Dealers are calling for more training and support in providing test drives to help them improve conversion rates and manage risks.
More than nine out of 10 dealers questioned by AM classify the test drive process as important or very important in securing a customer sale, particularly franchised dealers where more than 70% rate customer drives as very important.
However, 62% of dealers also say that they would welcome some form of formal guidance and best practice advice for managing the test drive process to ensure they maximise opportunities.
Most dealers recognise that a successful test drive substantially increases the chances of a sale by bringing the benefits of a vehicle to life in a much more direct way than a brochure or salesperson’s description can ever do.
Dealers claim to offer anything from a handful to a few hundred test drives a week, depending on the size of the business, with an average of 50 per week for new cars across all sizes of dealership and 48 per week for used cars.
This indicates that, each week, hundreds of thousands of test drives are carried out at dealers throughout the country, representing an investment of millions of pounds in man-hours, fuel costs and vehicles, which emphasises the importance of achieving a return on the investment.
Car dealers point out that the test drive plays two critical roles - shifting customers from the consideration phase to actively purchasing because the car gets to ‘speak for itself’; and secondly to ensure there are no misunderstandings about the product, such as comfort, equipment and the way it handles and performs, which could otherwise lead to post-sale disputes.
One dealer emphasised the vital role the test drive has in ensuring that customers become buyers with a positive purchase experience.
He said: “If you use a computer for the first time without anyone showing you how it works you might be able to plug it in, switch it on and even browse the internet, but you probably won’t know that it also connects to your home network and allows you to control your heating, lighting, multi-screen viewing and so many other things besides.
“You make a judgement on the limited knowledge you already possess and it’s not always a fully educated one.
“So, if you don’t take the time to demonstrate a product you reduce the chance of it being purchased as you are expecting your prospect to find out everything for themselves. You are losing the opportunity to highlight key benefits at a very crucial time in the buying process and also handle any minor objections that arise.
“A full and carefully planned road test with a sales person present will result in more sales.”
Yet despite the critical importance of road tests, dealers admit that the proportion of customers who currently take a test drive requires improvement.
On average, 63% of potential new car customers take a test drive, but one-fifth of dealers report take-up rates of less than 40%.
By contrast, among customers who go on to purchase a new vehicle, dealers estimate that 80% of them took a test drive beforehand, with many taking the same model, but with different specification, often through profit-boosting upgrades.
One dealer said: “Our conversion rate almost doubles when we have a successful test drive.”
Among used car buyers, overall test drive rates are higher, mainly because customers will be purchasing the specific car they are looking at.
The vast majority of dealers report that test drives last less than one hour, with nearly half stating that on-road evaluations last just 30 minutes.
If the vehicle is a used car, 70% of test drives are less than half an hour.
When asked what the ideal length of a test drive should be, dealers are more likely to suggest up to one hour.
Investing more time with customers has increased in importance over the past few years, as most will already have reached the final purchasing stages through internet research before they set foot in the dealership.
As a result, dealers may only get one chance to win over customers or risk losing them to another outlet.
Research carried out by AM sister brand Parkers found that most people take a test drive during the critical period when they have narrowed down their selection to a few cars (56%) or are certain of what they want (38%).
On average, customers revealed that they test drive just two cars and nearly two-thirds of buyers (61%) said a test drive can change their mind on the car they are planning to purchase.
With so much at stake, drivers revealed that dealers risk losing the deal if they don’t get the test drive right.
One consumer said: “I still struggle to decide after a 20-minute test drive.
“I would rather be able to have the car for a couple of hours or even a day as they used to years ago so that you can drive on familiar roads and have a good chance to discuss things with your partner.”
Another driver said: “Some test drivers are too short and you feel pressurised, but on others they let us go on our own for up to an hour.”
Customers say that being able to go out on their own without a salesperson present allows them to feel more relaxed in the car, although this approach comes with inherent risk management issues when handing the keys over to customers who the dealership hasn’t dealt with before (see panel).
One dealer respondent said: “Test drives don't just help you sell a car, they help sell the client the right car. Client satisfaction prior to the sale helps the ownership experience.”
Test drives: consumers still prefer calling or booking in person
The human touch is still at the heart of the sales process despite the growing influence of the internet.
Although 59% of dealers claim to offer online booking of test drives, the vast majority say customers prefer to book by telephone or in person at the dealership.
