After work on Dec. 17, a used-car salesperson at Bird-Kultgen Ford in Waco, Texas, tested positive for the coronavirus. The next day, the dealership closed the used-car building, which housed one manager and three other salespeople.
Then about a week later, a salesman came into F&I Manager Amanda Lesikar's office with a question. Three days later, the salesman tested positive for the virus.
"When my owner came into my office and told me she was sending me home, I said, 'I really don't want to do that,' " Lesikar told Automotive News. "She said, 'We don't have a choice.' "
Amid the mounting COVID-19 death count, the automotive retail industry has been forced to send some employees home to work. But finance and insurance is particularly difficult to translate to a home environment, retail experts say, because many facets of the work — from customer identity verification to legal disclosures — are best conducted face-to-face. And remote sales processes keep employees and customers safe but could open the dealership to compliance risks or negatively impact F&I profitability in the long term.
Sellers Buick-GMC in Farmington Hills, Mich., approved a work-from-home arrangement for one of its four F&I managers in June. But in many ways, it's as if Judy Williams is still at the store: She's speaking to customers, answering questions from sales staff and conducting F&I product presentations and signing ceremonies.
"A year ago, I could foresee a day where salespeople work from home, but I never would have told you an F&I manager would work from home," said Andrew Haller, president of Sellers Auto Group. "We weren't just doing this because Judy requested to work from home. We did this because we wanted to prove to ourselves we could do it."
Though the pandemic has necessitated unusual working conditions, not every retailer has supported remote F&I. When dealerships started to open up from state-mandated shutdowns, F&I staff were in the first wave of employees returning to the store, said Tony Dupaquier, director of The Academy, an F&I training center in Austin, Texas.
"A lot of car dealerships — big groups, small groups — have the attitude, if you're on my payroll, I want you here," he said.
Ensuring remote sales are as profitable and compliant as in-store ones should be paramount for car dealerships before sending an employee home, said Shannon Robertson, executive vice president of the Association of Finance & Insurance Professionals.
"Are they taking the appropriate steps to make sure the people are properly trained? Do [dealers] understand the compliance risk prior to implementing these processes or procedures?" Robertson said. "Or are we just implementing things to see what works?"
Paris Ramirez, director of finance and insurance for Asbury Automotive Group Inc., said the public group prefers F&I employees to work from the store, even for virtual deals. Being in the office allows more collaboration among team members and ensures essential documents stay in one place.
"We don't want sensitive information to be in the hands of somebody sitting in their apartment," she said.
Working from home proved impossible for Lesikar, of Bird-Kultgen Ford, because of a poor Internet connection. She lives about 45 minutes away from the dealership in Troy, Texas, a rural area where her family raises cattle. To fix that, the store's owner suggested she work in the vacant used-car facility.
Lesikar now streams into her office at the dealership via Microsoft Teams. From her monitor, she explains the customer's forms as they print in the room. She walks customers through each document, identifying signature lines with the assistance of the document camera. Using a platform called Team Viewer, she can control the computer the customer is using in her office. She also can access the store's merchant processor to collect down payments.
For customers who choose paper documents, there are envelopes for dealership employees to securely store paperwork after they leave.
After 18 years as an F&I manager, Lesikar said adjusting to the remote experience was like starting from scratch. Yet many procedures are exactly the same as when she sat at the desk herself, she said, "because I'm virtually still there."
In the bubble
Dupaquier's clients that adopted virtual F&I programs early in the pandemic reported strong product penetration across the board, though it was hard to pinpoint the exact cause. Most of these sales involved F&I managers working inside the dealership, while the customer was at home.
"It really questioned, were the numbers really good because customers were excited to buy a car, or did they appreciate the convenience of doing it remotely?" he said.
Though her two-week quarantine ended without her testing positive, Lesikar remains in the used-car facility. Between customers and sales associates, she interacts with too many people per day to justify returning to her office. Her managers also said that, were she to get the virus, the store would suffer. Bird-Kultgen Ford sells 120 new and used vehicles per month.
Jeff Gabbert, vice president of sales for the single-point dealership, said without the successful pivot of sales managers working from home and Lesikar's setup in the used-car facility, the store may have been forced to close for several weeks.
"That really, really would have handcuffed us," Gabbert said. "We don't want to keep Amanda in the used-car building by herself — that's not a long-term solution. But we are trying to protect her health and the livelihood of all our employees that depend on her."
The outbreaks at the store highlighted how vital Lesikar's role is to the operation, he added. In response to the scare, the store promoted a salesperson to a finance role. That person is currently being trained.
Customers also were grateful for the switch, Lesikar said, as coronavirus cases surged in Central Texas. For now, the plan is to continue to work in isolation to protect her, her customers and the dealership's sales team. But lessons learned from working in a bubble could easily be applied to occasionally working from home, an idea Lesikar is now entertaining — if the Internet connection can be improved.
"If it hadn't been for the virus pushing us beyond our comfort zone, we probably never would have considered it," Lesikar said. "But are you able to connect with the customer through a computer screen? Yes, you can. I just proved it to myself."