The Next Big Thing — Give More to Customers, Get More in Return
In a sea of debate over how to adapt to today’s economy, one thing is certain: operators competing to deliver a superior customer experience are winning hands down. Two camps have formed. On the one side you have those that are trying to hunker down and cut costs. These are the operators cutting hours, eliminating free vacuums, and scaling back on facility maintenance and improvements. On the other side, you have operators pushing the envelope. These are the operators innovating ways to give the customer more. They’re focused on creating an emotional bond with customers; delivering a memorable show; and offering a faster, better, and more convenient product. Now I’m a frugal guy. But when you see the numbers some of these forward-thinking operators are posting, it gets exciting. The formula is simple: Give more to customers, get more in return. Here are the leading tools I’ve seen used to achieve remarkable results.
DELIVER A CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
Some things in life make you stop and scratch your head. In 2001, Microsoft™ launched the first tablet computer. After nearly a decade of dismal market adoption for the Microsoft tablet, Apple™computer launches its iPad in 2010, sells 300,000 units on the first day, millions globally, and is today the world’s most valuable company. Before you write off the latest round of innovation in high-end foamed pay waxes as “nothing-new,” look at the numbers. It’s hard to find fault with an online extra service adding $2 to $3 over the current average ticket price at express-exterior sites — with no reduction in wash volume. Is this car washing’s version of the iPad?
Services vary, but feature a combination of state-of-the-art chemicals married to supplemental equipment to deliver a distinct and spectacular show to the customer. Typically, this five-step process begins with two foamed soaps poured over the car at the entrance of the tunnel. Imagine a big trough pouring a sheet of scented foam that covers every part of the car. This show of foam must be visible to cars waiting to enter the tunnel. Ideally, customers waiting at the pay station can see what’s happing as well. Third, after a friction and high-pressure wash, a foamed total-body protectant is poured over the vehicle for a second show. The vehicle then travels through a second set of friction brushes activated only on this top-package service to work in the sealant. Next a literal sheet of water rinses the car, cures the protectant, and provides a spectacular experience for the customer. After air dryers, a final set of wraps and a top brush, outfitted with one of the drying materials available, buffs the car for a shine and depth of gloss that is clearly visible to the customer. Everything that’s being done in the service has been done before, just not in the same combination.
Excited to see the process in action, I went to a wash offering this service and have to say it’s an absolutely phenomenal customer experience. But there’s more to it than chemistry and equipment. Above all else, the sites experiencing huge numbers are effectively marketing the service. They’ve branded it with signs around the property, at the pay station, and repeated the branding on the actual equipment delivering the experience. Some have created t-shirts for staff to wear that advertise the pay wax, and mailed out postcards to customers to try it. Any operator can borrow from that playbook to distinguish their top wash package and take a huge leap towards delivering a customer experience.
FASTER, BETTER, AND MORE CONVENIENT
For so many years, the battle cry of car wash operators was all about eliminating labor. We’ve done that. Equipment is readily available to produce a consistently clean, dry, shiny car with absolutely no labor. Pay stations and surveillance cameras have enticed most to experiment with just how few attendants are actually necessary to run their business. The latest battle cry is something new. Create solutions to provide customers with faster, better, and more convenient service. Last year we saw the introduction of new mini-express tunnels from several manufacturers. This year, things are starting to get interesting.
These tunnels, engineered to fit into a standard 35-foot bay, can deliver the wash quality, extra services, and consistency of the most advanced full-sized tunnel. The advent of express-exterior tunnels washing well over 10,000 cars per month has taught us something. We’re seeing a surge in interest from in-bay automatic operators at both petroleum and self-serve sites looking to retrofit rollover automatics with mini-express tunnels. That was what was expected. What’s surprising is the interest from existing express-exterior operators looking at this format to grow their business.
In markets where express sites are prevalent, customers have been conditioned to expect a consistent wash, in a predictable amount of time, at an affordable price, from a business that is open when they expect it to be regardless of weather. There is an increasingly recognized opportunity to offer this same value proposition to smaller markets with smaller versions of the express exterior model. The key advantage to running a mini-tunnel is that it widens the universe of available properties, at more affordable price points, with lower construction costs. There is no question that the high-volume automated express-exterior model is growing, but mostly in large markets. Does this mean that customers in smaller markets don’t want a fast, affordable wash? Traditionally these areas are served by a combination of self-serves, in-bay automatics, and small full-serve locations relying heavily on labor. That appears to be changing.
It’s safe to say that if the price of gas continues to rise, the cost of construction will go up as well. Combined with documented proof of tunnels less than 60 feet long capable of hitting 15,000-car-per-month records, interest in this model is starting to heat up. The first tip to any operator looking to run a mini-tunnel is to ensure a premium wash process. This demands more than just a slower chain speed. Elevated attention must be given to water quality, equipment layout, and detergent selection to deliver a great product consistently. In addition, with limited redundancy, there is an even more urgent need to stay on top of all preventive maintenance. In a large tunnel, the breakdown of one component means you run slower until it’s repaired. With a mini-tunnel, you’re potentially closed until the repair is made.
CREATE AN EMOTIONAL BOND
Creating a customer experience is often free or low cost. Instead of money, it requires creativity, planning, testing, and execution. I’m the first to admit I’m much more comfortable with the nuts and bolts of putting out a clean, dry, shiny car. But the locations reporting the greatest returns aren’t just cleaning cars, they’re creating an emotional bond with their customers. Subtle customer perks such as providing detailing towels, fragrance carts, self-prep stations, and extended service hours are commonplace at these locations. Free vacuums are the standard. Engaging customers through e-mail and social media is their rule rather than the exception. Professional branding and logos with signage working in conjunction with kiosks to promote extra services, fundraising programs, VIP club memberships, and the free perks themselves are their norm. Combined with spotless facilities, groomed and smiling attendants, and gorgeous landscaping, these operators are earning record profits with careful attention to detail. And it works. One wash I know took its logo, created versions of it showing support for local sports teams and charities, and lets members of its VIP club select a small bumper sticker of their favorite logo to put on their car. Driving around town near the wash, it seems that every other car has one of these stickers on it. Each day a different perk or discount is offered to any car with a logo sticker on it, and the result is phenomenal.
Unlimited monthly wash plans are also producing tremendous results for these operators. Tying customers to the wash provides a predictable revenue stream. Be careful here, however. I saw one model for an ultra-low monthly subscription that on the surface seemed like a home run. After a few hours of plugging numbers into a spreadsheet however, I realized it didn’t account for increased maintenance costs associated with the tremendous projected volume. It might work, but wouldn’t be the type of location I would want to run. Always do your homework to make sure the strategy makes sense for you.
Competition is heating up, and the lowest price doesn’t always win. Customers want to feel a part of the businesses they frequent and prefer a professional retail look and feel as part of the experience. Ask yourself, as a customer, would you have an emotional bond with your car wash? Create that feeling, and you’ll likely achieve the next big thing in car washing.
Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory, creator of the BayWash i5 and G2 rollover in-bay automatics, Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.