Car selling hasn’t changed all that much since the Internet arrived more than 15 years ago, but dealers are beginning to acknowledge that it’s time for another big change in the process. A recent survey of our dealer customers found that eight in 10 agree that a connected online and in-store experience will help sell more cars faster and increase profitability.

Such a change would also come as a great relief to consumers and could change the way they perceive the car-buying process. Anyone reading this likely knows most customers still find the process arduous. In fact, a recent DrivingSales study found that 99% of car shoppers begin their purchase journey expecting it to be a “hassle.” This is a perception our industry needs to change. Doing so should give dealers an advantage: The same study found that 56% of consumers say they would likely buy a vehicle more often if the process weren’t so difficult.

One step in the right direction would be universal adoption of an online prequalification process that would move a key part of F&I online. Before we get into the nuts and bolts, let’s take a closer look at how public demand is changing and how far we have to go to catch up.

Instant Gratification

New and better retail experiences both online and offline have changed the entire retail landscape. Your customers want an Apple Store or Nordstrom’s experience. They expect transparency in pricing and a process that leaves them feeling happy and satisfied — so much so, in fact, that 54% of respondents to a survey of 4,000 car buyers by Autotrader said they would buy from a dealership that offered their preferred shopping experience over a dealership that offered the lowest price.

The Internet has also fostered a desire for immediate gratification — “Why can’t I just push a button and buy?” today’s car shoppers may ask. Let’s be honest: “Transparent,” “instant” and “satisfying” are not words often used when describing the car-buying process at the average dealership.

But it’s not really fair to blame dealers for this. In fact, the most onerous and least-liked part of the purchasing process is F&I. It’s a bottleneck, despite ongoing digital transformations throughout the dealership, because of the way the finance office has evolved within dealerships. It is disconnected from the rest of the shopping and sales process and remains the separate, final stop in the buyer’s journey.

To make transparency possible and build credibility and trust with consumers, it makes sense to connect the sales and F&I functions together earlier in the process. What makes even more sense is to enable more elements of the transaction to be completed online — and kept within the dealership’s control.

This would shorten the in-store process, leading to an easier, more satisfying experience. Interestingly, the aforementioned Autotrader study found that 72% of car buyers want to complete the credit application and financing paperwork online, minimizing the time they spend at the dealership.

I contend that we can meet them halfway without sacrificing F&I product sales. It all starts with online prequalification.

Beyond the Prescreen

By “prequalification,” I mean a soft pull with a full credit report, real-time credit score, with no inquiry and no risk-based-pricing or firm-offer-of-credit requirements. I am absolutely not referring to the old process of “prescreening,” which is really a Trojan horse for lead generation. By truly prequalifying customers online, dealers can reduce in-store bottlenecks and profit leaks caused by the traditional disconnected sales and finance process.

In addition, by establishing a connected buying experience, dealers will be able to modify existing negotiation and finance purchase contract processes to fit the anticipated changes from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Proposed regulations aside, the time has clearly come for an improved sales and financing process. The days of the hours-long, two-silo sales and F&I process are almost in the rearview mirror. More and more dealerships look to move credit and financing information online, and with good reason.  They’ll connect it end-to-end, in-store, reducing the risk to both profit and customer satisfaction by slashing the deal process from hours to minutes.

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