It’s back to school for many car dealerships’ finance and insurance personnel.

An estimated 60% of dealers have increased F&I training in recent years, while 45% have sent finance managers to National Automobile Dealers Assn. and lender-sponsored courses, according to surveys by NADA and others.

The stepped-up training partly stems from the need to know about, and comply with, a greater number of government regulations affecting dealerships. Many other training and retraining programs are designed to boost sales and profits back at the store.

The Internet has opened up training possibilities. Dealers with limited F&I staffs, such as North Texas Hyundai in Greenville, TX, use online training programs.

Brent Saulters, the dealership’s sole F&I staffer, logs on for classes produced by the Association of F&I Professionals.

He says he “refreshes” himself in three areas: compliance; Hyundai-brand aftermarket product updates; and back-to-basics selling of F&I products and car leases.

Course attendance is up after a low point during the 2009 recession, says David Robertson, who heads AFIP.

Dealership chain Sonic Automotive has pioneered F&I training for its dealership staffs through “Sonic University.” All Sonic F&I and sales staffers are required to take the Web-based courses annually.

The courses have helped reduce F&I staff turnover from 65% in 2007 to 35% now, says Jeff Dyke, Sonic’s vice president-operations.

Sonic University classes stress profitability and taking the high road.

“There's no wiggle room in F&I,” he says of the focus on proper and ethical procedures. “We have developed a very strict set of policies and expect perfection in their application by the Sonic team.”

The mandated high standards came after the dealership group suffered a bout of negative publicity in 2003.

Using a hidden camera, Dateline NBC exposed shady finance and insurance doings at certain Sonic dealerships. It was the latest – and most public – in a rash of F&I woes plaguing Sonic.

The dealership chain reacted by taking strong, far-reaching actions, learning from “painful lessons,” an executive said at the time.

Dealers surveyed by WardsAuto indicate various F&I training venues. Eighteen percent of dealers do it in-house, 37% via outside trainers, 21% through auto makers and 14% with AFIP.

Only 10% forgo F&I manager training, half the number of five years ago.

The survey shows many courses focus on security training, identity-theft prevention, video recordings of F&I transactions with customer approval, privacy issues and properly maintaining, securing and destroying customer financial data.

Some trainers also suggest taking F&I activities out of conventional small offices, where customers may feel confined and more aware of how long a presentation takes.

Training also covers the development and use of attractive, easy-to-understand F&I menus that list products individually and in packages. Many dealers are using online versions and computer-tablet applications that give them greater mobility and deeper access to information.

Training to improve performance has become “more and more productive” over the years, says Gary Allgeier, who heads F&I operations for the 45-dealership Suburban Collection based in Troy, MI.

Suburban’s adoption of an Intravision online training program in 2009 has resulted in a jump in F&I revenues of $200-per-vehicle, a 40% gain, he says.

Intravision also video records customer transactions on a selective basis. F&I managers view the videos to see what they are doing right and wrong and take corrective steps, if necessary.

– with Steve Finlay