bring the customer to the dealership,” he says. “The close rates there are exponentially higher. We want the F&I manager with the customers and the product menu in front of them.”     

Even with the customer at the dealership, modern Internet technology is reshaping the way F&I products are presented and sold. For example, many shoppers use their smartphones and other mobile devices in the F&I office to research and compare prices.

 “It has become a passionate issue,” says Rick Kurtz, Protective Asset Protection’s vice president-dealer sales. “The underlying issue is that the customer wants greater control. They want to be a part of the process, not just walk into the F&I office.”

Mercedes-Benz Financial has been in the forefront of providing its dealers with iPads to expedite financing, add-on product presentations and the like. The captive lender says the computer tablets give dealership staffers a freedom of movement and allow them to interact with customers outside the F&I office.

That might not be a great idea, says David Duncan, president of Safe-Guard Products International.

“I’m cautious about trying to take F&I out of the F&I office,” he says. “If you are going to flash information on a 40-in. screen in the office, I’m all for it, but I’m not for taking an iPad on the sales floor where there are balloons and other customers. There’s a certain expectation of privacy with F&I.”   

F&I managers still play a vital role, with or without new technology, McGlamry says. “They drive the process. They must be trained properly. Technology alone won’t sell F&I. F&I managers need to find out customer needs and do their job.”

But he doesn’t object to using computer tablets to expedite the sale.

“Even with iPads in the customer’s hand, you can still control the direction of the presentation,” McGlamry says. “They feel like they are driving. It is tailored to their needs. Customers want to be treated as individuals.”

Satisfaction scores suffer when customers spend too much time in the F&I office, or waiting to get in. Computer tablets and electronic menus can help there, Bond says. “Technology can speed up the process.”    

sfinlay@wardsauto.com