How to prepare your F&I workers for difficult conversations
Ask any frontline associate—dealing with difficult customers is a challenging but unavoidable part of the job. But when those conversations are about finances, it becomes especially sensitive. With factors like inflation, climbing interest rates and the rising cost of everything from groceries to vehicles now impossible to ignore, people are feeling stressed and scrambling for solutions.
No one knows this better than those working in the F&I industry. They provide services for customers who are increasingly struggling to make ends meet and who often take out their stress on staff just trying to do their job. This takes a toll on not only daily tasks and customer interactions but also your frontline’s desire to show up to work—and who can blame them?
We recently polled 500 F&I workers to get a sense of their current experiences with customers and how they’re coping—and the results are bleak. The good news is that the findings also pointed to some clear solutions and ways you can support these key contributors so they’re better prepared to deal with difficult customers and manage their own well-being.
Polling the frontline: What’s happening in F&I
The results of our poll show a continuing trend towards workplace hostility and customer incivility and the ways it’s negatively impacting staff. Unfortunately, many advisors and agents revealed there’s little to no support or training from their employers for how to deal with these challenging situations.
Two in five F&I workers say they’ve witnessed customers becoming visibly upset while taking money out of their account, paying a bill, or requesting an additional loan to cover expenses. What’s more, 54% of the employees we polled said they’ve experienced customers being more irritable or unfriendly in person and over the phone.
The impact of customer incivility on F&I workers
“The customer is always right” has unfortunately given way to “the customer is often rude.”
According to our survey results, 56% of F&I workers reported an increase in difficult conversations with customers over the last six months resulting from rising inflation and recessionary fears.
Unsurprisingly, this increase in challenging conversations is having a significant impact on employee well-being. Nearly half (40%) of the F&I workers surveyed said the increase in working with customers in financial distress has directly impacted their mental health; 37% said they feel stressed about going to work and another 15% said they’re scared to enter the workplace.
Even more concerning—more than half (55%) said they didn’t think their employers were considering their mental health and well-being during this period of economic uncertainty.
What do F&I workers need to be better prepared?
One thing is clear from our poll—frontline F&I workers are struggling because they don’t have the right training to handle these tense and potentially volatile situations effectively. Nearly one in four respondents said they didn’t think their employer provided the right tools and training to manage and resolve difficult customer situations with empathy.
The combination of the increase in difficult customers and the lack of effective training is impacting production across teams. How bad is the situation? According to our poll, almost 40% of respondents felt less productive and increasingly drained in the workplace. When your staff is feeling disrespected or belittled by customers, it’s hardly a fertile environment for them to feel motivated to do their best work.
Taking customer service beyond the script
F&I workers are looking for more than updated procedures and protocols. They are asking for help developing the soft skills they need to navigate these conversations. Frontline organizations can deliver on this by providing their workers with the right training and systems so they know how to manage and de-escalate these increasingly hostile customer interactions in ways that protect their own mental health and allows them to provide the customer with what they need.
Clear training and protocols
While mobile banking has become the primary banking method for a majority of consumers, they lack the customer support options necessary for many of the complex financial issues they may face. According to recent research, 64% of consumers complained that mobile banking apps couldn’t solve their problems promptly.
When the apps fall short, those frustrated consumers will look to a human for help. Frontline F&I staff need to feel empowered by their leaders to make decisions on the fly so they can quickly de-escalate tense situations where the customer is predisposed to lose their cool. Providing staff with de-escalation training is crucial to helping the customer and reducing stress for F&I staff.
De-escalation training will vary from organization to organization. The core tactics to remember are:
- Be respectful – none of us know what another person is dealing with. Showing respect and compassion can go a long way to diffuse a situation.
- Explain what you can do – empowering your employees means explaining the limits of what assistance your business can provide. Employees who know those limits and options are better prepared to help customers.
- Listen – customers want to be heard. Frontline workers can demonstrate this by repeating what the customer says and asking follow-up questions.
- Suggest alternatives – this goes back to empowering workers with the right knowledge and tools. When frontline workers know what they can offer a customer, they’re more able to solve a problem before it escalates.
Mental health support
This stat bears repeating: two in five of the poll respondents said their mental health had been impacted by dealing with customers who are experiencing financial distress. Supporting the mental health of frontline workers is not only essential to their overall health and success but it also benefits your customers and your business.
What can you do to help? The first step is ensuring managers are trained to recognize signs of stress and trauma in their teams.
Even if you’ve created a workplace culture that promotes mental health, workers may still feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable reporting an incident or situation. Mind Share Partners’ 2021 Report showed that only 49% of respondents said their experience discussing mental health at work was positive. This means there’s work to be done to create a psychologically safe space where employees are encouraged to come forward when they’re experiencing mental health issues without fear of shame or reprisal.
Next, employers can use things like absenteeism and performance metrics to identify workers who may be struggling with the increase in volatile customers. For example, once-prompt employees who start to show up late for shifts can be one sign that their mental health or other workplace well-being issues are starting to bubble up and may get to an unmanageable place. Then it’s about making sure they know the resources and systems that are available to them as they work through the issue.
Supporting F&I associates’ mental health includes setting up the right channels for feedback to facilitate open and crucial conversations in ways that suit their individual needs. Some workers may feel uneasy about sharing feedback directly with their manager. Offering an external feedback channel—whether that’s a helpline or anonymous messaging options—can encourage more feedback and remove the potential stigma associated with stepping forward.
Making mental health and wellness resources available in different formats is key because it’s not a one-size-fits-all issue. Training and support materials should be made available through mobile apps, websites and printed materials in the workplace to accommodate both comfort levels and accessibility.
Soft skills training
Soft skills training is a huge focus for enabling financial associates to properly and confidently manage difficult customer conversations. Workplace training often focuses on how to do tasks—which is still essential—but financial frontline workers need to learn soft skills like effective communication and emotional intelligence to properly show up for customers in challenging economic times.
Like de-escalation training, every organization will have a unique set of requirements. Here are three soft skills that can benefit any F&I associate:
- Effective communication – some people naturally know how to read customers and respond accordingly but it’s important to manage expectations so the approach is consistent. To make sure all associates know how to properly read those cues, training in interpersonal communication skills can help with de-escalation and team communication.
- Leadership – whether it’s feeling empowered to make decisions or knowing how to bring in help when needed, leadership training is critical to helping frontline workers solve issues for customers before they become overwhelming.
- Teamwork – teamwork makes the dream work. Soft skills training on teamwork can create stronger teams that are better positioned to support each other and create safer spaces to talk about conflict and mental health issues.
Creating better outcomes for customers and F&I workers
As customers continue to struggle with ever-evolving macroeconomic factors that have real-world effects on their financial issues, it’s time to start investing in the right resources, training and tools to help F&I associates feel prepared and enabled to serve stressed-out customers with empathy, understanding and confidence.
Supporting your F&I employees so they feel safe coming to work means making sure they understand the resources available to them if customer incivility gets out of hand and prioritizing their mental health and well-being so they can do their best work.