One of the most important roles a special finance manager can have is that of “Credit Counselor’. Most of the time, we talk about counseling your “no sales” or turndowns, in an effort to hold on to them and possibly sell them a vehicle later on, after they have “refreshed” their credit. A proactive approach to this concept is taking on the role of credit counselor in order to sell these customers a vehicle now, during the sales presentation. Doing so will help you control the process, keeping the customer focused on the “credit decision” and away from the “product decision” until you are ready to do so. Taking a credit counselor demeanor with these customers will also help set and keep their expectation reasonable.
While bad credit may be obvious to someone who looks at credit reports all day, many times a customer may not realize what their credit issues may be. Credit counseling is an effective way to maintain control of the special finance sales process. If the process is done correctly, an applicant’s expectations will be kept at a reasonable level.
So first of all, what exactly is bad credit? Numerous types of credit report problems are considered a sign of bad credit and could cause a lender to reject an application for a loan. Such problems include: missing a credit card payment, defaulting on a prior loan, filing for bankruptcy in the past seven years, or not paying taxes. Other black marks on a credit report include a judgment filed (perhaps for non-payment of spousal or child support) or any collection activity. To many special finance customers, these may be regular occurrences which they do not consider to be bad credit.
The credit counseling process begins with the customer interview. The credit application should be reviewed during the customer interview. Take the time to find out if there are any potential pitfalls. Look for gaps in residence or employment. Find out the particulars regarding the customer’s living arrangements. Do they rent or own; is the monthly expense split with anyone else? Is the income correctly stated and is it verifiable. This process starts the conversation in a non-confrontational manner. Not only do you get to know your customer better, but this process gets customers talking freely about themselves.
Once the application has been fully reviewed, it’s time to move onto the credit report. Remember the objective here is to keep the customer focused on the “credit decision” and away from a “product decision”. Take the time to explore their credit file to see if there is an explanation for any issues which may present themselves.
All too often, reviewing a credit report with a customer consisted of simply marking all derogatory information with a big, red magic marker. Raise all the red flags possible and beat the customer into submission. Public humiliation was supposed to get customers to acknowledge their bad credit, and make them accept that fact. All this is the name of big profits!
Effective credit counseling involves getting a customer to acknowledge their credit issues without the humiliation. Review the complete credit report, mentioning not only the derogatory information but the positive accounts as well. Look for a positive credit reference which can be used to build a case to present to a lender. A previous auto loan paid reasonably well, or even an auto loan that was paid well for long period of time before it was repossessed can be used as a positive reference. Look for patterns of good credit that may have preceded their current credit problems.
Ask your customer if there was something that happened to them that led up to their credit problems. A catastrophic event, such as a major illness, an employer closing or going out of business, a military call-up, or any number of personal tragedies can lead to credit issues. Now is the time for your customers to tell you their story, so you can relay it to your lenders. Review each line on the credit report with the customer. Ask for explanations and make notations where appropriate.
This may take a little longer than you’re used to but it helps set the stage for reasonable expectations from your customer. It also shows them how much work you’ve got ahead of you to get a loan approved for them.
Take some time to explain the process. After the credit review, explain how a lender determines whether to approve an application. Review the S.A.W. principle most lenders use to consider an applicant. – Stability, Ability and Willingness to Pay. Remember that many “D” tier lenders look at more than just the credit score of an applicant, and in many cases, these lenders do not consider the FICO score of an applicant in their approval process. Marginal lenders look at the total applicant picture to determine if the will approve a deal. An applicant with a stable employment and residence history and a decent income stands a better chance of getting approved for a loan, even with a spotty credit bureau, because the lender knows they will be able to collect the payments, even if they are a little late each month!
