Today's consumers still don't know as much as you do about auto finance and insurance. But they know a lot more than before.

With vast amounts of information available to the consumer, the F&I department must be managed to remain a profit center while helping promote vehicle sales earlier in the shopping process.

As studies keep showing, virtually all consumers today do vehicle and purchase research on the Internet prior to buying.

Studies also show the buying process now is longer than ever, with consumers starting several months before the final sale. All customers are Internet customers to some degree.

F&I tends to be overlooked in helping vehicle sales through Internet leads.

Instead, the web site is usually limited to a static credit application; a minimal listing of manufacturers' finance incentives and sometimes a special finance tab. These are a start, but really just the basic minimum.

Compounding these self-imposed constraints is the Internet manager who likely lacks significant F&I exposure. The average business-development center representative probably has even less.

These often are the consumer's first dealership contacts, while the F&I department is relegated to the final act of the sale. With closing rates on Internet leads averaging below 10%, it makes sense to leverage F&I sooner and with increased frequency throughout the process to improve closing ratios.

The opportunity to engage customers sooner is vital to keeping them interested in your dealership. Towards that goal, F&I should be a more integrated part of the Internet sales process.

What could possibly be a stronger tool to tie a consumer to the dealership than a completed credit application and approval?

Steps that could help include:

  • Highlight promotional finance offers early and often. The sooner the consumer can be encouraged to complete the credit application to see what the best program available to them might be, the greater the tie to that dealership. Include links to the credit application in all customer emails. Eventually 85% of them will require financing, so keep that business at the dealership and engage them early.
  • With the sales cycle now over three months, the captive finance firms' programs will likely change several times after the initial purchase request. Following up old leads are hardly an Internet manager's favorite job, but these customers are looking for that call to action that gets them to buy now. Older leads have value and must be contacted regularly.
  • Mystery shop your Internet department, both directly through the website and third-party lead providers. Setting up free email addresses is simple, as is getting a temporary phone number for this exercise. Ask for lease quotes or other finance information and see how long it takes to get the information returned, if it is returned at all. Check for accuracy.
  • Review the emphasis and placement of finance option with the web site designer. There are now interactive credit applications that generate significantly increased customer completion and subsequent sales that are worth investigating.
  • Use F&I products to help close the sale. Rather than simply lowering the vehicle price yet again to close the deal, look to see if particular aftermarket accessories or a discounted vehicle service contract are hot buttons.
  • Regular F&I training for the BDC and Internet departments. Be sure they are aware of all current rates and programs and can speak inteligently to the consumer.
  • Use Internet communications to market accessories and extended service contracts to those customers that did not buy at time of delivery. There is additional revenue there, but needs to be asked for by your dealership.

The F&I department can help improve Internet sales, if given the chance.

F&I consultant Bryan Dorfler can be reached at bryan@automotivefinanceconsultants.com.

Questions or comments about this column? Send us an e-mail at Dealers@wardsauto.com.