PROTECTING THOSE WHO SERVE

On December 14, 2017, the Department of Defense published in the Federal Register an amendment to its interpretive rule of the Military Lending Act (MLA). If you haven’t taken the time to get up to speed on the MLA, now is the time to do so and make a point to connect with your legal counsel to ensure you understand what this means for your dealership and military customers.

The MLA was put in place by the Department of Defense (DOD) in 2006 to protect our active duty military personnel and their families from predatory lending practices. In 2015 the DOD issued a Final Rule revising the execution of the MLA rules to cover a wider range of credit products that impact traditional creditors such as banks, credit unions and some nonbank financial institutions.

The expanded scope includes a broader range of closed-end and open-end credit products, excluding all real estate secured transactions and certain auto and personal property transactions that don’t include funds in excess of the purchase price.

As part of this amendment, the DOD provided questions and answers that are related to whether credit extended for auto purchases is exempt.

2. Does credit that a creditor extends for the purpose of purchasing a motor vehicle or personal property, which secures the credit, fall within the exception to ‘‘consumer credit’’ under 32 CFR 232.3(f)(2)(ii) or (iii) where the creditor simultaneously extends credit in an amount greater than the purchase price of the motor vehicle or personal property?

Answer: The answer will depend on what the credit beyond the purchase price of the motor vehicle or personal property is used to finance. Generally, financing costs related to the object securing the credit will not disqualify the transaction from the exceptions, but financing credit-related costs will disqualify the transaction from the exceptions.

Examples that may fall within the consumer credit exception include:

  • Purchase price of vehicle including options like leather seats and extended warranty
  • Purchase price of vehicle including negative trade equity

Loans that include financing a credit related product or service and not a product or service expressly related to the vehicle, or cash out/ cash advance transactions, are exempt under the MLA. Examples that do not fall within the execution of consumer credit may include:

  • Guaranteed Auto Protection (GAP) Insurance
  • Credit Life and Disability Insurance
  • Hybrid purchase money with cash advance, transaction not expressly intended to finance vehicle.

Staying Compliant

Since the burden of proof is on the lender to verify a borrower’s status, it is in your best interest to implement a few simple processes that will ensure you are meeting the guidelines to protect your customer. Reach out to your credit reporting vendor or credit bureaus to include a MLA inquiry as part of your credit application, prescreen or account review process. This information can then follow the customer through the F&I process thus allowing the proper lending requirements to be met.

With NCC credit solutions, Equifax offers one available option. With the MLA Covered Borrower Status solution from Equifax, you can obtain this information at the time of your credit pull or as a standalone inquiry when the consumer applies for financing with just name, address, date of birth and Social Security number. You will receive a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ indicator on the report confirming the status supplied by the Department of Defense database, or an ‘I’ for insufficient information.

Information contained in this document does not constitute legal advice from National Credit Center LLC or Equifax. Dealers should consult their legal counsel for interpretation of the rules, determination of impact to their business, and suitability of individual compliance solutions.

BE A RESOURCE NOT A SALES PITCH

In the last six months or so, Google, Yahoo, Cox Automotive and others have been providing some insightful data on the reality of today’s new consumer. With 60 percent of car buyers spending almost 15 hours researching and window shopping online, our approach to face-time is evolving. It’s safe to say, that today’s car buying experience is drastically different than it was say 5 years ago.

Autotrader reports 30 percent of buyers who walk onto the lot know exactly what they want to buy – new or used. They further report, 38 percent of car buyers only visit one dealership, and 52 percent only test drive one vehicle. These individuals are laser focused and may be more knowledgeable about your inventory and pricing then you are.

However, not everyone is completely prepared or has a real understanding of what they can afford, which model would best suit their needs or which route should they go – new or used. How you approach these buyers should not be taken for granted. You should still consider them savvy buyers who want a personalized experience. To create a more embracing interaction consider approaching the customer and sale as a consultant. Leverage the information that you have available to create a positive engagement that will lead to a satisfied sales experience.

Leverage Soft Pull Information to your Advantage

As you know, a soft pull can provide a glimpse into the type of customer you may be conversing with – excellent credit, subprime candidate, or possibly a first time buyer with OEM incentive options. Running a soft pull credit report at the start of your conversation will quickly provide you the necessary insights as to how you can approach this opportunity. Leverage this information to your advantage and use it as the foundation for developing a customer profile. A customer profile will act as a guide in how you navigate your conversation, provide recommendations, and hopefully end with happy customers driving away in a new purchase.

