TAMPA, FL – Finance and insurance products are finding their way to car dealership websites, but not without bumps in the road and resistance from some worried F&I managers.

Few dealership websites currently contain high levels of F&I information, loan applications and interactivity. Those elements are conspicuous absences online, say participants of an F&I panel discussion at the Ward’s Automotive Spring Training Conference here.

They say it’s time F&I becomes a greater presence on websites, allowing consumers to do everything from obtaining financing to calculating car payments to selecting aftermarket accessories.

“The finance guys at dealerships may want to keep it in the backroom, but it is what the consumer wants,” says Brian Hoecht, CEO and founder of software startups Ai-Dealer and Auto-Grok. “Bring the F&I process forward.”

Some F&I managers in the audience fret that a largely self-service F&I process online could prevent them from personally presenting products and services, hurting their profit margins and those of the dealerships.

But allowing customers “to take mental ownership” expedites F&I and vehicle sales, says Bryan Dorfler of Automotive Finance Consultants Inc.

“It’s foolish to keep F&I close to your chest,” he says. “Have a tool for online credit applications. Have online real-time calculators for people to figure out payments. They’re going to find out anyway.”

Non-dealer finance websites offer vehicle-lending tools because few dealerships offer them, or do so lamely, says Pete MacInnis, CEO and founder of DealerCentric Solutions Inc., a provider of online credit applications to dealers.

“There are a lot of customers that would love dealers to step up and help them with online financing,” he says.

Dealerships currently offering online financing tend to attract credit-challenged customers. “It’s an embarrassment factor,” MacInnis says. “A customer doesn’t want to go to the dealership and find out he doesn’t qualify for a loan.”

Most dealerships fail to set up financing that attracts a wide range of Internet customers, he says. “Dealership websites have been these horrible forms that chase away everyone except the credit-challenged.

“Then, when there are no sales and few applications, the dealer says, ‘It isn’t worth it,’ when, in reality, it was a lousy product.”

A loan-application banner should be on the same Web page as dealership inventory, MacInnis says. “People go to a dealer website to buy cars, not financing. But they need financing to buy cars. That’s why your finance banner should be on the inventory pages.”

Good dealership websites are interactive, multifunctional and much more than “a digital billboard,” Hoecht says.

“Consumers don’t go to a website to send an email,” he says. “That’s not e-commerce. Amazon.com’s website doesn’t say, ‘Send an email, and one of our sales consultants will get back with you.’

“Many dealers say, ‘We’re taking this Internet thing under protest; what we really want is to get customers into the showroom,’” Hoecht says.

That attitude can lead to poor websites. “If you don’t bring F&I forward – if you don’t bring the sales process forward – all you are is an interactive Yellow Pages,” Hoecht says.

To him, an ideal website allows a customer to put a car in a “shopping cart,” submit credit information and then get back monthly payment and loan rates.

“People build their own car deals and then forward them to dealers,” Hoecht says. “People can do that at home and at their own pace.”

Dealership websites sometimes “propose marriage on the first date,” he says. “They say, ‘Here’s a picture of a car, tell us who you are.’

“You indeed should require shoppers to tell you who they are so they can get what they want online – credit, trade information, everything you sell,” he says. “That should be available. But they at least have to tell you who they are.”

The sales department and the F&I office should work together to structure a deal and payment plan for a vehicle a customer can reasonably afford, Dorfler says.

“Gone are the days of putting anything together and hoping it sticks,” he says. “If you learn about the customer and their needs, then give them information that is to their perceived benefit, they’ll take advantage of that.”

Dorfler, a former F&I manager, says dealership desk managers should have prior F&I experience, because “you need someone who knows how deals are financed.”

Hoecht, a former dealership general manager, says some F&I managers are “hostile” when he sets up websites with “true shopping-cart e-commerce.”

Such F&I managers are shortsighted, says Dorfler. “They’ll say, ‘We’re losing everything.’ But if the option is customers not coming in, what are you losing?”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com