I purchased my first car when I was 19 years old. Wanting a sports car, I decided to buy a Mazda RX-7.

With my father ready to co-sign for the loan, everything was set. All I had to do was get the check from the bank and go to the dealership.

En route, I stopped at a Pontiac dealership because at the front of the lot was a shiny black Trans Am. With the deal almost done on the Mazda, I thought a demonstration drive in the Pontiac would just confirm my pick of the RX-7.

But once the salesman took the T-bar top off the Trans Am and off we went, I knew I would buy this car. By the way, the salesman offered no discount, something I didn’t question until getting in the business six years later. I paid sticker price, full pop.

But this experience helped show me the importance of getting the customer to take mental ownership of a vehicle. Nothing does that better than a test drive.

So let’s look at how to best conduct one.

Never ask customers if they would like to take a test drive; it gives them the chance to say “no.” About 50% will do that, often saying, “I don’t have time right now.”

If you assume they will take a demo drive, 70% of them will go along.

When you have completed your product presentation at the dealership, excuse yourself, saying: “Please give me one minute I’ll be right back.”

Do not tell the customer where you are going. Just go and get the car keys.

Important precautions: Don’t let the customer drive the vehicle alone and ask for a valid driver’s license. The drive always should start with the salesperson behind the wheel. To do otherwise has proven to lower closing percentages.

By driving first, you can control the sales presentation, demonstrate features and show how the vehicle handles.

Test drives should follow a pre-planned route that includes a driver-change spot, such as on a quiet street, and definitely not along a busy road. Get everyone out of the vehicle, stand back and ask the customers, “How do you like the vehicle away from the dealership?”

After they have answered, let them drive. Make sure they are comfortable with the seat position, mirrors and such. Sit in the back if you’re with more than one person.

Talk as much as you want about the car when you are driving. But when the customer is behind the wheel, do not speak unless to give directions or answer a question. Let the customer enjoy the drive.

When approaching the dealership, ask, “Did you like the ride and features?” This will help determine if it is the right vehicle for them. If it is not, start thinking of another vehicle before you park.

Back at the dealership, say: “Could you please park in our in the ‘sold’ area?” (Make one if your dealership lacks one.) This may seem bold, but it will give you an idea of how a customer feels.

The customer will say something along the lines of the following:

  • “I haven’t bought it yet.” Your response: “No problem, this is where we park all of our vehicles after a test drive for cleaning and refueling.”        
  • “Sure.” Just thank them.
  • “Sure, and make sure no one else drives it.” Assure them that won’t happen.

Don’t park the vehicle in the same spot from which it was taken. Returning to the original spot is not special enough and doesn’t enhance mental ownership.

At the end of the demo drive, clarify it is the vehicle for them. Ask if they respond favorably, say: “I would like to share some more information with you.”

Proceed with selling the whole package, including the quality of the service department and history of the dealership.

Then offer them a beverage at your desk, ask for the sale, fill out your worksheet and negotiate diplomatically but firmly. 

Remember, your goal is to get a customer to assume mental ownership. A well-done demo drive does that.

Darin George is the general manager of ASC Sales Staff Recruiting & Training. He can be reached at darin@visitasc.com.