Auto Laundry News - February 2013

Houston, We Have a Problem — Keeping Customers Happy When Computers Fail

By Anthony Analetto

Every time some computer hiccup threatens to wreak havoc on my day, the famous quote from the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 lunar landing mission pops into my head: “Houston, we have a problem.” If it’s related to my car wash, that thought is immediately followed by a deep breath and a reminder to myself that no matter what happens, don’t annoy the customer. Unfortunately, this simple logic is tragically forgotten by Fortune 500 corporations and small independent business owners alike, whenever a problem hits the proverbial fan.

Just last week I experienced two such failures back to back. The first, a delayed flight due to technical difficulties, was handled reasonably well, provided it wasn’t caused by a failure in preventive maintenance procedures. The second, however, was a perfect example of what not to do. Late for my departing flight, I used my local airport’s valet parking service. Already 3:00 a.m. when I returned to pick up my car, I was told their computers were down. Unable to take a credit card or print a receipt, the attendant accepted cash. He gave me a handwritten receipt with an apology and I drove away. When I handed it to the girl at the exit, she said she couldn’t accept a handwritten receipt, refused to open the gate, and actually scolded me for not getting a proper document, thus delaying me getting home by an additional 30 infuriating minutes. Would your staff have acted differently if they weren’t sure what to do?

To be fair, whether it’s expecting the computer to turn on when you flick the switch, or your phone to ring when someone calls, most of us are so consumed with completing our daily work when all the technology systems around us are functioning, that it’s hard to plan for unscheduled disruptions. You can’t plan for everything. Having lost my fair share of pictures because I forgot to back up cell phones I’ve broken, I certainly can’t stand on any soapboxes. But when it comes to your business, you have to prepare. When things fail unexpectedly, your staff can get frustrated. If you allow that to happen, your customers will become frustrated — and fail to return to your car wash. Below are some common best practices in place at most car washes. Let’s take a look.

CREATE REDUNDANCY

Before I go into the nuts and bolts of keeping your gates open for business and a smile on your staff’s face when things are failing all around you, I’d like to first spend some time on bypassing that need in the first place. Most car washes have tremendous redundancy built into their equipment package. Items such as secondary air compressors and excess hydraulic power pack capacity are able to keep things running in an emergency. Within the wash, the convention is to have redundant equipment able to continue washing cars at a slower chain speed while repairs are performed overnight. Whereas most operators I encounter have both redundant wash and support equipment, very few have created redundancy in their payment systems. Fortunately this is simple to do and costs very little.

It’s hard to believe the world operated before the Internet, but it did, and you can too. But most credit card processing systems these days require an Internet connection, and when it goes down, which always seems to happen on a busy Saturday, it can cripple your revenue potential for that day. Securing a redundant Internet connection however is very simple. Many operators maintain a cellular Internet hotspot device available from their service provider at very low cost. Alternatively, most smartphones can function as an Internet hotspot in a pinch. Stories abound of operators rescuing the day by running to an electronics store, securing a cellular Internet service, and scrambling to figure out how to port it to their POS or gated entry system.

My question is why would you do that? The model for success is to select a redundant Internet service connection today, when nothing is broken. Configure everything in advance and create a documented procedure to switch over to it. Train your staff to make the switch, and prepare a schedule to operate off the redundant Internet connection at least once per month. Before moving off this topic, if you don’t already have a redundant credit card processing terminal, I’d also recommend searching online for “smartphone credit processing.” There are several vendors you’ll find offering free dongles that attach to your smartphone, process the credit card, and deposit the money to your bank account. Fees vary, but this is another affordable way to help secure your business when technology fails. Just imagine, if the airport parking service had a redundant credit card processing service in place, and trained the attendants to use the system, I would never have thought of writing this article.

MAINTENANCE, SPARE PARTS, AND BACKUP

Sure, we know to keep bearings greased, but computer components need preventive maintenance too. Digital signage, automated attendants, camera systems — often these are all computers in some form or another. They all need scheduled maintenance like any other piece of equipment at your site. I’m not talking about software, but the hardware itself. Review your owner’s manuals. I’m not an IT expert by any stretch, but there are four things I’ve learned to do over the years. First is to have someone who knows what they’re doing physically open all computers, especially those in an outdoor or dusty environment, and clean gently with compressed air at whatever frequency is necessary to keep dust from building up. Second, most computers have simple fans that run constantly, and are affordable replacement parts available at any computer store. These can be easily replaced periodically for very little money, and ensure expensive components don’t overheat. Third, if a particular electronic component or board ever fails, try to keep a spare on hand. This could be a purchased replacement, or occasionally you can find a local shop able to refurbish the failed part as a spare. Last, but certainly not least, is to backup all data as if your business depended on it, because it does.

PRACTICE RUNNING IN MANUAL MODE

Collecting cash and sending cars through the tunnel isn’t the problem. Making sure it goes smoothly and you get all the cash you’re supposed to, that’s the problem. Automated pay stations and POS systems are one of the greatest things that have happened to professional car washing. But the day after a lightning strike knocks everything out isn’t the time to train your staff to work manually. Be prepared. Create a complete cash reconciliation process with cash bank, necessary change, aprons, windshield markers, receipt pads, cashier reconciliation sheets, and everything you need to process customers manually. Train staff in handling cash and reconciling their cash bank at the end of the shift. On slow days, turn off the technology, and run the wash manually. Not only will you be prepared if a computer hiccup threatens to wreak havoc on your day, your staff will be ready to handle whatever challenges come their way, with a customer satisfaction winning smile on their face.

Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or at (800) 327-8723 ext 104.

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