The Truth — The Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth
Every so often I get a reminder of how truly remarkable and different the car wash industry really is. I was listening to a new investor developing a business plan for a car wash project. He told me about the locations he had visited on a multi-state tour, and what he liked or disliked about each. I asked what I thought to be a simple question: “What did the car wash owners you spoke with have to say about the type of wash you’re planning?” It turns out he never asked. He didn’t realize he could. In an industry where association bus tours take groups of operators to various car washes to learn what’s working at the site, and provide constructive feedback to the hosting operators to help them improve their business, it seems commonplace, but it’s not.
Whether you’re exploring the industry or looking for ways to improve your business, don’t underestimate the power of visiting other operators. Personally, I try to stop at nearly every car wash I pass that I neither compete with, nor intend competing with. There is, however, an absolutely right and wrong way to learn from your peers. I follow the same procedure each visit. First and foremost, if you stop at another car wash, buy the top wash offered. Take notes. Park in an absolutely unobtrusive spot on the property, or an adjacent parking lot if that’s not available. View the wash from the street and walk around if possible. Take more notes. Write down at least one thing you see that you don’t do and want to ask them about. Write down one thing you saw that could be improved upon. Seek out the owner, holding the receipt for the wash and a business card to leave in case they’re not available. Don’t underestimate what you may learn. Equally, don’t try to sugarcoat your constructive criticism. In many ways, offering constructive input is the price you must pay for any information you learn. Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here’s an example from one of my own washes where that common courtesy broke down. It’s a story of car wash touring etiquette and complicated troubleshooting. I hope it sheds light on the benefit of the long-standing tradition of car wash operators opening their doors to one another in the spirit of improving our businesses.
Step 1: Let the Operator Know Something You Liked
The story begins at a car wash I opened with a partner several years back on the other side of our state. After being opened for about 30 days, a group of operators I know and trust toured the property. As an absentee owner, I was anxious to find out what they would have to say. One by one, they called to tell me what a great wash it was. Wash quality was phenomenal. Site layout was spectacular. Location was ideal. Branding and billboard advertising was effective. We talked about the menu and the effect of three automated attendants. Ideas for VIP programs and flex-serve expansion were all discussed — there was even one conversation about the possibility of a hotdog stand on weekends. Three hours away from the wash, I went to bed that night confident in the smooth operation of the location.
Step 2: Let the Operator Know Something That Could be Improved
Whether it’s an unclean bathroom, weeds popping up in the driveway, or a wash quality problem, it’s your obligation to point out at least one deficiency when you visit another car wash. Any experienced operator knows that it’s impossible to have a car wash without at least one thing wrong. When on the receiving end of sincere constructive criticism, most operators will be grateful. Some people are uncomfortable with offering criticism. If that’s the case, explain to the operator you’re visiting that whenever another operator comes to your wash, you don’t let them leave without sharing at least one thing they feel you can improve — and you try to pay the same courtesy to any wash you visit. Admit that it was a struggle to find something wrong and let them hear it.
Unfortunately, the group visiting my wash forgot to mention that every car leaving my wash was spotted. Weeks later, another operator, who hadn’t been to the site, heard about the spotting problem and alerted me to check it out. I immediately went out to the wash. After some quick troubleshooting, everything seemed to be working perfectly. Realizing this was no easy fix, I rented a hotel room, and jotted down some notes that would eventually, years later, become the article you’re now reading.
Step 3: Fix What Needs to Be Improved
Not all problems are as visible as a spotted car. Take constructive criticism and make an action plan to fix it. Look for the root cause — a dirty bathroom, for example, could be the result of poor training, poor management, or having the wrong staff in place at your site. In my case, having spotted cars meant a problem with the spot-free system. Unfortunately, the resolution wasn’t so simple.
We started troubleshooting. The manufacturer of the spot-free system came out to inspect the system. Perfectly clean water was being produced and filling the tank. The delivery pump was working correctly. Spot-free water was leaving the tank and rinsing cars. Days went by while nobody could figure out the problem. Fortunately, another water-management expert inspected the system and led us in a different direction. The spot-free system included a fresh-water makeup valve that would pull from the city water supply if spot-free water ran out. Normally, a solenoid valve fails predictably. Either it gets stuck on; in this case meaning if spot free ran out it wouldn’t pull from the city. Or gets stuck off; meaning that it would pull only from the city supply. In truth, when tested, the valve appeared to be working correctly because it hadn’t actually failed. Instead it turned out to be part of a batch of defective valves. Although it appeared to be working correctly, it was actually intermittently mixing city makeup water with the spot-free. This allowed enough city water into the system to cause sporadic spotting, but not enough to suspect it to be the problem.
Sure enough, replacing the valve solved the problem. Upon notifying the manufacturer of the spot-free system about the defective valve, they opened the box of valves in their inventory. Testing showed that the entire batch was defective. New valves were ordered; they fixed the units in the field, and replaced the valve on all new units being shipped.
I’ve always loved Henry Ford’s quote, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.” Whether it’s from a book, a video, or a conversation, all learning happens when one person is willing to share information with another. The next time you visit another operator’s car wash, make sure to provide some constructive criticism. You’ll be doing them a favor because, in car washing, anyone who keeps learning stays profitable.
Good luck and good washing.
Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory, creator of the 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.