A Smile and a Hug — Engage with Your Customers in a Consistent Manner
Last month, my daughter, a junior in college majoring in child education, volunteered to spend five weeks in rural South Africa. She lived with a host family and worked at an elementary school. While showing us over 1,500 pictures of her adventure, she repeatedly expressed regret that she couldn’t pick up much of the local language. When I asked her how she managed to communicate with the children, I was surprised when she answered: “Dad, a smile and a hug mean the same thing in any language.” It’s amazing how such a simple expression can be so powerful — which, of course, got me thinking about how it applies to car washing. I started jotting down ideas. What things do successful car washes do that’s the equivalent of giving a smile and a hug to their customers? What visual cues let customers know that you care about them, and the appearance and safety of their vehicle? So often these activities are framed in terms of marketing, branding, preventive maintenance, customer service, employee management, and property maintenance. And too often, when business is slow, we postpone these expenses or change our service level in an attempt to lower costs. Maybe I’m just inspired by my daughter’s recent excursion. But maybe there’s something more to this idea. Maybe, in order to maintain customer loyalty and engagement, it’s better to think in terms of what we’re doing to give them a smile and a hug. Let’s take a look.
I’ll start this section with the statement that not all customers are created equal. It’s easy to smile and give a mental hug to the 20 percent of your customers who are contributing 80 percent of your revenue. Unfortunately, for many service businesses, we exhaust ourselves by catering to the 80 percent and, after time, no longer even see the top 20 percent. Step back for a second. Look at your customers. Do you feel like you want to give them all a smile and a hug while thanking them for their business? If not, pretend you can look out at your customers and see the top 20 percent in bright color and the other 80 percent in black and white. Can you at least smile at the top 20 percent? If not, you’re perfectly positioned to make poor decisions that can negatively impact your business; to haphazardly cut the very things that keep customers loyal; to make decisions that undercut the value of your service and pushes your best customers to your competition. I’m not saying you need to look at your customers and start humming a verse of Kumbayah — but if you’re not prepared to smile and give even your best customers a hug, it will corrupt your staff, disrupt the quality of your service, and slowly eat away at your bottom line.
The fact is that car washing is a cyclical business that changes with every weather forecast. Your job is to ensure that not only you, but also your staff, engage with your customers in a positive and consistent manner. That’s the root problem that must be solved. Car washing is an inconsistent and unpredictable business. As operators, we have to deliver a consistent and predictable customer experience with a smile and a hug in order for our business to grow. I recently read an article discussing Starbucks’ multi-million dollar training initiative to instill reliable and successful customer service habits in employees. I laughed a little when I imagined if they had to deal with a prolonged rainy period that forced them to lay off most of their staff. Or if every customer came in with a different sized mug and the barista had to make sure the precise concentration of ingredients was automatically and proportionately changed for that particular cup. I’m the first to recognize that car washing presents challenges that a coffee shop couldn’t even imagine. But there’s a lot to be learned from initiatives such as Starbucks’.
The objective of training employees to give each customer the equivalent of a smile and a hug as an instinctual habit makes a lot of business sense. So how do you do that in the unpredictable world of a car wash? Simple — focus on your core staff. Develop incentive and training programs that provide a stable environment for this group that insulate them from the ups and downs of unpredictable cash flow while sharing in the overall success of the wash. That, however, demands meticulous planning. Too often I see operators design a compensation program that lets this core group share a little when the business is strong, and feel the pain when things are slow. Seems fair — right? Wrong. Face it, employees will never appreciate your pain during a slow month. Don’t be so critical; neither will they reap the rewards of a record month. The pitfall is that you need this core staff to greet every customer with an involuntary smile and a hug. You need them to infect all other staff around them with their enthusiasm. Those two actions will improve the customer’s experience at your wash and contribute real revenue from more loyal customers to your bottom line. Both, however, are difficult tasks for the average employee when faced with perceived instability in their work environment. In a nutshell, creating an environment that makes customers feel welcome requires not only giving them a smile and a hug, but also doing the same to your staff. Who would have thought this happy-smile-and-hug stuff could become so complicated?
Now that we’re extending a smile and a hug to our customers through our staff, what about the property and wash process itself? Before I talk about car washes, I’d like to talk about cars. Have you ever noticed when you buy a new car or truck, there’s plenty of money and time to buy accessories? To detail it obsessively? To perform all preventive maintenance on schedule? Time passes and it loses its luster. You need new tires. You have unexpected repairs. You justify delaying preventive maintenance and detailing because there’s no time or money. With a car, it’s no big deal. Just trade it in. If you allow this to happen to your wash however, you’re potentially going to kill your business, or at least stunt its growth. This isn’t an article on facility maintenance. But ask yourself: Are your nozzles in perfect working order? Do you recall the last time you pumped your reclaim tanks? Have you tested your water quality within the last month? Has all preventive maintenance been performed on schedule? Is your property clean and inviting? Is any equipment tied back, waiting for repair? Have you cut back on detergents, rinse, or drying? Is your landscaping and signage bright and cheerful? Basically, are you extending a smile and a hug to your customers through the careful attention to detail in their experience of getting a clean, dry, shiny car? Master that and you’ll be humming a verse of Kumbayah on your next trip to the bank.
Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as the 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 Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or at (800) 327-8723 ext 104.