Auto Detailing - April 2010

At the Car Wash — Keys to Detailing Success
By Prentice St. Clair

Many of the readers of this magazine are car wash operators. Guess what? This month’s column is just for you. (Although, if you own a standalone detailing operation, you should still read on as you might find a line of thinking from which you can extrapolate information that applies to your situation.) Whether you currently offer detailing or are considering adding it, there are a number of things that you can do to help ensure that your detailing operation is as successful as it can be.

It starts with determining who your detail customers are and how you will market to them. The answers to the following list of questions will help you begin to make this determination.

  • What types of cars are coming into your car wash?
  • What is the median income of your car wash customer?
  • What types of wash packages are customers purchasing? Basic wash or upgrades?
  • Is anyone asking for more than a car wash?
  • What is the neighborhood like or what types of vehicle owners drive by?

I believe that a certain amount of frankness will go a long way to avoiding disappointment with a detail operation. For example, if you are selling cheap car washes in an effort to bring in volume, you have to sell your detailing cheaply as well. Customers who are accustomed to paying for rock-bottom coupon-discounted exterior-only car washes are not going to be ready to pony up for high-priced retail-style complete detailing.

Please do not misunderstand my statements in this last paragraph, however. There are definitely detailing options that can be offered at price points that will be attractive to the price-conscious car wash customer.

Whether you own a large car wash or small, whether your average ticket is $3.99 or $19.50, there are some things that you can do to ensure that your detail operation reaches its full potential. These include:

  • Create detailing menu items that work for a large number of your customers.
  • Sell it right.
  • Standardize the detailing process.
  • Maintain an operation that looks professional (staff and facilities).

Let’s talk about each one of these items.


Having an appropriate detailing menu is very important to the success of the detail shop. By “appropriate,” I mean that it must have items that will be popular, needed, and desired by the typical drive-up car wash customer. Additionally, it must be priced to attract the target customer while still allowing for a reasonable profit for the detail center.

For some operations, express detailing menu items might be all that will work because the price points associated with express are the only ones that match the typical customer budget. For other operations, a mix of express and full-service is best because several types of customers come through the car wash. Still others find it necessary to offer a hybrid of the two because their customers are not happy with the results offered by express detailing but are not willing to pay for the thoroughness of traditional full-service detailing.

In my experience in the car wash industry, I have found several common mistakes relating to the menu. Often it is too complicated, with many more items than the customer can understand or the service writers can remember. The prices shown are often too low compared to the amount of work that is put into fulfilling the menu item. Another common problem is that there is a disconnect with what the menu says, what the ticket writer sells, and what the detail technician does. All of these conditions ultimately lead to lower detail sales and less-than-happy customers.

I strongly recommend that each car wash operator work with an independent consultant who can come in and objectively analyze all of the factors that go into an appropriate menu. The increased sales that are likely to result will pay, many times over, for any consulting fees incurred.


Once you have a good menu of detailing services, it is critical to help the service advisors understand each menu item. Let’s think about it for a moment: The service writers are the ones that interface with the drive- up car wash customer. They will be the first ones to see the condition of the car, hear the customer’s initial service request (need or desire), and explain the available menu items.

Thus, the service writer must have a clear understanding of the expected results of each menu item and the service capability of the detailing center as it applies to each item. I recommend that the service writers and the detail manager be involved in the drafting of the detail menu. I also recommend that the service writers be involved in any of the detailing training that is provided to the detailing technicians. This will allow the service writers to fully understand what is involved in fulfilling each detail menu item.

Additionally, the service writer must be provided with training on how to evaluate the need of each vehicle. For example, the service writer might be confronted with a customer who comes in with a heavily oxidized paint job and asks for an express hand wax. The service writer must be able to identify the paint problem and have enough understanding of the capability of the express hand wax service to know that it will not solve the problem. Instead, the customer should be referred to the detailing manager for a consultation on restoring the paint, a multi-step process that can be handled by appropriately trained full-service detailing technicians.

The more time you invest in hiring, training, and incentivizing your sales staff, the more money your detailing operation will generate.


Once the detail has been sold, it is the responsibility of the detailing staff to correctly process the vehicle according to what menu item was chosen. Their capability of doing so rests (are you ready?) squarely upon the shoulders of the car wash owner. Yes, you. How? You are ultimately responsible to make sure that there are standards and standard operating procedures for each of the items on your detailing menu.

Those standard operating procedures must include the appropriate equipment and chemical for each step in the process. Moreover, the detailing technicians must be trained in the techniques that should be used with each tool and chemical to achieve the standard for that menu item.

It amazes me how many car wash operations leave their detailing cash cow in the hands of a detailer who “said” he was experienced. And then the owner wonders why it takes so long to get a detail done and why the customers keep complaining about sloppy results. This all can be avoided if the owner sets up (or empowers the detail manager to set up) a rigorous training program for each new hire. If this is too much work, then hire someone to do it for you.

Establishing standard operating procedures and training each technician on those procedures will help to ensure increased efficiency (i.e., more cars processed each day), better results, and ultimately happier customers. Just so we are clear: this goes for both full-service and express detailing.


A common problem in the car care world in general is that the detail operation is relegated to “that shack in the back.” This is especially common in auto dealerships and in some car washes as well. Even some standalone detail operations are pretty gruesome when you walk into the work area.

One way that you can show your car wash customer that you are serious about auto detailing is to present a professional image at your detailing center, regardless of it’s size. This starts with dressing up your detail staff in collared shirts, requiring that they wear matching pants and shoes, and by demanding specific minimum grooming standards.

The detail staff should be at least as clean-cut as the most professional client that they may service. That might mean no personal hats, clean-shaven every day, no tattoos or piercings, and perhaps even no smoking. This may sound harsh and you can take it or leave it, but, let’s face it, we are in the business of “clean.” How can we expect our customers to spend money to clean up their cars if the people doing the work don’t appear clean?

This presentation of cleanliness also applies to the work area itself. I believe that the goal should be a work area that is as clean and tidy as the completed cars that come out of it. Clean floors; clean walls; no trash; no towels on the floor; all equipment “detailed” regularly; all supplies organized on carts, shelves, and in cabinets. Bright lighting, clean windows, clean bathrooms, and so on. Provide incentives to encourage shop cleanliness just like you provide them to encourage detailing perfection.


Express or full-service detailing at a car wash can be a great additional profit center. The keys to making this happen include analyzing and understanding the needs of the typical car wash customer, creating a detail menu that captures these needs, ensuring that the sales staff fully understands each item on the detail menu, ensuring that the detail technicians have the equipment and training to perform the work, and creating a detailing facility that matches in cleanliness the cars that it services.

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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