Suddenly F&I training is finding itself more challenged than ever.

That's because, finance & insurance itself is undergoing a severe challenge, due to the Internet's influence on the vehicle sales process.

"Weaving the profitable F&I operation into Internet selling is top priority for the entire industry," declares Universal Underwriters eastern regional chief Michael Tuno.

He adds, "The Internet by its nature brings dealers reduced sales margins, and a way has to be found to keep F&I product sales strong to protect bottom-line profitability."

Coping with this challenge is a top-level concern as F&I training classes enter the 2001-model season.

At focus group F&I sessions being conducted for the first time by Chrysler Financial across the country, sales and F&I managers are exploring ways of developing customer-friendly techniques adaptable both online and with traditional walk-in customers.

The five-day sessions, says Chrysler Financial training chief Francis Brown, "are designed to change the face of F&I in our dealerships forever."

That reflects the role of the Internet in changing expectations of consumers, Mr. Brown says.

Ford Credit is deeply involved in the first online vehicle ordering and financing system being tested among 24 Ford and Ford Lincoln dealers in Ontario.

It is seeking to assure that dedicated Internet sales consultants offer shoppers such products as extended service contracts, credit and lease gap insurance and the like.

But a survey of Ford dealers in the Hamilton/Niagara pilot found that few consultants so far were adding F&I items to the menu of options available, once the vehicle and its options had been selected and the payment issues decided.

"This is all so new that we concentrate on the vehicle first and foremost, although our business manager certainly is available," says Cort Day, Jr., general manager of Day Ford Lincoln, St. Catherines, Ont.

"When everything is done online, turning a customer over to an F&I manager isn't the same as when the customer is in the showroom."

The rapid growth of Internet selling is prompting some F&I veterans to fear the future of their profession as a stand-alone department.

But Mr. Tuno doubts this will happen if dealers adapt to the Internet and learn from recast training courses how to adjust the F&I process to their own web sites.

Resource Training is relocating in October to a new headquarters building in Glenview, IL, joining a new facilities move that started with GMAC and added American Financial and JM&A to the list this year.

Resource, an AON subsidiary, is putting emphasis on two-week training programs for financial services consultants, according to training director Andrew Blazsanyik.

"One-week programs still predominate," says Mr. Blazsanyik, "but the two-weekers are more intense and focused on interfacing with sales departments, including Internet."

American Financial & Automotive Services and Western Diversified have announced 2001 training schedules for week-long programs which cover all F&I practices but with more attention to customer satisfaction.

Bank One Credit Co. addresses its dealer client F&I training on an internal basis, says creative services manager Sandra Gilligan.

The company is developing an online-tuned model designed to show dealers how the F&I process can be expedited to each dealer's business managers, with company sales staffers guiding the dealers through the process on a regular basis.

The Internet explosion has not changed once tried-and-true F&I customer-incentive awards for sales achievements.

GMAC plans a "Grand Travel" Mediterranean cruise next summer for contest winners in GMAC sales-contract and GMPP service-agreement categories.

Thirteen contest groups have been designated among GM dealers with, needless to say, GMAC floorplans.