Auto Laundry News - September 2011

That Can’t Work Here — Three Myths About Customers and Car Washing

By Anthony Analetto

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I recently saw a documentary highlighting what American companies are doing to “train” customers in rural parts of China as they introduce their drive-through franchises into those markets. Most interesting wasn’t the signage, staff training, or other simple mechanisms used to educate customers. What really stood out was management’s belief that success didn’t mean changing their business model, but finding the right way to communicate its advantages to a new customer.

Several recent conversations flashed in my head. All of them contained some variation of the phrase “Nobody in our market does that; it can’t work here.” Here are the top misconceptions I hear most often — responsible for increasing labor costs, complicating management, and slowing production for car washes around the country.

  1. Nobody in our market uses friction; our customers prefer touch-free.
  2. Nobody in our market uses pay stations; our customers prefer live greeters.
  3. Nobody in our market uses a tire shine machine; our customers expect us to do it by hand.
  4. Nobody in our market fully automates drying; our customers expect us to towel dry.
  5. Nobody in our market fully automates the wash; our customers prefer we prep by hand (or worse, wash by hand).

What’s at the root of the problem? There’s an apparent fear of eliminating labor at the wash. Why? Let’s take a look.


During my long career in car washing, I have to admit being guilty of the management process I like to call whack-a-mole. Open each day, fix whatever breaks, solve problems as they happen, go home exhausted, and repeat the process the next day. It’s rather like playing the arcade game whack-a-mole. You stand there waiting for a problem to pop up and whack at it until it’s gone. Then, if you get lucky, you discover a trusted manager who can whack moles nearly as good as you. Now you’re able to take a day off, or let the manager whack moles at one wash, while you open your next location. No doubt you can earn an income running your business this way. But it’s hard to step back and evaluate new innovations to improve ease of management, customer experience, speed-of-service, or any of the things you must do to remain competitive.

Fortunately, I learned early on that I could never reduce my labor cost until I designed a solid business model, preventive maintenance schedule, and training procedures to deliver a consistent product. The reason is simple. Without a process that worked, I needed to have excess labor available to help whack moles that kept popping up. Stop whacking moles!

It’s easy. First, develop a business model that does not rely upon labor. Second, reduce costs and the drain on your time by utilizing staff only in well-defined roles with a positive ROI that can’t be matched by equipment. Third, use the increased time and cash to evaluate and invest in improvements to your business. Fourth, continue to refine, and watch profits grow.


This is false. Customers prefer a strong value proposition that delivers the following four components: (1) a quality product (2) in a consistent amount of time (3) at a competitive price (4) with a pleasant and memorable retail experience. Familiar employees, smiling faces, and friendly greetings all contribute to that experience — but are an expensive way to do it. With the exception of interior and detailing services, automated equipment is readily available to deliver superior cleaning, point-of-sale processing, and better customer service than even the best employee. Using labor in the wash process kills your ability to deliver all four components of the value proposition. Why? Because even your best employee will have a bad day resulting in inconsistent quality, slow service time, and unpleasant customer experience. On top of that, labor is more expensive, causing you to raise prices.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe a well-trained smiling staff contributes to a better customer experience. My point is that your business model must utilize labor for one of the following two functions, and never to wash cars: First, employees can ensure safety on your site. Second, they can function as a type of interactive sign, on steroids, shooting blanks.

Shooting what? Shooting blanks! Meaning you might have an attendant create an experience in the wash, but only for show, not wash quality. They might spray foam on a car entering the tunnel, but only a cheap soap to entertain your customers, not because it’s needed. An attendant may drag a towel over the perfectly dry exterior of a car exiting the tunnel — not to dry the car, which has already been done by equipment, but to show the customer your personal attention to detail. Shooting blanks means your customer is entertained, but gets the consistency of automated equipment. Shooting blanks means you can dramatically reduce staff. Work is less strenuous so they’ll still be smiling at the end of the day, and you can easily send people home on slow days with no impact to wash quality.


We’re now back to where we started. A documentary featuring American franchises helping rural Chinese citizens embrace drive-through restaurants. Offering an efficient business model delivering a quality product, in a consistent amount of time, at a competitive price, with a pleasant and memorable retail experience — do you think they were successful? Were the American franchises able to use a few simple signs and staff training to educate customers to their way of doing business? Or did the Chinese citizens reject the value in their business proposition, and prefer to stay with the friendly personalized experience at the existing retailers they’d always used? The next time you feel yourself saying, “Nobody in our market does that, it can’t work here,” stop and think about it for a minute. Are you paving a path for your long-term prosperity, or modeling the business practices of a rural Chinese merchant, surprised at the sharp decline in his business.

Good luck and good washing!

Anthony Analetto has over 28 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at

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