What percentage of F&I managers in general do you think know the law?
Vaughn: I don't have a handle on that. But we know from our retailers that AFIP certification is not easy. It's something they have to work at. Retailers say that the training is well worth the effort. They see this as a personal journey to excel on the job.
Bower: The content of the program is complex, and that's the very reason we need to be doing this. Retailers agree that it is not easy, and they want to make sure F&I managers are aware of the law.
Why is it necessary for F&I managers specifically to have legal and ethical training?
Vaughn: It is so important to have that legal background and be grounded in federal and state laws. We rely on AFIP because we at Saturn do not have the resources to train and test finance managers. We would need a full-time legal staff just to do that.
Have any of your dealers suffered legal consequences because their finance managers were uneducated in the law?
Vaughn: Not to my knowledge.
What experience does your company have with AFIP? Are any of your employees certified?
Vaughn: General Motors Acceptance Corp. has a lot of their field folks certified. We participate through GMAC. GMAC was one of the founding members of AFIP.
What percentage of Saturn's 200 dealers already have AFIP-certified employees?
Bower: A fair number of dealers on the franchise-operations team (the equivalent of a dealer council) require F&I managers to be AFIP-certified. They endorsed it completely.
Why did you decide to make certification mandatory?
Bower: We thought that from a brand perspective, it would be a huge, bold statement that says we are serious about this. It is important to us that we achieve this certification so that customers can expect honest treatment. If we made it voluntary, we would get a few who don't do it. We want customers to know that they are going to get a great experience from a Saturn dealer no matter where they go.
We have never done that in other training initiatives. None of our training programs has been optional. If training is important to the brand, why make it optional?
Vaughn: Our retailers recognize that to support the brand, it's important for customers to have a consistent experience no matter where they go. Maintaining consistency is something we all need to get on board with. We are all equal shareholders.
You have notified all your dealers that the AFIP certification program will be mandatory. How have your retailers responded?
Vaughn: We have heard nothing but good. Everyone is excited. We have received a lot of phone calls from retailers asking, "When can we get started?"
What kind of teeth are you putting into the program to ensure it is mandatory?
Bower: We never really thought about the stick. We just say that it's required and expect them to do it. Maybe somewhere down the road we will have to evaluate this, but now we expect them to go through with it. Will we get 100 percent participation? Over a period of time. We don't expect to go out of the gate with a threat of what they will get if they don't do it.
When will the requirement kick in? Will there be a grace period?
Vaughn: We will take a large group of folks and move them through the process as quickly as possible. From there, we will work backward and figure out how long it takes to do this.
Do you have a rough idea of when everyone will be on board?
Vaughn: We anticipate people are lining up to do this. We would like to say that this will be done within a year or so. If we do have to re-evaluate this, we will do it on the run. AFIP is looking at technology that will help pull this off. It is our intention to do this as quickly as possible. We don't think there is any doubt that together we can accomplish this quickly.
Bower: We will be ready to roll out this year. We expect significant certifications early on.
How will you promote the certification program to the public?
Vaughn: There will be an opportunity for us to do that going forward. As we have always said, first things first. Let's get certified, then those good stories and messages will come.
Our first job is to get all our retailers resources necessary to provide support to get them on board. There is an opportunity to promote the program within dealer groups, and that's a wonderful thing. It is something the retailer can do individually.
Bower: We could do this to make it commercial, but we felt it was the right thing for the customer and for the network.
Do you believe mandatory certification will give Saturn an edge?
Vaughn: Our focus is on our customers and the experience we provide for them. If finance managers are members of AFIP, I am going to proudly tell customers they are. Can it become a competitive edge? It certainly can.
Bower: We are certainly in touch with what our competitors are doing. But this initiative is driven more by what customers want. We feel our brand is a competitive edge, and anything we do that can support the brand and customer experience indirectly will be a competitive edge.
Saturn had led the J.D. Power sales-satisfaction scores for several years. It ranked No. 1 from 1995 to '98 and again from 2000 to 2002. But Saturn has slipped in the past few years, ranking No. 7 in 2005. Do you think that AFIP certification will help bring those scores back up?
Bower: We need to be at the top. It is not that our customer care has gotten worse - it is a much more competitive environment now. But we are not satisfied.
Things like AFIP certification will get us there. We do feel we should be at the top or among the top scores. We still think of ourselves as a leader in all aspects of customer service. In the past, when the scores went down, we have been able to bring them back up, and we expect that to be the case again.
What impact will AFIP certification have on the Saturn brand?
Bower: The brand is about customer experience. We have to worry about it every day. We have to demonstrate we are the leaders in customer experience.
Vaughn: The AFIP code of ethics is everything we want our retailers to stand for. That's where we want to be.
You may e-mail Donna Harris at [email protected]