Auto Laundry News - October 2011

Common Errors — In Selling Detailing

By Prentice St. Clair

In recent months, this column has been dedicated to articles addressing so-called “common errors” in detailing, with suggestions on avoiding such mistakes. For example, in the April issue, common mistakes were discussed that occur in the provision of exterior detailing. In the June issue, I discussed mistakes that are more common in interior detailing. Most recently, I took a look at errors that are made on a more administrative level in the August issue.

In this month’s column, I would like to extend this discussion into the arena of salesmanship involved in detailing. Most of these errors occur when there is miscommunication with the customer, lack of communication with the customer, failure to take the time to determine the customer’s expectations and educate the customer on your capabilities, and determining the condition of the vehicle.

The resulting situations can be frustrating and awkward for you and the customer, and may impact the customer’s perception of your level of professionalism. Moreover, it may lead to an unhappy customer who will not return to your establishment. Yet these situations are relatively easy to avoid by simply taking time up front in your sales conversation and customer interview.


A very common error is to focus on price in the initial contact with a customer. Indulge me, please, in the telling of a personal sales experience in which I was the customer — it’s a good example of what not to do.

Years ago, when I first relocated to San Diego, I wanted to find a martial arts studio to continue training that I began in my previous neighborhood. I specifically had in mind that the ideal studio would focus somewhat on the more philosophical and mental aspects of the discipline and less on the “beat-’em-up” side. So I walked into a couple of studios and respectfully asked questions in an attempt to tease out this information.

In one particularly memorable case, I asked the Sensei a question like, “So, tell me about your training program,” to which he immediately launched into, “Well, it’s $84 a month and there’s a one-month deposit needed for registration, and if you join in the middle of the month we prorate the next month’s fees.” He never talked about what they actually teach in the studio, just how much it costs. I knew this was not the place for me because it was obvious that the teacher was focused more on the business aspects of the studio and less on what is provided to the students.

The detailer can make a similar mistake by launching a sales pitch with the price of the service, or (and this is probably the more common scenario), immediately answering a customer’s inquiry about price . . . with the price! So what’s the answer? Focus on the service that will be provided and minimize the discussion of price.

For example, when a potential customer calls and the first question is “how much do you charge for a detail?” I answer with a series of questions, like:

  • What is the year, make, and model of the vehicle?
  • What type of service do you want today?
  • When was the last time the car was detailed?
  • Are you looking for the best detail in town or the least expensive?

After collecting this information, I quickly run through the steps of our detailing process to show “how thorough we are.” Additionally, I might highlight some of the equipment that we use, like a steam machine that produces sanitizing true steam of at least 240 degrees. Finally, I close my sales pitch with the main goal of the service, which for me is, “we try to make the car look as new as possible, considering its age and condition.”

After the one- to two-minute touting of the quality of my service, I will then say something like “and you get all of that for only X dollars.” Finish it up with the promise of a “service excellence guarantee” that ensures the customer will be happy or you will take care of the problem. (Do not offer money back guarantees — you put too much time and effort into the job for the customer to get it for free based on a couple of complaints.)


Included in your customer interview (on the phone or in person) should be some extra questions that can help avoid confusion and open opportunities for additional sales. First, ask what prompted the sales call in the first place. Why? Sometimes the customer has a specific need that is driving the desire for the overall detail.

For example, the other day I was five minutes into a sales conversation with a customer who was interested in an interior detail, when the real reason for her call finally came up. She had spilled latte in the passenger carpet a few months ago and was tired of looking at the stain. This could have led to a dissatisfied customer if this fact had not been discussed up front.

Of course, I modified my sales pitch on the effectiveness of the “standard” interior detail with a statement like, “well our carpet cleaning techniques can probably get some of that stain out, but if you really want it mostly gone, we will have to use some special coffee stain removing chemicals, and this is typically an extra charge.”

To be pro-active in avoiding the potential problems in a scenario like the one just described, always ask the question, “Is there anything special that we can take care of for you today?” The answer to this question can help you to do a better job by focusing your efforts on an area that bothers the customer. It can also help you find more potential up-sells and cross-sells.


If you don’t take the time to carefully inspect both the inside and the outside of the vehicle, you risk the possibility of a surprise problem. Such problems can include imperfections or damage in the paint, scuffed leather, bad stains, and even breakage of trim parts.

Without a careful inspection, you may also miss potential up-sells like red-stain removal, paint-scuff and scratch removal, headlamp clarification, and deodorization.


It is always a good idea to discuss the expected delivery time with the customer. Some customers have no idea how long it takes to detail a car. It’s no fun to be in the middle of a five-hour job and the customer walks up and says, “I have an appointment in half an hour. How long ‘til you’re done?” Others might assume it’s okay to leave the car with you for several days — and what a surprise is this assumption when it’s the end of the day and the customer is not
answering the phone and you don’t know what to do with the car.

It’s so easy to avoid this problem by simply telling the customer the window of time that you need the car and then asking what time the customer would like the car ready for pick-up. This simple 30-second conversation can eliminate a mountain of problems and confusion. Additionally, remember to be pro-active in notifying a customer as soon as you suspect a delay in finish time.


Discuss with the customer both the service to be performed and what is included in that service. This will avoid a situation in which the customer says, upon inspecting the finished product, “Oh, I thought your ‘complete’ detail included the engine compartment.”

Also important to discuss is the result that the customer is expecting. A common misunderstanding in this case is the removal of stains. Imagine (or maybe there’s one in your shop right now) the scenario of the extremely dirty inside of the mini-van that has shuttled three kids and two dogs for five years since the last detail. Most of all, the carpets are heavily stained.

So you attack the job with everything that a professional detailer would be expected to do to remove the stains as best as possible. Let’s face it, though, even the most powerful hot water extractor and special stain removers cannot get out ground-in grease, red stains, and spilled espresso. Unbeknownst to you, however, the customer was fully expecting that the light tan carpets would look virtually new, and puts up a fuss about the still visible, albeit significantly improved stains.

This situation could have been avoided, if, during the inspection of the interior of the vehicle, the salesperson made a simple statement like, “I am confident that we will be able to make these carpets look significantly better, but I can’t guarantee that all of these stains will come out completely.”

Another common misunderstanding comes in the treatment of the paint. Clarify with the customer the expected outcome on the paint for the menu item that the customer has chosen. For example, you may have a “standard detail” that includes only clay and wax. The customer that expects that the paint will look perfect upon completion of the service will be disappointed when all of the scratches are not removed.

So to avoid problems here, you should explain to each new customer that the standard detail will help to make micro-scratches and moderate scratches less noticeable but that they will not be removed. Instead, if the customer wants the scratches eliminated, he or she can elect to pay for additional buffing and polishing steps that are not normally included in a “standard” exterior detail.


Okay. I’ll be honest. I have experienced each of the situations that I described in this article more than once. It is almost always with a new customer and it still happens occasionally up to this day. Usually, when I have a misunderstanding with a customer, it is a result of me being sloppy with my initial customer interview and vehicle inspection. My hope is that this discussion will help you to avoid problems with your customers and to possibly increase your per-vehicle revenue.

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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