Auto Laundry News - November 2011

At the Car Wash — Full-service Detailing Operations

By Prentice St. Clair

Many car wash operators have already embraced the opportunity afforded by express detailing and are adding tens of thousands of dollars per month with this extra service. Yet the detail manager, the detail technicians, or the service advisors will tell you that there are many vehicles that need much more work than is provided in the typical express. This is where full-service detailing comes in.

Full-service detailing caters to the rather large percentage of vehicles running through a typical car wash operation that do not qualify for express detailing. It is also appropriate for those vehicles with special conditions or problems that can only be solved through full-service detailing techniques. These vehicles that are rejected from or cannot be adequately serviced by the express detailing center represent an additional potential of tens of thousands of dollars in revenue.


To understand the profitability of full-service detailing, the difference between full-service detailing and express detailing must be defined. Each service has a different goal. The aim of express detailing is to quickly provide protection and added gloss to the exterior and quickly clean some areas of the vehicle that perhaps need some extra attention not normally provided by the typical car wash procedure.

On the other hand, the aim of full-service detailing is to rejuvenate or recondition vehicle surfaces that have been damaged or neglected, and to bring the condition of the vehicle to as close to new as possible.

Express detailing is typically provided in 15 minutes or less, whereas full-service detailing takes hours — basically as much time as is required to reach the full-service detailing goal. Express detailing provides the customer with a convenient and inexpensive way to regularly maintain the vehicle’s appearance. Full-service detailing provides the customer with complete reconditioning and protection when the condition of the vehicle or the customer’s expectations are beyond that which can be satisfied by express techniques.

By its nature, express detailing is only appropriate for vehicles that are newer or in good, clean condition. Full-service detailing can be offered for virtually any vehicle, regardless of condition. Although there are limits to what a full-service detailing technician can do (e.g., clear-coat separation), full-service detailing opens the door to providing service to a larger percentage of the vehicles running through your car wash.


Providing full-service detailing at your car wash allows you to offer a more complete range of services to your customers, from a simple wash, through regular appearance maintenance services, and all the way to complete rejuvenation of older or neglected vehicles.

The profit potential of full-service detailing is clear and has been demonstrated by several successful operations around the country. The revenue generated by a professionally trained and equipped detailing technician should range from $50 to $100 per hour. The higher end of this range is achieved by providing specialty detailing services like premium protection packages, deodorization, and headlight restoration.

Given a single dedicated bay with two properly trained and equipped technicians and, preferably, a dedicated manager, a full-service detail operation can gross in $40,000 to $100,000 per month if the service is priced correctly and effectively marketed.

If you are currently offering express detailing, you are well aware of the challenge of the “borderline” vehicle — the one that is really too dirty or contaminated for express services. Yet, with no other options, the service advisor may push some of these vehicles into the express area, ultimately creating a situation that causes problems for the customer and the express technicians. The customer will likely be dissatisfied because the express techniques really are not adequate to solve some of the vehicle appearance problems. The express technicians will be frustrated because they have to spend extra time and effort to work on a vehicle that really doesn’t belong in the express area. And you or your manager will have to take your valuable time helping resolve the customer’s complaint.

Instead, when you offer full-service detailing and market it appropriately to your current customer base, you have the opportunity to satisfy more customers with a broader range of vehicle conditions. An appropriately trained sales staff will be able to channel each vehicle to the best location — full-service detailing or express.


Your full-service detail operation will thrive if it is run as a separate business, with a dedicated manager and technicians; dedicated space and equipment; and separate payroll, books, marketing, and phone lines. This allows the staff of the “detail center” to focus on their job of presenting beautiful, reconditioned vehicles. It also allows you to track the success of the detail center independently of the express and wash areas.

A common problem I have observed at car washes offering full-service and express detailing is the chaos created by juggling employees around from area to area depending on need. This is especially destructive to a full-service detailing center, since the technicians working there are (or should be) specially trained, equipped, and scheduled to do their specific duties. If you pull these technicians away to dry cars several times a day, your full-service detailing results will greatly suffer.

