Unaccompanied test drives… No way!

Dealerships who don’t provide a great test drive experience are missing sales opportunities

The vast majority of test drives in Canada do not have a sales consultant present in the vehicle. Is this considered “great salesmanship,” or a new habit, and perhaps a laziness, brought on by the pandemic and current inventory shortages? 

Obviously, we could not, and did not, have sales consultants and customers together in vehicles during the pandemic, but what about today? 

Yes, I also know that we do not always have a vehicle to demonstrate as a result of inventory challenges. However, what about representative new vehicles and pre-owned vehicles?

I am constantly told in my travels that customers prefer unaccompanied test drives, yet nowhere, and I mean nowhere, can I find the research that substantiates this. 

Moreover, I work with dealerships all across Canada and the States, and I am often working at the showroom level and talking to customers directly. Almost never have I received pushback, or refereed a negative experience, when a skilled sales consultant treats a customer to a “dynamic” test drive. 

Small town dealerships often tell me that they are more “relaxed,” and that customers expect unaccompanied test drives. Is this because they have never experienced something so much better? 

Most often, the sources of this bad intel are sales consultants that, for a variety of reasons, do not want to accompany their customer on a well-planned, scenic, exciting and informative test drive. 

We need to be there to provide a proper (and safe) vehicle orientation, to build value, to answer questions, to build a relationship, trust, credibility and to ensure that customers actually drive far enough to enjoy the vehicle, soak it in and take mental ownership.

If your dealership’s sales consultants are simply tossing keys to customers and telling them to, “take it for a boot”, and worse, with no walkaround vehicle presentations, what is the point of even having sales consultants and paying out record commissions? 

Many sales consultants, and even sales managers, accept or believe that customers should take the vehicle out on their own as the new norm. Far beyond the need to protect the vehicle, we need to be with customers during the test drive. 

We need to be there to provide a proper (and safe) vehicle orientation, to build value, to answer questions, to build a relationship, trust, credibility and to ensure that customers actually drive far enough to enjoy the vehicle, soak it in and take mental ownership.

Customers that take a vehicle out unaccompanied usually don’t take it far enough to familiarize themselves with it and enjoy it. They feel that the dealership or sales consultant is doing them a favour by letting them take the vehicle on their own, and hence they only take it out for a very short time so as not to appear rude or ungrateful for the privilege. 

Furthermore, many customers that take a vehicle out alone will only take it out for a short drive because they are nervous with respect to the operation of the vehicle; “Where is the temperature control?”,  “How do I change the radio station?”, “Where is the telescopic steering lever?”, “How does the Apple CarPlay work?” and so on. 

In some cases, customers that go out alone with the vehicle will actually use it to visit and shop at other dealerships nearby. There have even been numerous incidents of people speeding, off-roading or using a pick-up truck to move a fridge or furniture. And of course, there is also the concern of vehicle theft.

More importantly, the entire flow of the sale is broken by the absence of the sales consultant.

For many customers, getting behind the wheel of a new 2022 gas, hybrid or electric vehicle is like getting behind the yoke of a Boeing 777. It is overwhelming, and can be nerve-wracking. 

The technology is changing so quickly; would customers really know how to self-teach, operate or understand adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, reverse brake assist, automatic emergency braking, park assist, safe self exit, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, wireless SmartPhone connectivity, teen driver tech, and everything else?

As trucks and SUVs go upmarket, are you really delivering a “luxury-premium experience” by tossing the keys to a customer that is spending $85,000 on a pick-up truck? Again, I am keenly aware that because of low current inventory levels it is a sellers’ market and that we don’t always have to try hard to sell a new vehicle. Does the Four Seasons Hotel deliver a lesser client experience when the hotel is sold-out?  

Beyond showcasing the vehicle’s newest safety, performance and convenience technologies, an accompanied test drive also provides the necessary time for a sales consultant to forge a trusting relationship with the customer and go deeper with a true understanding of their wants and needs.  

Being present in the vehicle also allows the sales consultant to gauge the customer’s level of interest and enthusiasm and answer questions. Many high-performing sales consultants also begin the trial closing process toward the end of the test drive in order to firm up the vehicle selection and to prepare the customer for the closing phase of the sale.

As new vehicles continue to become more technologically advanced, consider making sales consultant-accompanied test drives mandatory at your dealership. This will vastly improve your customer’s purchase experience, even in times when you don’t need to.

Ten concepts that constitute well-designed test drives:

  1. Create at least 2 routes to account for local traffic flow. The dealership should create and map the routes to ensure that you always know where your people and vehicles are at all times.
  2. Vary the length of the routes; routes should vary from 30 to 60 minutes. Customers do in fact want longer drives, not shorter. Provide options.  
  3. Create scenic routes; Express Route, Adventure Route, Luxury Route. Showcase your vehicles and your local scenery; include country roads, parks,  golf courses, ponds, lakes, oceans, marinas, hills, mountains, upscale neighbourhoods, cityscapes. Imagine that you are creating the backdrop for a national television commercial. Create the dream!  
  4. The sales consultant should drive first to establish the route and acclimatize the customer to the new cabin environment.
  5. The sales consultant should creatively and safely demonstrate four to six new vehicle technologies of the “live” vehicle; those that are of interest/curiosity to the customers, and those that are new to the industry.  
  6. Establish quiet, scenic and safe driver change points. Weather permitting, this can also be an opportunity to complete an express walkaround vehicle presentation. Also take photos or video of the customer with the vehicle and email following the dealership visit.
  7. Encourage all parties to drive the vehicle: “I would love your opinion.”
  8. Allow some “quiet time” when the customer is driving so that they can focus on their driving, the overall feel, size and road manners of the vehicle.
  9. Trial close or transition close 1 or 2 minutes prior to the end of the drive. For example: “Carly, provided the payments fit your lifestyle, is this the vehicle you  would like to own?” or, “Mr. Lee, when we get back to the dealership, I will provide you with some various payment options available on this vehicle.”
  10. Ensure that all  customers are transitioned back to the showroom and the sales consultant’s work station. You can’t close an empty chair. Provide all  customers with a payment-based proposal. 

About Chris Schulthies

Chris Schulthies is the president of Toronto-based Wye Management. Wye Management provides sales and management training (showroom and digital) for dealerships, dealer groups, OEMs and industry suppliers in Canada and the U.S. You can contact him at cschulthies@wyemanagement.com or 416.908.6346.

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