Auto Detailing - August 2009

At the Car Wash — Part 13: Training
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the thirteenth column in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In the last column (June, 2009), we discussed issues revolving around staffing a detailing center at a car wash.

First we talked about how many detailers would be needed, which is determined mostly by the expected volume of the operation. Staffing for express detailing can be a bit challenging because of the time-intensive nature of the service, which must be completed when promised to the waiting customer, regardless of the number of jobs in process. Full-service detailing staffing is a bit simpler because it is often performed on an appointment basis and the customer typically is not waiting for the job to be completed. For moderate- to high-volume operations, two technicians per vehicle are recommended for increased efficiency.

The issue of compensation for detailing technicians is not a simple one. Nonetheless, express detailing lends itself to the flat, per-vehicle rate, which will help motivate the technicians to complete more jobs per hour, especially in a high-volume environment. Full-service detailing compensation should be tied not only to the amount of time spent on the vehicle but also the achievement of the standards that you have set for the quality of completed jobs.

In recruiting staff for the detail area, it was recommended to be careful of hiring “experienced” detailers because their style of detailing likely does not match that which you offer to your customers. Pulling from your existing resources, like the wash finish area, often means you are losing your better finishers. This has to be weighed against the unknowns of hiring a new technician from the general public. It was recommended that hiring be based on attitude and willingness to learn instead of “experience.”

This last statement is true only if the detailing center has a solid training program established for educating new hires in the proper detailing techniques. And that statement conveniently leads into the topic of this month’s installment: training.

COMBINING THE ELEMENTS

Thus far in this series, we have spoken about defining express and full-service detailing, setting up a menu and pricing for the services, selling the services, as well as the equipment, chemicals, and staffing necessary to fulfill the services offered.

Detailing is not rocket science but it does require, like any trade, a moderate amount of knowledge to perform satisfactorily. The knowledge required can be summed up as such: the detailing technician must understand first what service elements are involved with each menu item. Then the technician must choose the appropriate chemicals and equipment, combine these with rules of motion to create techniques that accomplish the service elements, taking into consideration an informed diagnosis of the condition of the vehicle as well as an assessment of the expectations of the customer. The techniques, in turn, should be ones that allow the technician to complete the work in an efficient and effective manner.

That “understanding of the tasks involved in each menu item” establishes the link between the car wash management and the detailing technician. It is the responsibility of the car wash leadership to determine the service elements that are to be included in each menu item, as well as the service standards for each element. The management does this by first developing a service menu that can, in a profitable manner, deliver the most common services needed and desired by the customer base.

Management is then responsible for adequately instructing the detailing technicians about the menu, the service elements, and the standards. This will help to ensure that what is promised to the customer is the same thing that will be delivered by the technician, and that the technician is performing work that is aligned with the results promised.

Now the big question: How does the detailing technician gain the knowledge to perform the service elements?

“EXPERIENCED” DETAILERS

One approach is to assume that the incoming “experienced” detail technician already has the knowledge to perform your service elements. Hiring an “experienced” detailer might seem like an easier route because he or she is “ready to go” and does not need any training. But this assumption is fraught with potential problems. Here are just some of the questions that arise:

  • Does the detailer know how to use the chemicals and equipment in your shop?
  • Does the detailer use techniques that will consistently yield results that you and your customers expect?
  • Does the detailer use techniques that are efficient? That is, can he or she get the job done in a reasonable amount of time?
  • Does the detailer have a good understanding of the dozen vehicle surfaces that we are responsible for cleaning and conditioning?
  • Does the detailer fully understand what service elements are included for each of your menu items?

Another problem that often arises with “experienced” detailers is that they try to change how you do things or simply use their own methods whether or not you approve. They often want to bring in their own favorite chemicals and equipment.

Letting someone with “experience” loose in your detail operation can become a tangible liability, as exemplified by a recent problem experienced by a customer of mine. I have detailed his black Infinity for several years now. He was going through the car wash and a savvy ticket writer noticed that the paint could use a coat of wax. He agreed and the car was whisked away to the express detail area, where a “detail technician” proceeded to apply wax with a rotary polisher equipped with a wool pad. The result was holographic swirl marks that required multi-step process for me to remove.

What should have been a $39 ticket for the car wash owner, had the technician been properly trained, ended up in a $350 bill to remove the damage.

If you go the route of hiring “experienced” detailers and then let them loose in your shop, assuming they know what their doing, you are subjecting yourself and your customers to the whim and fancy of each detailer working in your shop. You may instruct the technician to “do a complete detail on this car” but that does not guarantee that the technician will deliver a result that meets your standards or those expected by your customers.

THE SOLUTION

I believe that one of the keys to a long-term, highly profitable and successful detail operation that provides consistent results that create delighted customers, is training.

But first, you must designate a member of your operation as the person responsible for training new detail hires. If your operation is large enough to necessitate a detail manager, it is probably that person. If you only have a couple of detail technicians, then it will be the general manager or owner. Regardless of the situation, leadership for training must come from the top. This means that the car wash owner and general manager must be willing to encourage, empower, and finance detail training so that the entire detail staff is consistently utilizing the same techniques to achieve the established standards.

Once you have figured out who is responsible for detail training, then you must develop a training program. There are several options here. You can purchase video training materials that are then shown to every new hire. This is a relatively inexpensive way to go and offers the ability to provide training at any time, including as a refresher to current detail technicians.

Another option is to send your detailing crew to one of the many fine detailing schools around the country. This will give your crew a baseline knowledge, which they can bring back to your particular location and customize, creating your own processes.

In my opinion, the best option is to bring an established trainer into your location. The benefits of this option are many, including:

  • Training can be customized to fit your particular needs, including the size of the staff, the equipment and chemicals on hand, and the typical customer profile;
  • You are paying travel expenses for one person (the trainer) versus everyone on your staff;
  • Your staff is not stuffed into a class with several other students who may have completely different business models (e.g., mobile detailers or auto dealership employees);
  • Training is performed at your site, using your equipment, so that the technicians are learning in the same environment in which they will work after the training;
  • The trainer (hopefully) can help you establish standard operating procedures that can then be taught to future hires.

With your formal training completed, you can establish an in-house training program that mimics that which you received during the training event. Perhaps your trainer can even help you with this.

BENEFITS OF FORMAL TRAINING

Formal detail training will help ensure that all members of your staff are performing service elements in a consistent fashion — everyone does it the same way. Training also helps to maximize efficiency — the speed at which services are performed.

Training likewise helps to maximize effectiveness — how well the service is provided — by establishing high-quality procedures that ensure consistently high-quality results. Another advantage of having an established process is that it becomes something that is fixable, modifiable, teachable, and improvable.

The most important benefit of formal training is that your detail technicians will be able to produce results that consistently delight your customers, which will bring them back with their friends. With a reputation for excellence, you earn the “right” to charge prices that are higher than your competition because you provide a better value for the customer.

SUMMARY

This series has covered several factors involved in providing detail services at a car wash. Most of these factors come together when the detailing technician is actually working on the vehicle. How was it sold? What equipment and chemicals will be used? Which menu item was chosen? It behooves the car wash operator who wants a successful detail center to spend the time necessary to establish a training program for the detail technicians, new and existing.

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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