Develop Customer Profiles to Guide the Conversation

Understanding your customer’s ability to purchase can take some of the pressure off both you and them. By running a quick credit check and taking the time to talk to your customers about what brought to the dealership will enable you to create a customer profile that you can use as a roadmap to steer the conversation, enable you to make recommendations and finance the purchase.

Customer profiling is comprised of both financial insights and developing a needs assessment. Asking the right questions in a manner that is positive, open-ended will provide opportunity for you understand how you can best service this buyer. Open-ended questions begin with words like Who, What, Where, How, Why and When. They require explanation, such as:

  • How do you typically finance your car purchase – buy or lease?
  • What lifestyle change has put you in the market for a new car?
  • What type of vehicle are you interested in? Now this might seem like a no brainer, however you may be able to provide suggestions based on your data assessment and current inventory.
  • What features matter most? Features over model might be what they are shopping for – this too can help with your inventory recommendations.
  • Would they be open to your entire inventory that will meet their needs and desires – or are they interested in something specific?

Avoid questions that lead to yes or no answers, such as Do, Are, You and Can, which will limit your ability to create a strong profile.

Be a Good Listener

The most important discipline you can master is listening. Ensure you are carefully listening to your customers, thus paying attention to them. An avid listener will quickly pick up nuggets of information that will be vital for your customer engagement.

Guide Not Dictate

As you listen and capture your data points, engage in conversation that is relatable to their interests that you captured from your initial needs assessment. Relating to them on a more personal level creates a more easy-going atmosphere and removes some of the dread they may feel when they decide to walk onto the lot. A more pleasant experience is going to play in your favor.

To Be or Not to Be

Qualifying your lead is always part of the sales process. Qualified leads have goals, challenges, timelines, and budgets; and not always come with a plan. Just because a customer may not be ready to pull the trigger, don’t dismiss it. I know it’s hard to let the customer walk away so they can “think about it”, but being patient, helpful and friendly are sales traits that create a more memorable customer experience either by winning the customers loyalty or getting referred. Have confidence in the process and your consultative style.

Making it a Reality

With the amount of research and time invested by today’s car buyers, consumers are not in the market to be sold. No matter how prepared your customer may be, taking the time to create a customer profile with the financial attributes and needs analysis will enable you to have a more relaxed approach, engage with a consultative manner and empower you to ask for the sales with confidence. Being better informed, doing your diligence and being a good listener will provide a better customer experience that will instill more assurance in the car buying process and develop stronger customer loyalty.

HOW BUYER REVIEWS AFFECT YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE

With the reliance on internet word of mouth marketing growing stronger each and every year, dealers have learned to use this to their advantage to improve not only their reputation, but also their stance with Google. Consumers use online reviews to voice their opinions and experiences, good or bad, about businesses. Therefore, businesses have to be even more diligent than ever when it comes to how they treat people. They also need to understand how quickly negative word of mouth can spread, damaging your brand and your brand’s reputation.

This is especially true for automotive dealerships because people go into a dealership, in many cases, ready to do battle over price negotiations. That means you have to help your customers quickly overcome that mindset, as well as find new ways to provide them with an exceptional customer service experience. Because if a customer has a poor or less than optimal experience, the first place your buyer will go after leaving your lot is straight online to voice their opinions.

So, what can be done to walk that line and build a great online (and offline) reputation for your dealership while avoiding the blunders that could land you center stage in front of a multitude of one-star reviews? Well, you can begin by learning exactly how online reviews work and how to properly manage them to increase your average review score.

How Google’s Search Listings Can Make or Break Your Dealership

People search online reviews looking for previous customer experiences. If they find negative reviews, they often move on to another business that has better ones. Google’s search listings can easily make or break your dealership because when someone enters a search term, Google prominently displays the most relevant local listings for the area in a box near the top of the page. And, right along with those listings, you’ll see the dealerships star rating and a link to your dealerships reviews, so a searcher can immediately form an opinion based on that information alone. Unfortunately, people don’t always take the time to do their own research into whether or not that information is factual or false.

