April 23, 2021

Customer focus key to F&I experience

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated one of Paris Ramirez’ s job titles at Van Tuyl Group.

Paris Ramirez’s lifelong passion for finance and insurance, which would drive her career at some of the nation’s top auto retailers, began when she was a salesperson in 1983 on a stifling hot Arizona showroom floor.

Eager to escape the heat, Ramirez gravitated toward the air-conditioned F&I office at the Toyota dealership. The job was lucrative, was as exhilarating as striking deals on the sales floor and allowed her to make a living using her wit and personality.

Career advancement, however, led her out of the office and into a role at Van Tuyl Group, which became Berkshire Hathaway in 2014. She stayed for 15 years, working her way up to a finance director position. The job was challenging: Ramirez’s responsibilities included working with megastores that housed more than a dozen finance managers who regularly churned out 1,000 car deals a month.

Managing the fast pace and big egos, she said, was like swimming in shark-infested waters. “It makes you strong,” she told Automotive News.

From there, she took a position at AutoNation Inc. Ramirez spent the bulk of her 14 years with the company as a regional F&I director, overseeing 80 dealerships in the Western region. She briefly took a position as general manager of a single AutoNation store, Subaru of Scottsdale in Arizona, but was nostalgic for her days working with F&I at scale.

When the job posting for national finance director at Asbury Automotive Group Inc. popped up on LinkedIn, Ramirez jumped at the chance. Within two hours of filling out the application, she was on the phone with the retailer’s chief human resources officer, Jed Milstein, she said.

“I’m doing something now I feel I’m tailor-fit to do,” she said.

Ramirez, 58, spoke with Staff Reporter Jackie Charniga about the evolution of the F&I department, the importance of sharpening skills on the job and breaking down stereotypes about “the box.” Here are edited excerpts.

Q: What are the most important changes to the F&I department since you’ve been in automotive retail? In what important ways has the process remained the same?

A: Process. When I first got into the business, it was sort of a free for all. [Asbury has] a curriculum. It’s learning a process; what to do, how to do it and when. Through those processes, probably neck and neck, is the technology. Whether it’s a menu that’s delivered to the customer upfront on negotiations of their car deal with down payment scenarios or the menu that we deliver in F&I, the technology, the transparency to the consumer to make their own choice [has changed].

What remains the same is that engagement with the customer, the one-on-one. We try so hard for the guest-centric experience, trying to tailor-fit their needs to the products that you are presenting. It might look a little bit different in certain elements, but we really are engaging them.

Describe how Asbury envisions an ideal F&I experience would play out from a customer’s perspective, particularly in light of the Dealership of the Future strategy and the recently launched Clicklane program.

We’ve already got our toe in the water in terms of Dealership of the Future. I don’t know necessarily a one-touch experience, but definitely not a multiple-touch experience. The vision is not to have a customer wait for a long period of time waiting to get into F&I, where a guy or gal grabs them and brings them into the dark hole of the office. We want to make sure that we’re letting the customer, even with Dealership of the Future, be in the driver’s seat. We want the customer to feel extremely empowered, that if they want to sit outside at a picnic and do the transaction there, we have the technology. We’re taking our lead from them. We’re there to guide them, but not make them wait for hours.

At Dealership of the Future, we go out to them. We don’t bring them back into an office. We do it right where they’re sitting. Clicklane is about giving customers information, letting them decide how they’re going to buy, where they’re going to buy.

On Clicklane, we have lifestyle questions. How long are you going to keep your vehicle? How many miles are you going to drive? We’re getting information and we’re letting you as the consumer go through the experience the way you want to. I was somebody that forced the experience. The customers waited in the waiting area. I went to grab them, put them in the office, try to knock them over the head for $100, gave them some products that don’t fit their lifestyle, service contracts that don’t even fit their driving needs. That’s all changed. We’re not where we ultimately need to be, but we’re growing.

What are the relevant skills an F&I professional today should have coming into the job? What skills are developed on the job?

The relevant skills have really changed. We still like to recruit some experienced people, but not necessarily. We like to develop people from within. People that are very friendly, know how to have a level of engagement and somebody that can take a little bit of rejection once in a while, too. You have to have a little bit of thick skin. You have to be professional. I want you to probably sell cars a little bit and understand how the dealership works, how the whole process works.

Being that said, we actually have got a few people that have not sold cars before. They’ve been in real estate or mortgage banking. I don’t think it’s “one size fits all.”

We can teach you product knowledge and aspects of technology. We have people at the executive level that help with that. We have the support of JM&A, RouteOne and Dealertrack, whatever the need is, to really help and train and guide people for these positions.

How does Asbury’s internal training program function, and how has the pandemic impacted it?

Compliance is the backbone of everything we do. Right when a new associate comes in, we deliver compliance [training] to them and we deliver our curriculum to them. We try to get that within 30 days of their employment, sometimes even two weeks if we can. Our existing employees also have to recertify annually in compliance.

We try to do it in a classroom environment. We have found that when you put people in front of a Webex where they’re clicking on boxes, you get busy, you put your computer on mute, you’re not absorbing everything.

When the pandemic hit, we were in a little bit of a holding pattern for a few months. We had the virtual training, I want to say, since August. And then we’ve had some situations where we loosened up on the travel and we were able to do some stuff one-on-one, small groups socially distanced.

There’s nothing better than that one-on-one — that’s me personally. The problem is they’re at their stores. Somebody knocks on the door, “Hey, I have a customer here. Can you come?” And then they want to leave the virtual meeting to go help a customer, which we want them to do. However, when it’s one-on-one and you’re more in a classroom environment, you’re out of the store. And you’re just really focused on the class.

How has the pandemic impacted the F&I office, in particular?

I have found during this pandemic, there’s not one way that a customer wants to interact. What I’m seeing from F&I is we have customers that will start shopping online, might fill their credit statement online and they’ll end up wanting to come in and actually drive the car and finish the actual transaction at the dealership. And then we have the opposite of that, where the customer comes into the dealership, drives the car, they go back home and then they decide, I really want that car. Now I’m going to go online and I’m going to start the transaction.

F&I people sometimes can get very stuck in a rut. They want customers to be in front of them. And I’m seeing now where they’re really working the customers that bring their car to the house or I want my paperwork to come to the house, begin part of it online or over the phone. But you can’t take the human element out of it. We still engage the customer.