DEERFIELD BEACH, FL - In the motion picture “City Slickers,” Jack Palance's surly Curly tells Billy Crystal's Mets-cap-wearing Mitch that there's only “one thing” that's important in life. Michael Yoder says the same thing about the F&I training course he instructs here at the JM&A Performance Development Center (PDC).

Curly's “one thing” was about friendship. Mr. Yoder's “one thing” is “how to handle customer objections in a non-confrontational way.”

Certainly there is a lot more to learn during two- to five-day courses on JM&A's corporate compound, but that is the essence of Mr. Yoder's course, which had 13 students, representing several states as well as Mexico during one week last month.

Students learned Mr. Yoder's “one thing” by starting from the basics of the F&I department and its goals. The instructor impresses on his charges the importance of the department by telling them that retained earnings from “the box” — as the F&I desk is referred to — are 69% versus 3.5% in the new-car and 9.3% in the used-car departments.

“I believe the F&I department is the pressure cooker of the business,” says Mr. Yoder, who in his early 30s has been in the car business since he was 18.

In addition to Mr. Yoder's instruction, which is a cross between motivational speech and Sunday preaching, the course includes at least an hour of homework each night and video-taped role playing in a model F&I office with Reynolds & Reynolds computer equipment and software that add to the realism.

Most of Mr. Yoder's students in this class are new to the F&I part of the business. Others are new to JM&A's menu-style selling or are just looking to improve their performances and incomes.

Ben Ferris of Gettle Toyota-Kia in Sarasota, FL is new to the F&I department and says he expects to “gain a lot more knowledge and confidence in selling financial and warranty products.”

Steve Baker, business manager at Crown Honda-Volvo in Chapel Hill, NC, says, “I want to make a lot of money by learning the process and the F&I products.”

Crown Automotive, part of Asbury Automotive, sent four people to the course and recently had a JM&A trainer come to North Carolina to tutor another eight people.

“We've been with JM&A for two years and it has been very good for our stores,” says Ron Edwards of Dick Edwards Ford in Manhattan, KS. “But there's always room for improvement.”

As students converge on this Florida town at a rate of 3,000 per year to improve themselves and their dealership's bottom line, JM&A continually is improving its performance training center and expanding its offerings.

Last year, JM&A expanded not only its F&I training program for its customers, but added programs in front-end sales, which are available to any dealer's employees, says Bruce Foster, director of JM&A's PDC.

In 2000, about 1,000 F&I managers attended courses in Deerfield Beach. This year that number is expected to reach 1,600.

“Our F&I training is without a doubt a competitive advantage,” says Mr. Foster. “That's why we hold it out for our customers.”

Another 1,500 sales people and sales managers will attend the front-end sales training courses, which include sessions on how to sell a car and how to be a professional sales person.

The new sales training program introduces a new “desking system,” developed by JM&A.

“All other front-end sales training does the same thing,” says Mr. Foster. “Ours marries perfectly with the F&I department. It includes a menu-style selling system for the front end and conditions customers in front to buy in the back.

“We teach them to use the same language in both the front and the back so the customers aren't blindsided by a new approach when they go from one department to the other.”

With employee turnover being the issue it is among the dealership ranks, training is critical, Mr. Foster notes. “The more successfully trained a person is, the more success they're going to have early and the less likely they are to leave. And the better the training, the more selective the dealer can be when hiring.”

Mr. Foster says there is a difference between teaching and training and between off-site learning and that done at the dealership.

“We are trainers as opposed to teachers,” he says. “We test at the beginning and test at the end so we know that we have changed their behavior.”

While there are some advantages to training sessions at the dealership, particularly as a follow-up to what's learned in Florida, Mr. Foster says new hires and people new to vehicle sales or F&I sales can benefit from the trip to Deerfield Beach.