Auto Detailing - August 2006

Detail, Inc., Part I:
After all, it is a Business

By Prentice St. Clair

I have been privileged with writing this column for almost three years now. In that time, we have discussed various topics in automotive detailing, both on the operational side and also on the administrative side. We just finished up a long series on interior detailing (for a wrap-up, see the July 2006 issue of Auto Laundry News) and back in 2004, we did a series on automotive paint technology and care (since this series dates a little further back, we offer an outline at the end of this article). The editors of this publication and I thought it would be a good idea at this point to switch modes and have a series on more of the “business” of automotive detailing.

Automotive detailing attracts many entrepreneurs and sole proprietors because it seems — at least on the face of it — that detailing is a relatively simple business to start. This statement contains two words of concern — “simple” and “business.”


First, there is the word “simple.” Yes, automotive detailing is “simple” when you consider that it is mostly about cleaning and protecting vehicle surfaces. Nonetheless, if you have read this column for any length of time, you would have realized that there is a lot to that process.

Mastering the technical side of automotive detailing involves understanding the professional equipment, chemicals, and techniques that are used. The equipment helps to get the job done faster and better. There is a range of chemicals that are specifically designed for the dozen or so automotive surfaces that we are trying to clean and protect. And there are generally-accepted techniques that help us best combine the equipment and chemicals with knowledge of the vehicle surfaces to make the car look its best and keep it that way as long as possible.

Unfortunately, many who dabble in detailing as a “business” think that throwing a hose, bucket, vacuum, and a bottle of wax in the trunk makes them a “professional detailer.” Those of us who have been doing this for a while know that this can’t be farther from the truth. Truly professional automotive detailing requires a surprisingly large amount of knowledge and practice. For years, I have strongly recommended formal training and education, either on-site from a recognized trainer or at a detail school. At a minimum, one should be reading recognized detailing manuals or viewing demonstration videos. Otherwise, it takes months and years to slowly acquire all of the information from hit-and-miss experiences out in the field.

The biggest problem with learning through experience alone is that you are basically using your customers’ vehicles as a classroom. The results will not always be the best possible, so your early customers may not be as delighted as they could be. If, on the other hand, you get yourself properly trained from the beginning, you can offer excellent results from the beginning, and your customers will sing your praises, leading to more and more customer referrals. Additionally, providing the best results right from the start allows you to charge the highest prices right from the start, which makes your business more profitable — right from the start!


So, you might be able to detect that I am not one of those who believes that detailing is truly “simple.” And, at this point, we have only discussed the actual work, or, the “operational” considerations of a detailing business. Now it’s time to discuss that second word of concern from the first paragraph above — “business.”

Automotive detailing is not just washing and waxing cars. It is also a business that, like any other business, can succeed or fail based upon how it is run. As mentioned earlier, the actual work performed in the business (i.e., the service provided to the customer) is referred to as the “operational” aspects of the business. Everything else that is involved in running the business is referred to as “administrative” activities, which include the following.

Employee/Labor Issues
These include where to find good employees, how to train them, how much to pay them, how to keep them motivated, and what to do about turnover and retention.

What kind of insurance does a detailing operation need? Do I need to be bonded? What about my equipment?

Marketing, Advertising, and Sales
The business cannot survive if there are not enough paying customers. How do you attract the right kind of customer and how do you then convert them into paying and returning clients?

Bookkeeping and Accounting
Taxes are inevitable. How do you make sure you only pay what you actually owe? Also, how can you tell if your business is doing well?

Supply and Maintenance
Your detailing operation needs certain things to keep it going. Chemicals run out and equipment can break down. How can you simplify the supply process, avoid down time, and provide the best results for your customer?

Training and Education
As I mentioned earlier, you have to know what you’re doing while you work. This involves a commitment to up-front training. It also involves a commitment to continuing education so that you can keep abreast of the latest and greatest ideas, products, and services in our industry.

These are the general categories of issues that every business owner has to deal with while operating a business. Within these categories, there are imbedded many subtopics, each of which can merit its own discussion, including:

  • Avoiding business failure
  • Keeping expenses down while still projecting a legitimate image
  • Financing your detail operation
  • How to survive the lean startup months
  • Cultivating a professional image
  • Dealing with city hall
  • Playing by the rules (compliance)
  • Hiring, training, and motivating employees
  • Pricing that makes sense


Automotive detailing is a business. The difference between failure, just getting by, and fantastic success is often a matter of how that business is operated. (And, as you can see by the discussion at the beginning of this article, I am a strong believer that part of running the business correctly is obtaining — at the outset — the proper training on how to do the work correctly.) In the upcoming months, I hope to share with you some ideas, considerations, and information that will help you to create a successful business.

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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