Auto Detailing - April 2007

Detail, Inc., Part IX—Image:
What Your Customers See
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the ninth in a multi-part series dedicated to the “business” of detailing. In last month’s column, the topic was insurance. We established that the primary purpose of insurance is to protect you from losing your business and the income that goes with it in the event of a catastrophe like the shop burning down or an accident while driving the customer’s vehicle.

We reviewed some of the important types of insurance that you should have. These include a “garage keeper’s insurance policy” that covers you in the event of damage to the customer’s vehicle (garage keeper’s legal liability), damage to non-customer vehicles (garage keeper’s auto portion), and customer injuries (garage liability, other than auto portion). Additionally, your fixed location should be insured with “property insurance, building portion.” Finally, equipment should have coverage against loss or damage. At a fixed location, this is “property insurance, contents portion.” For a mobile operation, it is called “inland marine.”

Moreover, having adequate insurance can also be used to help promote your business. It is an example of your commitment to professional excellence. It will also help to convince customers to do business with you because they know that their vehicles are covered while in your possession.

Speaking of promotion, let’s move on to this month’s topic. Another great way to promote your business is to create a professional image.

WHAT IS IMAGE?

Your professional image is what the customer sees when looking at your business. If you have a shop, this should be obvious — signage, clean building, tidy work area, etc. Image goes beyond some of these more obvious items, however. It includes how you “carry yourself” as a businessperson and how you interact with customers.

When it comes to the difference between image and marketing, there is a blurry line. The clean, professional image of a detail shop or mobile rig can indeed attract customers to you.

So, image is important in and of itself, but it is also important as a means of attracting and retaining customers.

BASICS

There are some basic things you can do to help establish your image. Start with the business name. Try to create a business name that not only indicates who you are but what you do. “Joe’s Detailing” is basic, straightforward, and to the point.

But it lacks pizzazz. Instead, try something like “Auto Appearance Specialists,” which sounds more sophisticated.

You may also want to use a name that more generically refers to automotive appearance care than simply “detailing.” This allows you to expand your business in the future by adding other services (e.g., accessories, windshield repair, paint, etc.) that are beyond basic detailing.

Many marketing gurus suggest the development and use of a logo. This is a symbol or picture that captures your business in one simple visual representation. Logos can be quite powerful for customer recognition — think golden arches, the colonel, the cola bottle, etc.

Colors are important as well. You can do some research online or speak with a marketing expert for advice on what colors to use in your logo and other promotional materials. For example, “clean” colors include green, blue, and white. Eye-attracting colors are yellow and red. Black and red in combination indicate power.

Once you have decided on your business name, colors, and logo, start putting it on everything you can think of, including signs. The idea is to start “branding” your business so that customers recognize your business from the standpoint of its image. This is what the large nationwide franchises do, and thus we can all recognize their locations no matter what city we are in around the country. We can take a lesson from these multi-billion dollar operators and create a “franchise look” for our own relatively tiny operations.

If you are already “in the game” and want to check on your progress, take a sample of each of your printed items and lay them out on a table. This includes brochures, business cards, uniforms, letterhead, invoices, thank-you cards, feedback cards, and printed advertisements. Do they all match, or does it look like a ransom letter? If they don’t match, consider hiring a graphic designer to pull all of your materials together.

PERSONNEL

When you are an employer, part of your image is projected by the people working for you. From the beginning, make it easier on yourself by hiring those with good grooming habits. Think about the clientele that you are trying to attract to your business — if they are the type that might be put-off by piercings and tattoos, then you may want to shy away from potential hires that sport such items.

Have and enforce a dress code. Uniforms should include collared shirts (tucked in) and hats with logos. Everyone should wear the same colored pants or shorts (pulled-up and kept up). Uniforms should be clean all day, so have employees keep and extra shirt handy should the first one become soiled. Better yet, have everyone use aprons (embroidered with your logo) during detailing so that the shirts can’t get soiled.

