Here are five measures Reed and other speakers recommended:
1. Provide online shoppers with specific pricing, up to and including a range of interest rates they can expect to pay.
"If you don't, the customer will take you out of their consideration set," Reed said. "They don't want to get an answer back: 'How much are you willing to pay?'"
He said online shoppers are less likely to accept a vague "preapproval."
Dealerships that are unwilling to discuss interest rates online are at a competitive disadvantage against direct loans from banks and credit unions, Reed said.
"If you wait for customers to come to the dealership to provide a quote, you might lose them," he said.
2. Introduce and market F&I products, such as extended-service contracts, online.
"An awful lot of companies have gotten into the business of selling extended-service contracts," said Ralph Paglia, vice president of Tier 10 Marketing in Herndon, Va. "You should make sure your dealership is set up to sell extended-service contracts online."
Even if they don't buy online, Paglia said, customers who have read about the customer benefits online will be "much more predisposed to be receptive" when they hear an in-person presentation by the F&I manager.
3. Invest in up-to-date equipment such as touch screens, iPads and devices that can accept electronic signatures. Consumers are used to seeing these tools in other retail establishments.
"Make sure your F&I office is in 2011. The equipment you have, how fast you connect and tools like signature pads are important," Reed said. "People sign their names (electronically) at the grocery store, they sign their names to manage (shipping) packages, but at dealerships today, very little is done electronically."
4. Accept the fact that thanks to the Internet, transparency in pricing is starting to reach finance the same way transparency reached new-car pricing and, increasingly, used-car pricing.
"People are sick of bait-and-switch," said Justin Brun, E-commerce manager at Acton Toyota in Littleton, Mass. "Transparency allows you to make money in the F&I department. It's been demonstrated in our dealership many times."
Brun said Acton Toyota specializes in no-money-down leases with a minimum of fine print.
Simply put, he said, dealerships had better get used to the idea of trying to achieve higher volumes at lower margins. "That's inevitable," he said.
5. Work with direct lenders that take credit applications online.
Dealerships should cultivate referrals from banks and other direct lenders instead of always trying to convert "preapproved" online customers who walk in the dealership with financing all lined up, Reed said.
At least the dealership has an opportunity to pitch those customers for aftermarket products, he said, adding: "A customer who has financing in hand is the best-qualified customer for the dealer."