How Google Determines Where Your Business Listing Will Rank

Google uses an advanced algorithm to determine which business ranks against their competition and where on the search listing and maps. Here is a quick overview of some of the key points Google takes into account:

  • Dealership website. Having the right content on your website that’s properly optimized with local signals, as well as target keywords and phrases that indicate relevancy.
  • Links. Having quality, related, local links to your website.
  • Local citations. Your citation profile that has your dealership’s name, address, and phone number showing in the same format consistently everywhere it’s seen.
  • Social signals. The more social profiles you have and the more audience engagement with those profiles you have sends Google a social signal of local relevancy which helps increase your rankings.
  • Review signals. As we mentioned above, Google reviews are the first thing your potential customer sees when entering a search request. So, the more reviews you have, the more likely you are to rank in the ever-coveted Google local search box that’s showcased near the top of the search results.

Steps for Properly Managing Your Online Reputation

The best way to manage your online reputation is to be proactive and stay engaged. Here some simple ways to do just that.

  • Monitor
    You must monitor all your reviews and social media accounts daily if you want to have a clear picture of what’s going on in your business at any given time.
  • Respond
    You should respond to all customer reviews and comments, good or bad, within 24-48 hours of them being posted. And, you should respond authentically, never cut and paste or use the same canned response to every comment, doing so will clearly show every visitor your insincerity.
  • Check Reputation Scores
    Check your reputation scores at least once every month and look for positive and negative trends. This will give you a better idea of what needs to be rewarded and what areas need a little more training.
  • Solicit Reviews
    It’s not only OK to ask for customer reviews, it’s recommended. Always ask your customers to take some time to give your dealership a positive review. At the same time, you’ll also need to state that if there’s any reason they can’t give you a five-star review to let you know so you have the opportunity to take care of the issue first.A great way to remind your customers to submit a review is to give them a small handout along with their keys or signed paperwork. A handout that has links to your Google +, Yelp, and any other social media profiles so they can leave reviews there as well.

    Posting fake reviews could land you in legal trouble with the Federal Trade Commission, as well as other review sites such as Yelp.

  • Assign a Reputation Management Manager
    Assign someone at your dealership the responsibility of monitoring and engaging with any and all reviews, comments, or questions left on any given site. This should be tasked to someone who is specially trained to handle all contacts in a positive, professional manner. If you don’t have someone like that or don’t have the time for it, you may need to consider hiring someone to do it for you. Customer engagement should not be overlooked due to a dealership being understaffed.

How to Increase Your Online Reputation Scores

The best way to increase your average review score goes back to what we mentioned above, which is to get more positive customer reviews. This can be done by providing your customers with something that makes it easy for them to write a review for you. Give your customers clear instructions that tell them exactly what to do. For example, use an infographic that shows them how to set up and log into their Google account and where to find your Google page. Then give them step by step instructions on how to post a review. This handout card, PDF, email, etc. will also serve as a reminder for them to post the review. Then after they post that review you should contact them and thank them for it.

Implementing a Proper Customer Service Program

Providing exceptional customer service doesn’t come naturally to everyone. So, it’s best to hire customer service oriented personalities to begin with. However, for your existing team, and the newcomers as well, you should develop and implement a set standard of customer service policies and techniques that everyone is required to follow. This is the only way to ensure consistency and not leave each person and what they are inclined to say to chance.

If you don’t have the time or experience for this, don’t hesitate to buy a program or hire a professional to do it for you. The money you spend now will pay off in sales, reviews, and a more favorable brand reputation for years to come.

Just imagine how surprised, and refreshed, your customers will feel when they visit your dealership and are treated far superior to anywhere else they’ve visited. In fact, they will remember how well they were treated at your dealership and never want to go through what they had to go through everywhere else. Now you have a customer for life, multitudes of five-star reviews, and referral numbers that are off the charts.

BE MORE THAN A SALESPERSON

Buying a car is a major financial investment. As we know, many buyers come to the dealership “ready to battle”. Homework is done, they know what they want, they know what they are willing pay and have a pretty good sense of what their credit score is. However, not everyone is so prepared. The process is overwhelming, frustrating and confusing.

For this audience, I advise to take this as an opportunity to ease the anxiety and create an experience that is stress-free, encouraging and hopefully ends with sending them home in a new set of wheels. Leverage the credit and financial attributes that you have at your disposal to offer a more consultative approach. This method will help you provide better service, understand their buying power and can help you present your best inventory options to suit their needs and wants.

