Automating the credit approval process for customers with less than perfect payment histories remains a challenge even as the U.S. auto retail industry allows more of the vehicle transaction online. Lithia Motors has a possible solution — tapping into its finance and insurance talent to aid online shoppers. The rollout of the retailer’s omnichannel vehicle shopping and servicing platform, Driveway, includes what the No. 3 dealership group calls a “Virtual Center of Excellence.” The backbone of these centers? In-store F&I managers.Lithia CEO Bryan DeBoer said on an earnings call this month the centers “include our finance specialists from our existing network behind the scenes as partners with our Driveway Care Centers to provide solutions and expertise for customers who are unable to be automatically approved.”Customers who work with Lithia’s F&I managers obtain financing approvals at “two to three times the rate” of the retailer’s digital competitors, DeBoer said. Driveway is designed to ensure customers don’t have to set foot in a dealership again. But if they prefer face-to-face assistance, in-store F&I employees will still be needed to support them as well as digital customers. Lithia Chief Marketing Officer Tom Dobry told Automotive News that this system likely will mean dealership finance specialists could be chatting with online buyers who aren’t even in the same region as the store that’s providing solutions to their shopping challenges. “What we’re really talking about is tapping into that expertise of those F&I people in the stores to support the people that are shopping online, even if they’re not necessarily shopping at that store,” Dobry said. DeBoer said Lithia looks forward to a time when automated decisioning can provide workable solutions for more customers, but “our history and science tells us that this will move slowly in the interim.” As dealerships shift toward more digital offerings and customers increasingly adopt them, it’s important to note that automated decisioning tools aren’t as accessible for consumers with unusual or poor credit backgrounds. Low-credit, credit-thin and credit-invisible consumers still require dealership assistance, and retailers would do well to continue supporting the employees who provide it.