For decades, dealership personnel have butted heads. Salespeople and finance and insurance staffers, for instance, have pointed fingers at each other when a deal fell through.
But now, an increasing number of dealerships are cross-training employees to handle more functions, changing their roles in the process. It's unlikely that specific job positions will totally disappear, experts say, but the changes should allow dealership staff to work more closely as a team.
Some dealerships are adding new positions, such as technology experts who go through the features of vehicles with customers. That's a process that used to take 15 minutes but can now take an hour and a half, said Ron Reahard, president of Reahard & Associates, an F&I training company in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.
Other dealerships are signifying that roles have evolved by changing the titles, such as giving a sales associate the new name of sales concierge, said Bill Jarrett, owner of Jarrett Ford in Avon Park, Fla.
Sales associates are also expected to work in the business development center and take Internet leads. And a growing number of dealerships are trying the single-point-of-contact model, in which one person handles both sales and F&I.
Jarrett would like to train all his employees for more efficient advancement. "If we don't cross-train, we lose the ability to know that you're pretty good at that," he said. Cross-training "has always bred a kind of "aha!' moment."
By cross-training staffers, most experts say, dealerships have more resources and expertise in their stores. And by zeroing in on a shared goal, the staff can create a more effective transaction process.
Dealerships would benefit if everyone in sales worked in F&I, said Rashelle Robinson, finance director for Capitol Toyota in Salem, Ore.
"If you can get an entire sales force with that level of talent, that's a great thing, but in our industry, it's a hard thing to come by," she said.
Some dealerships may incorporate team leads rather than having the traditional F&I manager, said Candice Crane, vice president of dealer solutions at Hireology, a Chicago company that consults on hiring and retention issues.
"You may eliminate the F&I position in the traditional sense, but you're adding a team lead [who] ensures the process is executed and customer experience is top-notch," she said.
Arranging financing and ensuring compliance should remain with the finance staff, but "those same people don't have to sell the menu," Crane said. Sales associates can sell F&I products, she said.
The industry has mixed views about taking a hybrid approach to sales and F&I. Reahard, for instance, argues that selling intangible items such as F&I products requires a specific skill set that many sales associates lack.
Chris May, manager of sales process development at JM&A Group, an F&I product provider and training company in Deerfield Beach, Fla., said some dealerships have moved F&I managers' duties across the showroom, giving some responsibilities to the sales manager, sales associate or a document specialist. None of the new approaches, though, has led May to question the existence of the F&I manager in the future.
One advantage of a hybrid model is that a customer's F&I interview is often sprinkled throughout the transaction. "So not only are we getting information about the vehicle sale, we're also gathering the necessary information that we would need from an F&I perspective," said Scott Gunnell, vice president of sales strategy and development at JM&A Group.
The key to a successful hybrid model, Gunnell said, is a clear vision from the dealer, a culture established around the responsibility changes and the dealership's commitment to stick to the new model despite initial challenges.
When job duties change, May added, there is often a higher turnover rate. Dealers may lose money and lose employees, so they have to have a "long-term vision of where the business is going," he said.
Some dealers have also used the compensation plan to encourage a cohesive transition from sales to F&I. If one cares about the other, the overall experience will be better, experts say.
With new-vehicle margins tightening, dealers have relied heavily on F&I revenue to boost gross profit. Because of that, they are "creating more team-based environments from a compensation perspective," Gunnell said.
Reahard suggests sales associates introduce situations that could call for F&I products early in the process. For example, sales associates should go through the navigation system and other in-vehicle technology before the customer enters the F&I office. By the time the customer gets to F&I, vehicle technology is top of mind. If those components break, most customers understand that they are expensive to fix. And because the sales associate went through the car's tech components, the customer realizes how much technology is in the car, which plants the seed for a service contract, Reahard said.
"That's where successful dealers that generate good F&I income are willing to compensate the salespeople," he said.
"If dealers pay the salespeople, F&I people and sales managers on front end and back end, suddenly the sales manager isn't just looking at gross profit on the sale of the car," he said. He or she is "looking at money on F&I products."