Auto Laundry News - May 2011

Spring Training — A Great Time to Upgrade Your Operation

By Prentice St. Clair

Automotive detailing operations all around the country are gearing up for the new detailing season. Standalone detail shops as well as detail centers within car washes start to see a pick-up in business volume this time of year. Yet many operations will simply have another blasé year of so-so profits.

The standalone operator who trudges along, year-in, year-out, will sometimes wonder, “is this all there is?” Meanwhile, the car wash owner who doesn’t pay much attention to that shack in the back with some guys doing “detailing” might consider, “what do I keep that thing open for, anyway?” At car washes, the detail shop can sometimes be an afterthought. It may not be considered a real moneymaker.

Now that spring is here with it’s fresh batch of potential repeat and new customers, it’s a great time to think about taking your detail business to the next level. The truth is, if a detail operation is set up and managed correctly, it can generate a hefty profit.


Over the years, I have visited many shops around the country and I’ve unfortunately seen some pretty dumpy places. Often, there is more than one problem, including poor management, inefficient techniques, inadequate pricing and packaging, filthy and run-down conditions, less than desirable employees, and broken-down or inadequate equipment.

Ask yourself some honest questions:

  • Are your customers thrilled with your service?
  • Do the finished vehicles look and smell spectacular?
  • Do customers say things like: “The car’s never looked better!” or “It looks like a brand new car!”
  • Do you get a lot of complaints or comebacks?
  • Do you have tons of repeat business?
  • Do your detail technicians look and act professionally?
  • Are detail jobs completed when promised?
  • Is the schedule booked several days or weeks in advance?
  • Does the shop look clean and tidy?
  • Considering the volume, is your operation generating great profits or are you just paying bills?

If the answers to these questions are less than positive, perhaps it’s time to take a serious look at your detail

Many of these problems are the result of a combination of lack of training of technicians and inadequate equipment and supplies. It’s amazing to me how many operators across the country expect their detail technicians to do well by using the training method of “the old guy trains the new guy.” Under this scenario, you can expect that with each iteration of the training, the quality or efficiency of the work decreases.

Most detail shops don’t have an in-house training system in place and thus the quality of technician goes down with each new hire. Many rely on the experience of incoming new hires. This practice yields further chaos and variability of results because each new hire has a different way of approaching a detail job. Ultimately quality, efficiency, and consistency in results across technicians decreases.

As mentioned earlier, inadequate equipment and supplies can be part of the problem. Old, ineffective, and broken-down equipment does not help the detail technician do a better job. How many shops have a collection of busted vacuums and extractors lined up against the back wall? How many shops have old towels and brushes that have been around since the beginning of the detailing industry?

Volume of business is, of course, tied to marketing. Detail centers at car washes have a great advantage in that they have a constant stream of potential customers coming in for washes virtually every day. If a good percentage of these customers are not being converted to future detail jobs, there is a breakdown in salesmanship at some level.

Standalone detail shops have to work quite a bit harder for their customers, however. If volume is low, one has to go back to the marketing efforts, both to new and existing customers.


Often the business owner doesn’t feel like he or she has the time or the expertise to examine the operation, pinpoint all of the problems, and create and implement solutions. Or perhaps the situation is that the operator feels like he or she has done everything, and nothing seems to be working.

If your detail operation has really not gone anywhere in the last few years, consider having an outside expert come in and evaluate your operation to give you an objective assessment. Yes, there will be fees involved. You have a choice of looking at these fees as an expense or as an investment in the future. A good consultant will help you determine the areas that need improvement, help you with a plan to make those improvements, and follow up so that your implementation of the improvements yields great results.

Training is available on many levels. There are “detail schools” to which you can send your technicians for several days of training. There are reasonable video training programs available to bring training back to your location. One advantage of a video program that demonstrates good detailing techniques is that it can be shown to every new hire, thus creating some consistency in technique among all technicians at the operation.

Perhaps the best training is that which is provided at your location. Such training can be tailored to your specific operation, taking into consideration the equipment, chemicals, types of vehicles, and operational conditions. Hands-on demonstration and supervised practice will have the greatest impact on the capability of your technicians. On-site training can help you develop your own training system that you can use over and over again after the trainer has left.

One of the largest benefits of working with an external training or consulting firm is that the equipment, tools, and chemical needs can be evaluated and recommendations on improvements can be made. Training alone is not enough to yield the best results. The technicians must also have at their disposal highly effective equipment that will make the job easier to perform while yielding consistently professional results.


The key to consistent results in automotive detailing is using systematic procedures. Those procedures have to include the use of proper equipment and chemicals, as well as proven techniques to properly use the equipment and chemicals.

In larger operations, it is beneficial to have a manager who has “control” of the detail shop so that the owner or general manager can focus on other areas. In this scenario, the detail manager is, more or less, running a separate business within the car wash.

Regarding marketing, the car wash has the great advantage of having a captive customer base to which detailing services can be marketed. If the detail shop is not cranking out volume, perhaps you can look at the sales efforts.

In some cases, it would be beneficial for the ticket writers to be paid a commission to set detail appointments. In other cases, it might be better for the detail manager to sell detailing at the finish lanes to waiting customers.

Additionally, a passive marketing campaign might also be helpful. Customers sitting around waiting for washed cars to be finished can be targeted with posters, brochures, or leaflets. Try a “special of the week.” Or you can feature a specific detailing service each week — for example, odor neutralization, leather conditioning, mat and carpet cleaning, polishing, sealant application, convertible-top care, headlamp clarification, or chrome and aluminum wheel polishing.


The bottom-line purpose of improving your operation is to increase customer satisfaction. In fact, our goal should be to delight the customer. This can only be done if the operation is set up to produce spectacular results.

The benefit of spectacular results on a consistent basis is that customers will come back as well as encourage their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family members to patronize your business. As you develop a reputation for excellent results, you get to increase your rates. Customers will gladly pay extra for consistently excellent results.


It is the beginning of the detailing season for many of us. It’s a great time to upgrade your operation. It will take time, effort, and an investment of dollars. You may want to bring in outside help to assist you in maximizing your profit. If you take the right steps, your customers will notice changes, which will increase the likelihood that they will return and send their friends.

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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