Once introductions are completed, and you’ve followed your initial sales process of swiping the driver’s license to create a CRM entry, take this opportunity to run a soft credit report that will give you a starting point on how you drive the conversation and possible vehicle options. As you know, a soft credit report does not have a negative impact on a person’s credit score – no social security or birth dates are required to access this information. Information provided will include credit score, payment history, debt management, and any potential derogatory marks against their financial history.

Once armed with this information, take the time to do some investigative questioning that will help you filter through your inventory options for consideration. Even if your customer isn’t fully prepared as others are, they do have a type of purchase in mind, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Use their credit information and your needs assessment to steer the conversation that is both favorable to the customer and the dealership.

Finally, don’t assume they understand the pros and cons between a New or Used purchase. Take the time to highlight their options – as they will find it helpful and considerate on your part. Understanding the benefits of each option may enlighten them that can receive more value and benefits with a used purchase opposed to an entry-level new one. Areas to consult include:

  • Value and Depreciation
    • Cons- A new car’s value can depreciate by as much as 30% as soon as you take it home; and by as much as 50% in three years.
    • Pros- With care and maintenance, used cars can increase in value.
  • Safety and Insurance
    • Cons- New cars have higher insurance premiums than older vehicles.
    • Pros- Good driving and credit records can help reduce insurance payments.
  • Monthly Costs
    • Cons- Repairs may be needed sooner, unless it’s a certified pre-owned car.
    • Pros- Free maintenance may be available following the first few years after purchase.
  • Down Payment
    • Cons- Poor credit may require a down payment that is unaffordable for a new car.
    • Pros- With good credit you may be able to purchase a new car with no money down.

No matter what the end purchase is, if you take the time to learn what your customers’ needs and aspirations regarding their purchase; you can present yourself and the dealership as a trusted resource who is eager to help them make their dreams come true. Sounds simple I know, but never underestimate the WOW factor and what a little extra care can do to your customer loyalty and retention efforts.

CAN YOU MONETIZE ONLINE CREDIT-CHECK TOOLS

When do shoppers decide to buy a new vehicle – and when they do, is your business there waving them in?

That entry point isn’t necessarily the showroom anymore – and increasingly not your dealership website. Customers want to engage with you through the downline tools you offer to help them streamline their car-buying process.

Increasing, consumers start their car-buying journey miles before they used to, learning from and gaining product insight from OEM and third-party websites and then forward to your site. Along this trip, they’re also checking out dealer review sites and other points of interest such as online credit tools.

If you want a shot at their business, your dealership and what it offers must be educating consumers about tools you make available to help them make more informed buying decisions. They should also contribute to pulling that business forward into your dealership.

Engaging shoppers with credit-check tools early in their initial research phase increases the likelihood they will make a purchase from your dealership.

For example, using online credit app tools enabling shoppers to access soft credit pulls that convert to customers walking into the door, notes Richard Hall, F&I Director at Wolfchase Honda, Bartlett, TN, a Memphis suburb.

“This tool brings customers to us, and because it enables much of the information-seeking step do be done early in the sales process online, it speeds up the purchase process,” he says.

This tool, CreditVue from the National Credit Center, offers a straightforward and practical way to capture qualified shoppers who visit the dealer website – directly or through click-throughs on dealer inventory on third-party shopping sites – and rarely submit their contact information.

Wolfchase Honda receives an average 20 web leads a month from shoppers who first engage with the dealership through this online credit check tool.

The online app provides customers their raw scores. As no social security number is acquired to access this number, consumers feel comfortable providing their name and address to obtain this soft credit pull. When the customer next clicks the online credit application that complete data is submitted to the dealership for follow up.

“Ultimately, the industry is going this way. People do not want to spend time in dealerships, and the more work that can get done before they come in, they like that,” Hall said.

Branded Online credit-check tools reward dealerships three ways.

  • One, shoppers fill out the brief credit view form and instantly get their Equifax credit score. Their ability to control this step satisfies the experience today’s consumers expect and demand from digital tools.
  • Two, the dealer establishes early brand awareness, creating a unique differentiator from other dealership websites the shopper may also visit.
  • Three, the dealer gets valuable leads.

So, to the headline question, can online credit check tool investment be monetized, the precise answer is, absolutely. There is no guarantee, but this tool is a source for leads, which indicates an interest in a dealers’ products and pulls the customer into that store.

“A tool like this having a conversion rate of 25% is worth it,” Hall says.

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