Dealers who believe F&I should move to the front of the sales process should start with their websites.

Dealers who believe F&I should move to the front of the sales process should start with their websites. 

Most of you reading this have already heard — and may even be convinced — that there’s an online car-buying revolution going on. This may sound like déjà vu to those of you who were working in dealerships when Autobytel sold the first purchase requests in the mid-’90s. We appeared to be witnessing the dawn of a whole new customer experience.

Admittedly, Autobytel and the third-party lead providers that followed created a significant shift in our industry, one in which consumers became empowered with a newfound transparency. But we have yet to experience a fundamental change to the transaction itself, because car buyers are still made to endure the painfully long financing process. It can still take up to four hours to purchase a new or used vehicle — far too long in a world in which consumers crave immediate gratification and demand control over every step of the buying process.

We have all heard that the average number of dealerships customers visit before buying has fallen from about five a decade ago to less than two today. The proliferation of online resources is certainly a factor, but I worry that the fundamental disconnect described above is turning shoppers away from visiting dealerships altogether.

And it’s not only consumers who want it to change. A recent survey of our dealer clients showed that eight in 10 believe the ideal sales and financing experience should take two hours or less. The survey also revealed multiple disconnects in the sales and financing process that cost dealers time, money and, as noted, customer satisfaction, and dealers agreed that the F&I and negotiation processes are what consumers like least.

Finally, we learned that most dealers begin the finance process after the test drive. Yet 44% felt that capturing more detailed information earlier was the biggest opportunity for streamlining the purchase process, and a full 74% ranked it as either the best or second best way to reduce the time.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

One obvious solution is to turn F&I on its head by allowing customers to initiate the process online or at a kiosk in the showroom. We all use the Internet to do research, shop and buy a wide range of products from the comfort of our screens. And yet, 20 years into the Digital Age, most auto dealers offer minimal online functionality for initiating, continuing or completing the sales process.

This disconnect has not gone unnoticed by the big dealer groups. Some are now launching services that let consumers pick a car online, haggle online and then do all the paperwork —including financing — online.

Though this is progress, I would argue that it misses the point. Financing remains relegated to the end stages, and by eliminating the credit interview, participating dealers are missing the opportunity to gain a tremendous amount of insight into the buyer’s credit profile. Dealers who have succeeded in special finance know the folly of allowing customers to fall in love with a vehicle they can neither afford nor obtain financing for.

I believe we need to take interactive, online credit apps to the next level. We must integrate instant pre-approvals with upfront access to dealers’ financing sources and deliver real, near-final payment terms before the customer steps into the showroom — all based on dealer-defined credit criteria.

We can create a shopping environment that today’s consumers can relate to, but which is still controlled by the dealer. Car buyers are ready. A recent study proved they are already embracing secure, smart, online credit application solutions. Dealers with interactive credit apps reported a 2,000% uptick in application submissions compared to dealer sites using old-school, static applications.

It’s a win-win. Consumers will be happy because they get to do more online. Dealers will be happy because they can control the experience and generate more sales to ready-to-buy consumers. It’s time to start a car-selling revolution that gives dealers tools they can use to sell a car in minutes, rather than hours, and increase customer satisfaction and loyalty in the bargain.

Pete MacInnis is the founder and CEO of eLEND Solutions. Contact him at [email protected]