Say it with a Smile - Creating and Maintaining a Customer-Focused Culture
By Lanese Barnett
In a time of shifting protocols — mask mandates, social distancing, the push for contact-free options — how does a service-oriented business maintain a high level of customer focus? Sometimes without the most universal human connection tool, our smile. Learn practical tips for connecting with customers and building lasting relation-ships in an ever-changing social landscape.
We have all endured the forced exercise of living with a global pandemic. First experiencing extreme isolation, mass business closures, and record unemployment to social distancing, face masks, labor shortages, and learning to live in a “new normal.” Though things may look a little different, as human beings we still have a fundamental desire to connect with others. In customer service, COVID-19 has encouraged us to adopt some new long-term staples in the way we approach customers, as well as remind us to get back to basics and prioritize relationship building — both with customers and with employees — to grow and enhance our business.
Overall, the car wash industry has emerged as a relatively pandemic-proof business. During the last 10 years car washes have shifted to the express exterior model which helped mitigate initial customer apprehension about visiting a car wash by naturally limiting staff interaction and providing contactless transactions through automated pay stations. But even today, when many are still working from home and driving less, surprisingly consumer demand for car washes continues to rise significantly over pre-pandemic levels along with a rise in monthly plan memberships due to the convenience, speed, and affordability. Further, many operators report that their customers are more conversational with staff now than ever before and are seeing how face-to-face communication can garner a new appreciation. Here we’ll review some practical tips on creating deeper connections.
Map Your Customers’ Experience
While our product is providing a clean car, we are also in the hospitality business. Whether you run with a full crew or lean and mean with only a few on-site staff, map your customers’ journey from start to finish at your facility to see where you can interact with them and make a positive impression. Review each interaction point to see how you can improve their experience, even if it is the slightest adjustment. A customer may remember a smile, a wave, or a thumbs up from an employee just as much as they do a verbal greeting. Even in a contactless environment, the availability of customer support can differentiate a store from the competition. Clearly distinguish the manager or supervisor onsite so a customer knows who to reach out to if there is a question or concern.
The customer journey starts the moment a customer pulls on the lot. Make them feel welcome upon arrival with a friendly, outgoing customer service advisor or video greeting on an automated system. Review your greeting regularly as this initial communication sets the tone for the rest of the experience. Show customers you value them by taking note of their comfort level when physically interacting with others. COVID-19 has encouraged a greater awareness of personal space. Be mindful of the distance between staff and customers. If a customer is wearing a mask, some operators have staff wear theirs as well when interacting, regardless of mask mandates, simply to mirror the customer’s preference.
Consider staff nametags to encourage personalization. You might also use the customer’s name when transacting the sale. This can be done by looking at the credit card used for payment or often set up through your point-of-sale provider. At send off, thank the customer for their visit and invite them to return soon.
In addition to your staff interaction points, when mapping your customers’ experience, actively look at your business from their eyes: keep a clean and well-landscaped lot, ensure wayfinding and directional signage is clear, maintain branding consistency, and check that all staff is in the proper uniform.
Model Customer Service Internally
Company culture is the internal messaging and values that you want guiding your employees’ actions and strengthening their relationship with the organization. Ingrain a customer service mindset into your company culture by modeling employee appreciation and respect from the top down. How you operate inside your organization should be inextricably linked with how you want to be perceived on the outside by your customers. According to Start With Why author Simon Sinek, “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first.” To provide customers with great service where they feel valued and appreciated, first do the same for your employees.
Workplace culture affects your employees’ desire and ability to perform their job well. Set employees up for success by clearly outlining what is expected in each role and as a larger part of the organization. While training begins on an employee’s first day, coaching and working to continually improve is an ongoingprocess. Though many car washes are open seven days a week and most recognized holidays, find ways to promote work-life balance among your staff. Review company health and safety protocols regularly.
Hire Friendly Staff
Hiring an employee is an investment, so invest in the right people that will enhance your company. Like other business sectors, the car wash industry is experiencing labor shortages. While this is certainly a challenge, don’t settle. A good litmus test is to ask yourself if you would want to replicate an employee and have multiple workers like him/her. If the answer is a quick thought “no” then that employee is probably not a right fit for the organization in the long-term.
Seek out friendly employees and focus on their attitude not their aptitude. With proper training, a positive attitude, and willingness to learn, new recruits can thrive even without prior experience. For a customer-facing role, look for candidates that are naturally outgoing and comfortable initiating conversation with others. At one car wash chain, they count the number of smiles during an interview to help evaluate an applicant’s friendliness.
To get qualified potential employees in the door quickly, many operators are revising and abbreviating their application and onboarding process. Consider offering hiring incentives and outline a path for advancement. Maybe recruit a customer. Display hiring signage on site. While signage helps, most likely a customer considering joining your organization is looking at the in-place staff to determine if they can see themselves working in the same environment. Encourage well-performing staff to reach out to their community, and perhaps offer a bonus to existing staff for bringing on a new employee.
Understand the Value of Monthly Plans
As customers are washing their cars more, monthly plans are more popular than ever. For an owner, the subscription model addresses the variability of the car wash business with a steady revenue stream. For customers, it offers a convenient, fast, affordable way to maintain a clean car. It also creates a sense of belonging and connection to the brand and fosters loyalty. Business also begets business. There is a snowball effect when your monthly plan membership gains ground. Suddenly, even on cloudy days your lot sees activity. Not to mention, the more satisfied members you have the more likely they will tell others about it, especially if they feel they are getting a great deal.
Consider offering monthly plan members additional perks — premium towel use, added amenities, or member appreciation specials. Show members you value them by personally calling if a customer puts in a request to cancel. Perhaps there is a lower tiered option they can switch to or place their plan on hold without losing the membership.
Incorporate Community Outreach
To connect with local communities in a meaningful and authentic way, some businesses have shifted fundraisers to hyper-local initiatives to address the acute needs of their community. You may want to partner with recognized 501c3 organizations to earn tax deductions.
Remember the Fundamentals of Customer Service
As an industry, we’ve seen operators build better facilities with better equipment, better chemistry, and better branding faster than ever and on a much larger scale. But it takes more than expensive equipment and solid branding to keep a customer. In addition to providing a great product, customers want to feel a connection to the businesses where they choose to spend their hard-earned money. With a record number of car washes being built, how you connect with customers (and your staff) can set your business apart from the competition.
Lanese Barnett is the vice president of business development for Amplify Car Wash Advisors, a national car wash advisory firm. With a mission of creating wealth for clients, Amplify helps car wash owners sell, partner, or grow using practical industry experience as operators coupled with expertise in mergers and acquisitions and capital advisory. Learn more at AmplifyWash.com or reach Lanese at LBarnett@AmplifyWash.com.