Most of us who are currently involved in the automotive reconditioning industry had to, at one point or another, make a decision as to whether or not we would have a mobile or fixed operation.
By Prentice St. Clair
Most of us who are currently involved in the automotive reconditioning industry had to, at one point or another, make a decision as to whether or not we would have a mobile or fixed operation. For those just entering the industry, this is a common decision point. For others who are considering expanding an established fixed operation, adding a mobile division is a possibility. The attraction of a mobile business is that it generally involves a much lower start-up and supply cost, as well as the fact that you are free of the hassles of staffing a storefront.
This article is intended to provide information on some of the issues that surround the establishment of a mobile automotive detailing business. These issues fall into four categories. The first covers the establishment of a professional business operation, regardless of what services are being provided. The second involves the service options available to the professional mobile operator. The third concerns the choice of vehicle. Lastly, there is the issue of marketing.
#1 ESTABLISHING A PROFESSIONAL BUSINESS OPERATION
Regardless of what type of service you decide to provide or to whom, there are certain characteristics and practices that establish your business as a professional operation. These include proper licensing and permits, insurance coverage, professional image, recordkeeping, scheduling, and compliance with environmental and occupational requirements.
Permits and Licensing
In most situations, permits are not required to operate the service businesses discussed in this article. However, I recommend checking with your local authorities anyway. It may be the case that the simple act of filling out some paperwork to apply for a permit can save you headaches and punitive fines down the line.
Virtually every municipality in the country requires some type of business license for operation within city, county, or state boundaries.
Usually, this is again a simple matter of filling out some paperwork and paying a small annual fee. Having such a license allows you to operate legally within the municipality. As such, it legitimizes your business not only in the minds of the local government but, more importantly, to the perception of your customers.
Every mobile operation should have adequate insurance, which protects the earning potential of your business by providing financial support in the event of an accident. Although we all aim to operate safely, it is possible for a single mishap to shut down an improperly insured mobile automotive reconditioning business. In essence, the insurance policy pays for most of the damage so you don’t have to, thus allowing you to regroup and continue your business operations. Having insurance is not only prudent, it may also be a requirement of the customer in order for you to have access to the vehicles, especially with regard to dealerships and fleet accounts. Advertise the fact that you are correctly insured; this will help improve your professional image among customers. To protect yourself while working with customers’ vehicles, you need a “garage keepers” or “shop keepers” policy. This usually includes “garage keepers liability,” which covers you in the event of damage to the customer’s vehicle. It also usually includes coverage against damage to other vehicles as well as injuries to customers. Garage keepers coverage is usually sufficient to cover your business, limiting the need for general liability policies or bonds. Of course, your vehicle and its contents also need to be covered, and this can usually be done through your standard automobile policy. Your carrier may require that you have higher limits of liability since you are using the vehicle for business. Make sure that your equipment is covered at “replacement value” as well.
Your business image is critical to attracting new customers, especially on the retail side. Start by creating a business name that suggests what you do and how well you do it. I recommend a name that suggests that you offer solutions for the customer. Also, if you are starting with one specific service, you might consider using a name that is more general so that you can easily add more services down the line (e.g., “Joe’s Automotive Reconditioning” versus “Joe’s Detailing”).
Once you have established a name, choose colors or a logo that not only attract attention but also suggest the notions of “clean, honest, and professional.” Make sure that your uniforms, signage, business cards, and stationary are all consistent in their color scheme and layout. Your personal grooming should match that of the customers that you wish to attract to your business. And, of course, your vehicle should be clean and in good working order all the time.
Another important part of operating a professional business is keeping good records. Collect basic information on all customers, including full name, address, work and home phone numbers, vehicle year/make/model/VIN, and services provided during the last visit. This information on the customer becomes a valuable tool for future marketing efforts. As the time-honored saying goes, it is much easier to keep a current customer than to try to find a new one.
Good recordkeeping also includes bookkeeping. Track your expenses and income to help you make business decisions month-to-month and year-to-year. Computerize your bookkeeping for simplicity and hand off your bookkeeping to a professional as soon as possible. Professional bookkeepers can do the work better and more efficiently, allowing you to spend your precious time generating more income rather than sifting through receipts.
Proper scheduling is critical to a successful operation. You must have a printed or computerized calendar to keep track of your appointments and prevent double booking. In the early weeks and months of your operation, you will gain experience and understanding of the time commitments required for each of the services you provide, and your scheduling will become more precise. Soon you will be able to customize your schedule so that you are in one neighborhood for an entire day, thus cutting down on travel time.
EPA and OSHA Requirements
Be aware of how these two bodies of national regulations affect the operation of your business. If your business involves the use of hazardous substances, determine the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requirements for protecting yourself and your employees while using such substances. Also determine the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements, including proper disposal, for protecting the environment from such substances. Remember that these regulations apply everywhere in the country. Even though your local municipality may have variations in how the regulations are enforced, you should strive to be in compliance.
#2 CHOOSING A SERVICE TO PROVIDE
There are a number of options available to the individual considering a mobile automotive reconditioning operation. Of course, detailing is the first thing that comes to mind here. The goal of most detailing is to clean and protect the various surfaces of the vehicle, including the engine compartment, the interior (seats, carpeting, dash, center console, door panels, etc.), and the exterior (paint, tires, trim, glass, chrome, etc.). Regular vehicle washing is another service that can be provided either as an adjunct to a detailing operation or as a business unto itself. For example, dealer lots and fleet vehicles are usually washed several times per week.
As with any new profession, training and education are key to producing high-quality results that command a fair market payment from the customer. There are several top-notch “schools” in the country that have put together complete detailing as well as hands-on or video training programs for each of the services. It is strongly recommended that the prospective automotive reconditioning specialist invest the time and money to learn the trade. It is a relatively small investment when considering the potential earnings over the life of an automotive reconditioning career.
#3 CHOOSING A VEHICLE
Being mobile means you have to have some sort of transportation. A complete professional detailing operation may require a full-size van, trailer, or even a utility truck. The advantage of a trailer is that you can use a personal vehicle to tow it and regain use of that vehicle simply by unhitching the trailer. As such, it is not necessary to purchase a separate business vehicle when you have a trailer. The disadvantage of a trailer is that a two-part vehicle may not fit into all parking situations.
In general, a smaller vehicle will involve less up-front cost, lower operational cost, and allow for greater accessibility into more parking situations. It is not necessary to start out with the most expensive, newest vehicle, but make sure that whatever you are working with is clean, free of extensive external damage, and runs reliably.
#4 SELECTING A TARGET MARKET
Mobile detailing services can be offered to both the retail market of private vehicle owners and to the wholesale market of vehicle dealerships and any business that uses a fleet of vehicles. Retail work generally commands a higher per vehicle rate but requires higher quality work that takes more time. Wholesale work usually involves a lower per vehicle rate that is made up in volume and by completing more jobs per day.
The approach to each market will be somewhat different, but a comfortable living can be made by servicing either one. Operators who take advantage of both markets find that the wholesale side provides an excellent “bread-and-butter” baseline salary while the retail market yields the “frosting on the cake” bonus that adds to a comfortable lifestyle.
With the correct marketing and professional operation, mobile detailing can provide a career for the dedicated, properly trained technician. The keys to success in any mobile operation are correct training, quality equipment and supplies, professional operation, good marketing, and dedication to your customers.
Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.