Explain “debt to income” and “payment to income” ratios to your customers and how lenders use them to determine what vehicles they will qualify for. Many customers want much more vehicle than they can qualify for, their logic being “I can afford to pay that much”. Explain how lenders, using all the data available form the vast number of loans they make, have determined which loans are most likely to be repaid and base their decisions using this date. They know that any payment which is more than 20% of an applicant’s income has a much more likelihood of leading to a default and repossession. Lenders want to collect payments, and structure their approvals based on the data they have. This is especially true if a customer has had a history of slow or late payments on their previous auto loan. The lender figures “if they couldn’t make that payment without some problems, I want my payment to be lower than that!” Explain that excessive monthly obligations eat up a substantial portion of their income, and most lenders will only consider applicants with less than 50% of the income being used to pay their monthly bills, including rent. This is especially true with a customer that already has an open auto loan and was not planning on trading it in. In either case, explain that the lender typically will ask for a co-signer, but you will submit the application and see what they say. Place the decision in your lenders hand, and let your customer bear the burden of meeting the lender’s requirement for approval.
Take a few minutes to explain how equity can help an approval along. Lenders like to loan less than the book or wholesale value of a vehicle to marginal customers. Sometimes a large down payment can convince a lender that an applicant will make the payments, since they have a stake in the loan. Remind your customers that, while many lenders may consider a loan with no down payment, they typically like to see the taxes, tags and fees paid upfront by the customer. Many customers, who say they don’t have any money available for a down payment, will have cash set aside to pay these fees. They do not view these as down payment, so make sure to ask how they plan to pay the taxes, tags and fees for the vehicle they are trying to buy.
Many customers will go from dealer to dealer trying to get a loan. Often times, they apply to multiple web sites touting easy credit approvals for bad credit customers in the hopes that someone will approve a loan for them, or give a better approval than they may already have gotten elsewhere. As a credit counselor, explain that, for the most part, dealers work with all the same lenders. While there may be one or two new lenders out in the market, you know and work with virtually all available lenders. Explain that the call back from these lenders is based on the information provided, and as such, will not vary from dealer to dealer. As a matter of fact, explain to them that multiple applications can lead a lender to turndown an application due to “excessive inquiries”, which may cause a lender to think that the customer is trying to buy multiple vehicles at different dealers.
Setting customer’s expectations to reality is sometimes the hardest part of the counseling function. Explain to a customer that lenders aren’t in it just to help a dealership sell a car, but to insure that they can collect on the loan. Giving a customer a loan that a lender thinks the customer can’t afford does no one any good. Lenders don’t want to make a loan today only to repossess the vehicle tomorrow; they make their money only if they can collect the payments. Explain that, in order to help rebuild their credit; customers with credit issues must “crawl before they walk”. This is all part of the process of rebuilding their credit. There has to be a strong foundation to build on; no one builds a house from the roof down!
Lenders realize that credit challenges usually result in setbacks for these customers. Your job is to help them overcome these setbacks. This is typically the beginning of the process to rebuild their credit. They have to start out with a vehicle that not only will fit their budget, but provide reliable transportation while they rebuild their payment history. Once favorable payment history is on their credit bureau, they can move up to a better vehicle with more favorable terms.
Let you customers know your dealership will be there in the future to let them know when the time is right to make that move. As their automotive credit counselor, you are in touch with to help move them along the path to better credit! Not only will they get an auto loan with your help, but by paying this loan on time, they are well on their way to a credit card and maybe even a mortgage. You can even provide them with a list of banks that provide Visa or MasterCard accounts to folks with credit challenges, or with information which may help them improve their credit reports for free, instead of throwing money away on a scam “credit repair” company.
To review the credit counseling process:
o Review the credit application
o Review the credit bureau
o Look for positive as well as negative references
o Explain the process
o Explain SAW and how a lender looks at the application
o Review debt-to-income and payment-to-income ratios
o Determine the available down payment
o Set the customer’s expectations to reality
o Review the qualifying vehicles
o Review how to improve the loan
o Explain the credit rebuilding process
o Explain “credit shopping”
o The effect of excessive inquiries
Being a credit counselor before the sale will help you close that many more special finance sales. Take the time to talk to your customers about their credit situation and show that you can provide some answers to their problem. If you do this up front, you will establish a relationship with these customers that will allow you to maintain control over the sales process, which is essential for special finance. Not only that, but it prevent you from educating a customer you thought was a no sale, only to send him somewhere else to buy a vehicle.