My personal conviction is that detailing and smoking cannot go together. The problem is that tobacco smoke is easily transferable from the clothes and breath of the smoking technician into the customer’s car that is supposed to be getting cleaned, not smokes. Thus, avoid hiring employees who smoke. If it’s unavoidable, have them smoke somewhere out of view of customers and completely away from customers’ vehicles.

INTANGIBLES

There are less obvious ways of projecting an image. One of these is how you converse with customers. Answer the phone energetically and enthusiastically while identifying your business and yourself.

Respond quickly to voice mails and other messages.

Another intangible way to project an image is how you do your work. I remember that many years ago Steve Okun spoke of “the big show.” And he is absolutely right. Whether your operation is mobile or fixed, your process of performing an automotive detail can be quite a bit of theater. With proper training and good process, you can create a performance that demonstrates that you really know what you’re doing. This is especially important if you are mobile because, believe me, people are watching. Another way to improve or extend your image is to become involved in the community. Donations to local causes that are attached to advertising, a booth at community fairs, and sponsoring local kids’ sports teams are just a few ways to get your name out there and add the “community involvement” aspect of your image.

FIXED LOCATION

The appearance of your fixed location is an extension of the work that you do. Walk outside and take a look from across the street. Is it something to be proud of?

Signage should be clean and professional. At a minimum, make sure the grounds are always free of trash and weeds. At a minimum, the building itself should have a fresh coat of paint. Keep the windows clean and the lobby area spotless. Get rid of old, worn out furniture. The bathrooms that customers use have to be spotless, even if this means cleaning them once a day and checking several times a day.

The detailing work area must be clean and tidy at all times. No towels on the ground! All trash in receptacles — have the technicians take trashcans with them when emptying the contents of the car. All unnecessary cords and equipment stowed when not in use. Other essentials include fresh paint on the walls, back-up supplies stored in clean cabinets, and lots of bright light. There should also be no bad smells in the detail area. Launder dirty towels each day and clean out the extractors (leaving them open to fully air).

MOBILE DETAILING

When you are “out there” performing a detail on a mobile basis, your business is really on display. Your vehicle should be clean at all times. Take advantage of the large surfaces on your van, truck, or enclosed trailer to advertise your business with a professionally designed and installed wrap or vinyl lettering. You can also use the edges of your canopy to announce your activity. I recommend having a simple message in big block letters, like “auto detailing” — just something to catch the eye of the passer-by so that he or she is encouraged to approach you about your service.

Keep your work area clean and tidy. No trash or towels on the ground. Roll up hoses and cords that are not currently in use. Use a cart, caddy, or tote to carry your bottles and supplies instead of leaving them spread out on the ground.

IMAGE ON A BUDGET

I am a big fan of letting professionals do jobs that I am not the best at. When you think about it, our customers accord us the same deference. They don’t know how or don’t have the time to detail, so they pay us to do it. We should do the same when it comes to image. Graphic designers, public relations experts, advertising specialists, and printers and embroiderers can all help you to improve your image.

Although these services should be considered to be an investment in your future profitability, for some they can be too expensive. (As I have mentioned many times in my writings, make sure your pricing is appropriate so that you can pay for normal business expenses like marketing.) Nonetheless, there are ways to improve your image without spending too much money.

The easiest way is to provide superior customer service. If you absolutely delight your customers on a consistent basis, they really won’t care how you look. Use customer service to boost your reputation and your prices so that you can afford image enhancements later.

Consider trading with some of the professionals listed above. You can provide detailing service in exchange for the services provided by the professional. Be sure you agree with the service provider the terms of the exchange. For example, I like to trade full-retail with full-retail value. That is, no special discounts on either side. This keeps it simple.

There are many ways that you can create printed materials yourself. You can use your own home computer and readily available software, or you can go to a local copy shop that rents computer time. Ask a trusted business acquaintance to review your materials.

SUMMARY

How does your business look these days? Professional or frumpy? Consider all of the obvious and less-obvious ways that you can improve your image so that you can attract the most customers.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail Prentice@DetailinProgress.com or call (619) 701-1100.

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