Around 20% of dealers say customers prefer to book online, but 63% say phone or in person at the dealership is the favoured option, with just 3% saying customers prefer to use email to book test drives.
This reflects a survey of customers carried out by Parkers which found that most prefer to contact the dealer direct, while 40% prefer to request a test drive online.
In truth, adopting both approaches maximises the chance of offering a solution that fits individual customer requirements and two-thirds of dealers which don’t currently offer web-booking of test drives say they are planning to in future.
However, unless strict processes and controls are in place, any test drive promotion could risk losing sales leads rather than generating them.
An international survey of 2,500 online test drive and brochure requests in 2010 found that 46% of test drive requests in the UK received no contact after 14 days.
In another assessment, a quarter of test drive requests made online with dealers received no response at all during the test period.
Test drives: managing the risk of accidents - and threatening customers
Dealers have to make risk management a core part of the test drive process to keep employees and customers safe on the road, AM research has shown.
Two-thirds of dealers say employees have been subjected to driving that made them feel unsafe during test drives, while 60% of dealers experienced incidents of speeding by customers.
More worryingly, half of dealers say test drives have resulted in a near-miss incident, with one-third suffering actual crashes during test drives and a quarter experiencing aggressive or suggestive behaviour from customers towards staff who are in the car.
One in 10 dealers say they have experienced test drives that resulted in a road rage incident and a quarter of dealers say test drives have ended in theft or attempted theft of the vehicle.
Despite this, more than one-third of dealers say they have no formal debrief process following incidents that occur.
This could help identify danger drivers before they get behind the wheel. In one case a customer crashed while in the dealer’s car park.
Other incidents range from rear-end shunts to more serious crashes involving high-performance cars, such as one where a vehicle was rolled on a short test drive.
In one incident, widely reported last year, a car salesman saved the life of a stockbroker who crashed a £245,000 McLaren 650S on a test drive.
The salesman pulled his customer from the burning wreckage of the test vehicle and was subsequently given an award following the accident in Cheshire.
Although theft is rare, it can be costly, with dealers reporting incidents ranging from thieves driving away when salespeople get out to swap places to more serious cases, such robberies at gun or knife point.
When dealers allow unaccompanied test drives, the risks can escalate too, such as the case where a 28-year-old driver in Tamworth was allowed a 30-minute test of a car, but failed to return, leading to the police being called.
Other risks range from older or inexperienced drivers making mistakes on the road to customers being confused by vehicle controls or getting lost.
Incidents of staff being made to feel uncomfortable relate almost exclusively to female salespeople and revolve around drivers making suggestive or lewd comments.
Six of the worst: AM’s ‘danger drivers’ - the customers who carry the biggest test drive risk
1. Old and infirmary
Although millions of older drivers are perfectly safe, salespeople may not realise until they are on the road if there are problems with a customer’s eyesight, lane discipline and general road awareness.
2. Lost in translation
A new car or unfamiliar test route can be a distraction to some drivers, who begin to make mistakes, such as pulling in front of oncoming cars at roundabouts and junctions, making sudden turns after getting lost or spending more time looking at instruments and switches than at the road.
3. Letch turn ahead
The scourge of saleswomen everywhere, customers assume their interest in the car can extend to the person trying to sell it. Relying on the salesperson’s politeness and professionalism, the confines of the car provide a great playground for trying out their best lines.
4. The fast and the talentless
Typically drawn to the faster cars in the range, the limits of talent and the law are no restriction to these drivers. Eager to prove themselves to the unwilling onlooker in the passenger seat, they take an all-or-nothing approach to the road to prove their prowess, but instead exhibit the traits of a perfect loser, especially when they run out of ability and then Tarmac.
5. Blag and rag
No money? No problem! Without wealth, there is always a way, particularly at the local dealer. A bit of bluff is often easy to spot, but some more practised ‘customers’ could win an Oscar with their performances designed to extract a free ride, often in exotic machinery, just to earn bragging rights at the pub as they feast on half a lager and a packet of pork scratchings with the last scrapings from their piggy bank.
6. Hard steal
A thankfully rare event, this test drive will only end one way for the dealer. Once on the test route, the salesman is ditched at the roadside in a cloud of dust after reviewing assorted weaponry belonging to the driver. The car is then sent on its way through the criminal injustice system to a new owner, or back to the dealership thanks to the wonders of modern vehicle tracking systems.