Auto Laundry News - August 2011

Common Errors — Administrative

By Prentice St. Clair

Back in the April issue, I talked about some common interior detailing errors. This was followed up in June with a column on common exterior detailing errors. In this issue, I thought it would be a good idea to cover some common administrative errors that I have witnessed over several years of providing training and consulting to a variety of operations. “Administrative” refers to those activities that involve the running of the business.


I have selected five errors that I consider to be more common and thus warrant review. These are:

  • Hiring experienced employees
  • Performing all shop duties yourself
  • Neglecting to manage the process
  • Not collecting customer information
  • Neglecting shop maintenance

Most of us will admit that we make each of these errors to some extent, sometimes without even realizing it. My hope is that exposing these mistakes will help the typical operator make improvements to the “running of the business” that will ultimately lead to greater performance in the shop.

Hiring “Experienced” Employees
That “detailer” who claims to have lots of experience detailing cars may not necessarily be the best hire for your open detail technician position. It is common practice to hire an “experienced” detailer for open positions, especially if the vacancy is unexpected or needs to be filled fast. This practice is potentially fraught with problems.

The first issue is the appropriateness of the detailer’s experience. For example, a detail technician with experience at a body shop will likely be accustomed to techniques and expected results that are quite different than the techniques used and desired results for vehicles at a detail operation that caters to retail customers. Another example is the situation in which the new hire is a detailer that previously ran his or her own business. This individual may have a difficult time fitting in and conforming to someone else’s detailing operation.

Regardless, the “experience” that the detailer has is not likely to be in a process that is exactly like the one utilized in your shop. So you will either have to spend time retraining the new hire, or put up with a constant barrage of questions about and criticisms of your system, and you will likely have to frequently redirect the new hire’s efforts.

So what’s the answer? I recommended hiring on attitude, willingness to learn, and ability to embrace a pre-existing detailing system. An enthusiastic individual who learns detailing without any pre-conceived notions will likely be able to learn and perform your detailing system better than someone who has already spent a few years operating with a different detailing system.

If you are hiring an “experienced” detailer with the hopes of salvaging or pumping new life into your failing detail operation, you are making a mistake. The responsibility for the success of a detailing operation belongs to the owner, who should invest time and effort (or enlist the assistance of an industry expert) to create an in-house detailing system that can be taught to any new hire. Such a system will help to ensure consistency of results regardless of who actually performs the work.

I realize that finding this type of individual can be difficult. So I recommend that your recruiting efforts be an ongoing process so that you can keep “in the funnel” a couple of potentials that can be called when the unexpected vacancy occurs.

Performing all Shop Duties Yourself
Let me be the first to say that I am just as guilty of this one as anyone. It is a constant balancing act between, on the one hand, keeping expenses as low as possible and, on the other, spending as much time as possible performing the operational duties that bring in the most work. Books have been written about the difference of working in the business (running the operation or performing the actual service) versus working on the business (activities that develop or grow the business’ profit potential).

I believe that, in the case of a multi-person operation, the important duties of a leader are quality assurance and strategic planning for growth. Both of these activities can be performed directly by the leader or coordinated with other employees or contracted professionals. Quality assurance can be managed by first designing and implementing an effective detailing system, ensuring that technicians are trained on the system, ensuring that the system is followed, checking the results of the system, and following up with customers to check for mistakes.

Strategic planning includes marketing to bring in more potential customers, creating sales strategies that convert new customers into repeat customers, and developing new products and services to offer to existing customers.

Contrast this to the single-person operation. The owner-operator, especially the one who likes to “keep things close to home,” may have more resistance to farming out pieces of the operation. Nonetheless, there comes a point when the owner-operator must face spending countless hours during or after operating hours performing tasks that do not actually bring in money.

For the owner-operator who wants to spend normal business hours earning money or have time after hours to do other things besides administrative work, it becomes necessary to consider subletting some of the administrative tasks.
For example, a professional bookkeeper can perform accounting activities in a fraction of the time and in a much more precise fashion than the normal owner-operator.

Neglecting to Manage the Process
A common mistake is to let the detailing crew go about its job with minimal instruction and supervision. You may have an established detailing process that works very well when it is performed “by the book.” But if your technicians feel no pressure or motivation to stick to that process, the results will suffer. It pays to spend some time checking up on the adherence to your detailing process or to have a shop supervisor that can do this for you.

Along with this is the failure to maintain and update technicians’ skills. An owner who is concerned about the performance of the in-house detail process will have regular retraining and evaluation of that process, perhaps once a month. This event will help to ensure that the technicians understand and are performing the process correctly. It can also give the technicians an opportunity to provide feedback on the detailing system as well as suggest improvements.

Moreover, the owner should actively investigate new learning experiences for the technicians, such as supplier-sponsored clinics and trade association seminars. The detailing industry is not one that changes rapidly, but there are occasional equipment introductions or improvements that deserve attention. Recent examples of this are the introduction of the use of steam in cleaning interiors as well as changes in buffing pads.

Not Collecting Customer Information
Any marketing expert will tell you that it is much easier to sell to your existing customers than to obtain new customers. My friend Ron, a successful insurance salesman nearing a comfortable retirement, says, “When business is slow, work your book.” What he means, of course, is that you should contact your previous customers and encourage them to bring the cars in again for repeat service or new service offerings.

None of this is possible, however, if you don’t take the time to collect customer information from each new customer that shows up at your operation. Names, phone numbers, addresses, and e-mail addresses are all important information that can be stored by computer using a simple spreadsheet program or more complicated contact software. Heck, your bookkeeping software probably has plenty of ways to store customer information.

Neglecting Shop Maintenance
I have seen many detail shops around the country. Many have old, beat-up equipment that is just barely limping along. Poorly performing equipment is frustrating for technicians, who may take shortcuts or perform work-arounds that avoid the bad equipment. Additionally, poorly performing equipment takes more time to do the job and likely provides an inferior result.

A small investment in maintenance and repair of such units will drastically improve results. Moreover, technicians are more likely to utilize equipment that is functioning correctly and actually makes the job easier.


The primary task of a detail operation is the reconditioning of vehicles, and it is certainly important to look for ways to improve this activity. It is equally important to look for ways to improve the performance of the entire business and correct those errors that are commonly made. Doing so will improve the performance of the operation, which is likely to lead to greater income and profitability.


Car Care World Expo Recap
The International Detailing Association participated in this year’s Car Care World Expo with a booth on the trade show floor. Bob Phillips of P & S Sales and I manned the booth, assisted by Keith Duplessie of Detail Plus. We signed up some new operational and vendor members and fielded questions from numerous attendees expressing interest in the association.

Additionally, the board of directors, led by Duplessie, this year’s president, held its annual meeting prior to the show to discuss the bright future of the association. Committees also met to strategize the accomplishment of projects over the next year. Specifically, look for the IDA Detailer Certification Program online. Even more exciting is the rollout later this year of IDA University, a series of IDA-sponsored educational seminars presented at regional trade shows around the country. Stay tuned to the IDA website ( for updates.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.

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