October 20, 2020

Dealership’s F&I office makes house calls

When coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders led the Las Vegas Strip to go dark — reportedly for the first time since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 — anxiety rippled through the community that is the customer base of Gaudin Ford.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t [work], or doesn’t have family who works, on the Strip in some way,” General Manager Wesley Gregg told Automotive News.

Sales declined as fears mounted and strict shelter-in-place orders and mandatory closures shackled local businesses. But the Nevada dealership realized in late March that while the orders might keep customers from coming into its showroom, it didn’t stop them from buying vehicles remotely.

Plucking a Ford Transit van from the dealership’s used-vehicle inventory, a team of employees converted it to house everything necessary to finalize a vehicle purchase face-to-face with minimal risk of infection.

Outfitted with a bolted-down table and chair, a computer system and printer, the finance-and-insurance office on wheels arrives in customer driveways complete with an F&I manager, a lot porter to clean and disinfect surfaces and the customer’s salesperson. The store’s software — Advent Resources dealership management system and RouteOne F&I software — is accessed through a self-contained Wi-Fi hot spot.

For their safety, customers aren’t allowed in the van. Transactions are finalized on a removable table set up outside the van. Only the F&I manager is allowed inside. “We like face-to-face interactions with our customers. We didn’t want to lose that in all of this,” Gregg said May 13.

It’s been a long, confusing two months for Gaudin Ford and its employees. Since the initial closure Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered March 17, businesses have gotten mixed messages about when to stay open, and to what degree. Sometimes, a rule would change within a couple of days.

“It was just challenging,” Gregg said, adding that the van has been a godsend throughout the closures. “Just because our showroom floors are open, it doesn’t mean there’s an appetite to come visit.”

Gaudin Go — as the mobile service is known — initially was met with mixed reaction from customers. Some declined to finalize transactions at their homes or workplaces while others jumped at the chance, he said.

“I don’t think they could visualize an office coming up to their house with chairs and sanitized pens and the whole thing happening like an F&I picnic,” Gregg said.

Gaudin Ford has seen an uptick in digital retailing processes, though Gregg said most of his customers are indifferent to fully online transactions. In the first few weeks, the store finalized the sale of a handful of cars out of the van. In April, 25 percent of the store’s 180 new- and used-vehicle sales were completed using the van.

The store uses software company Quotible to take in customer data and reply via text or email with a personalized link to a vehicle deal. Links also can contain information about the dealership and the customer’s salesperson. From there, the customer digitally communicates with the salesperson and uses online tools up until the F&I process.

“There’s more to F&I than showing a price and a payment online,” Gregg said. “There’s got to be some human interaction in the process. The human F&I transaction is not happening in a digital space.”

Currently, Gaudin Ford employs three F&I managers and one finance director.

The success of Gaudin Go prompted the group to add another Transit van to its remote business. The second van, which Gregg said will launch in early June, will perform quick-lane vehicle service at remote locations. Gaudin Ford handles about 15 to 20 remote vehicle pickups for service every day.

Gregg said he is pleased with the store’s progress but believes its customer base, and the casinos that fuel the local economy, will feel the economic impact of the virus for a long time. When all the lights on the Strip flicker back on, Gregg said the store plans to continue van-based operations.

“We don’t foresee that portion of our business going anywhere,” he said. “The virus isn’t really going anywhere anytime soon. I think consumer appetite as a whole will be forever changed.”