Auto Laundry News - March 2013

Repeat Customers — Five Steps to Keep Them Coming Back

By Anthony Analetto

Ask any car wash operator, or any business owner for that matter, what their top three priorities are, and customer retention is sure to make the list. Unfortunately, like dieting, and other intentions that often appear as perennial New Year Resolutions, effective customer retention strategies are rarely implemented. It’s a little surprising when you think about it. Everyone knows it costs less to keep a customer than to advertise and discount to attract new business. Everyone knows that repeat customers are like walking billboards and that a single social media nod to your business can potentially drive hundreds of new clients in your direction. Everyone knows that your regular customers provide predictable revenue. Everyone also knows that dropping a few necessary pounds can reduce the risk of a heart attack. The white elephant in the room is that everyone knows that, from time to time, all of us fail miserably in executing our intentions.

If neither early death nor lost profits can reliably turn our intentions into action, what can? In the words of famous management consultant Peter Drucker, “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.” Whereas I’m still searching for the magic bullet as it relates to dieting, the plan below is a surefire path to successfully retain customers. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that delivering a clean, dry, shiny car is enough to develop repeat business. Like most worthwhile endeavors, creating loyal customers takes hard work. Let’s take a look.


Although probably the simplest step, I’m putting this one first. Mainly because it is the most powerful tool you have available to build repeat business. Also, because it’s the most commonly forgotten step for most operators. If you do not tell your staff in absolutely certain terms that, above all else, they work for your customers, not you, your staff will continuously make bad decisions that alienate your best customers. Assuming you’ve hired the right people, your staff, when confronted with a problem, will try to act in the way they think you would want them to. If you’ve only trained them to do their job, to contribute in some way to taking money in exchange for washing cars, they will make decisions that they think will maximize revenue.

So, for example, when a regular customer who washes every week with your base package, comes in with an exceptionally dirty car, and after the wash, he complains that his wheels are still dirty, don’t be surprised that your staff will tell him that next time he should pick the higher package with extra wheel cleaning. You and I know that there won’t ever be a next time and that you’ve just lost a repeat customer, and potentially their friends, for life. Imagine if instead, your staff thanked the customer for their repeat business, explained how in addition to providing a better shine and protecting their vehicle that the top wash package also included additional wheel cleaning, and then gave the customer a free top wash so that they could try it and see the difference. That single gesture would commit that weekly customer to your wash, for years to come, with a higher average ticket. You must make your intentions known to your staff. Empower them to handle situations in a way that builds repeat business with processes and procedures in place to avoid abuse. Sound like hard work? It absolutely is, but the payoff is huge.


Earlier I said it’s not enough to provide an excellent service. It gets worse. True excellence cannot be a hit or miss thing. Developing repeat business demands delivering an absolutely consistent experience. Notice I didn’t say a consistent quality wash, but experience. That means a predictable wait time, predictable amenities, predictable staff interaction, predictable everything. When something breaks, all necessary repairs must be completed within a 24-hour period. It may not happen overnight, but your ability to execute this step will form the foundation or your customer retention program.


It’s hard to build repeat business if you don’t know who your regular customers are and what they value most. In the example above I mentioned your staff recognizing a regular customer who washes every week with your base package, but in reality, how would they know that? True, some of your best managers and employees will know your best customers, but that isn’t reliable enough for our purposes. Equally true is that many operators build washes in communities they are familiar with and know very well. That too falls apart since spending every waking moment, at a single wash, for the rest of your life, isn’t the investment dream you probably had in mind upon entering the industry.

That leads us to automation in some form, and the options are endless. I don’t have space in this column to review the pros and cons of RFID tags, license plate tracking, VIP cards, club member decals, or any of the other tools readily available. Any of them can do the job; that isn’t the problem. Many locations even have some form of a tracking system already available, underutilized, or forgotten about. The problem is that tracking customers and collecting data requires relentless training and management. Make the decision to get this done and you’ll have a foundation from which to build customer loyalty while increasing the revenue and value of your business.


The very definition of a repeat customer is someone that you get to know. If you’ve ever gone up to a service counter, and an employee greets you by name, you know how powerful that can be. If they remember a personal detail about you, whether it’s a favorite beverage you frequently order, or the type of car you’re bringing in for service, you have a powerful competitive advantage that’s very difficult to beat.


Like the tools available to track customers, the options to stay in contact are plentiful, and cheap. We often tend to think about staying in contact with customers in terms of sending things to them with an incentive to visit our wash. A coupon, for example, whether sent via e-mail, mail, or social media, is still a coupon. Don’t limit yourself. Remember the fourth step to keep it personal. Today’s technology may make it easy to send out thousands of coupons at the push of button, but it also gives you ways to stay in contact indirectly that are equally valuable. Let followers on social media know about the latest equipment or chemical changes you’ve made and how excited you are about the results. Write blog posts about your latest charity activities. Leverage today’s technology to keep it personal.

One detailer I know, at the end of each day, writes a short message to each client they did work for that day. Just a quick note thanking them, with a personal reference to something they talked about. He doesn’t send it immediately, but schedules it to go out in two weeks (search online for “delay e-mail delivery”). Ask yourself, do you think you could steal his customers with any form of discount that you could afford to offer? If not, then get working.

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 or at (800) 327-8723 ext 104.

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