Additionally, express and full-service detailing operations should be kept separate. Express detailing has a different goal, requires fewer tools, and needs less-skilled technicians than full-service. It is an awful lot to ask a detailing technician to switch modes several times a day between “get it done quick” and “get it done perfect.” This can decrease effectiveness. Thus, the express and full-service detail centers should each have it’s own staff.

Equip the express and full-service centers with their own dedicated equipment. Yes, the two areas use a few pieces of important equipment (e.g., random-orbit polishers and extractors) in common. But you don’t want the chaos that is created by technicians “borrowing” equipment back and forth between the two areas. It is a relatively small investment to fully equip a full-service detail center, especially when you compare the cost of car wash equipment and consider the profit potential of the detailing equipment when it is properly used.


The market is already there — the customers waiting in line for a car wash. This is where the dedicated full-service detail center manager comes in — he or she can walk through the drive-up lines and assess vehicles, talk to customers, and sell the concept of a “rejuvenated” vehicle. You can also train your service advisors to look for special needs and refer the detail manager to that customer. The detail manager can speak with the customer about the benefits of full-service detailing while waiting for the vehicle to come through the car wash.

You can also market your full-service detail center to the general public through signage, local advertising, and Yellow Pages ads that are in the detailing section of the phone book. In most cities, there is a certain percentage of the population that perceives car wash operations as being incapable of providing high-quality automotive appearance care. With a full-service detail center that has its own identity, you can market to these customers and pull in a new segment of the population to which you did not formerly have access.


In order to ensure that your full-service detailing operation is successful, you will need to invest some time and money up front — just like any other business. Think of it and treat it like a new business within an existing business (the car wash). Seek outside assistance to help you set up the operation. Hire dedicated staff members and have them professionally trained — a job applicant that is a self-described “experienced detailer” guarantees you nothing. Equip the center with the appropriate amount of space and the right tools and supplies. Then create pricing and packaging that makes sense to the customer and is easy for the technicians to deliver.

This upfront investment of time and money will pay for itself quickly and many times over if you create and maintain a well-managed detailing center.


I have observed over the years a few common issues at full-service detail centers already in operation. The most common owner complaint has to do with the amount of time it takes to complete the full-service detail job. There are typically three reasons for this problem:

  1. The vehicle condition does not match the service that was sold. For example, a vehicle that is in poor condition that really requires several labor hours of reconditioning, is actually booked as an express or “mini” detail that is only supposed to take an hour to complete. The solution to this problem is to thoroughly review the detailing menu, determine the appropriateness of the services being offered, and to make sure that those responsible for selling the service are properly trained to evaluate each incoming vehicle and sell the menu item that best fits the vehicle condition.
  2. The detailing technicians have not been provided an efficient and effective set of standard operating procedures to achieve the desired outcome of each of the detailing menu items. The solution to this is to determine the fastest way to achieve the best result and train all technicians to use exactly the same procedures. Because few car wash operators are experts in high-efficiency detailing, it is best to seek outside assistance in establishing standard operating procedures. In one recent case, I was able to help “experienced” technicians reduce the completion time from 10 labor hours to 5 labor hours, while at the same time improving the final outcome of the vehicle.
  3. The detailing technicians do not have appropriate equipment, supplies, and chemicals. Unfortunately, most of the detail operations that I have visited are using broken, out-dated, or simply the wrong equipment and supplies. This issue is strongly connected to item number 2, above, in that the procedure is only as good as the equipment being utilized to complete it. The right equipment allows the detail technician to complete the job faster and with better results. It’s amazing to me that a car wash owner who is willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on wash equipment does not consider spending a few thousand on some high-quality detail equipment.


Full-service detailing offers the car wash operator an additional profit center that is relatively easy to create and maintain. The advantages of a properly run and marketed operation far outweigh the disadvantages. There are some simple requirements to ensuring the success of the operation, and it is advisable to seek the expertise of an outside consultant to help you set up or improve your full-service detailing operation.

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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