Auto Detailing - August 2008

At the Car Wash —
Part 2: Definitions are the Key

By Prentice St. Clair

This is the second in a series about offering detailing at a car wash. In last month’s column, we discussed the distinctions between express and full-service detailing.

Express detailing is defined as a maintenance service that is performed while the customer waits — usually completed within 15 minutes after the car wash — on a vehicle that is already in relatively good condition by virtue of it being newer or detailed on a regular basis. I noted that a common problem in delivering express detailing is customer dissatisfaction that results from forcing express services onto vehicles that are in inappropriate condition for satisfactory results to be achieved.

Full-service detailing, on the other hand, is a more thorough and complete rejuvenation and protection of all of the surfaces on the vehicle. Full-service is not typically performed while the customer waits because it takes quite a bit longer than express. It is appropriate to be performed on vehicles that are older or neglected, or for those customers who demand a higher level of perfection than can be delivered by express.


A common problem at a car wash that offers detailing of any kind is ensuring that all involved parties clearly understand what is being offered and what is to be delivered for each detailing menu item. This goes for the service writers, customers, detail technicians, and managers. Often, misunderstanding stems from the lack of a clear distinction between full-service and express as well as clear definitions of each menu item.

Now, there is something to be said for customizing the detail menu to fit the specific needs of the customers who frequent the car wash, or to the particular market at hand. I am not suggesting that every car wash operator should do exactly as I, or anyone else for that matter, say. I am merely trying to help the operator avoid common problems.


The challenge of creating clear definitions of express and full-service detailing can impact several aspects of the performance of the detail center. First, if service advisors do not understand or, worse, have a misunderstanding of the different detailing options that are available to the consumer, they will have a difficult time selling appropriate detailing packages.

Sometimes the service writer is simply selling what he or she believes to be an appropriate service to the customer, when in fact, it is not. I have witnessed operations in which both the detail department and the service writers are selling and delivering services that should be valued at twice the price of the package that was sold; neither the car wash manager nor the owner ever bothered to check things out.

A good example is this scenario: The detail manager interprets a package labeled “express carpet cleaning” as shampooing all interior carpets and mats, a service that takes an average of 35 minutes and two or more technicians to deliver. The service is sold to any customer who asks, regardless of the condition of the vehicle’s interior, for a price of $39.99 after the cost of the carwash. The service results in the customer driving away with soaking wet carpets full of soap and with the damp mats stowed in the trunk.

When asked why they do it this way, the service writer and detail manager simply say, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Diving deeper into the discussion, I discovered that a previous manager who was no longer at the car wash defined the menu item “express carpet cleaning.”

Now, given the definitions of express detailing that I suggested in last month’s column, we can see that there are several problems with this scenario. The first is a matter of time. If you look at the total time on task, there is about 70 minutes of labor time being spent to make about $40. This results in a labor rate that is far less than the minimum $60 per hour per technician recommended by most professionals in our industry.

Moreover, the customer is waiting 35 minutes for an “express” service! This is far beyond the 15-minute rule suggested by our definition. A 35-minute service is no longer “express.” I equate this to the annoying situation of entering the drive-thru lane of a fast-food place, fully expecting to be out of there in a few minutes, only to be told at the window to pull off to the side to wait 15 minutes for the order to be filled. In that case, it’s no longer “fast food.”


Another common problem is that customers simply do not understand the difference between express and full-service detailing. You get the guy who drives up in a 15-year-old Ford Taurus with oxidized single-stage white paint, asking for an express wash-and-wax. The car actually needs a few labor hours and several polishing steps to rejuvenate the paint surface, but the customer somehow thinks that a spray-on, wipe-off express wax will make the car look new.

This example demonstrates the importance of properly educating customers about the packages that are available and what they include. This is accomplished in two main ways. The first is through signage and handouts. The second is through one-on-one conversations between the customer and the service writer.

The signage must clearly and succinctly list the various detailing packages, what they include, and the purpose of the service. However, since signage should not be overwhelmingly complicated either, it is necessary to supplement the signage with handouts or brochures that further explain the service offerings, especially with regard to the appropriate vehicle condition and expected outcome for each offering. I will discuss this at length in future months.

There is also a need to determine the expectations of each customer after being sold a detailing package. Additionally, the service writer has a responsibility to evaluate the condition of the vehicle to make sure it fits the profile of the menu item agreed to by the customer. Often the problem is that the service writer simply wants to sell the service, in order to pocket the commission, without regard for the consequences on the detail department or the customer’s satisfaction with the service.


Then we get down to what is actually done to the vehicle. Assuming the customer has chosen, and the service writer has sold, an appropriate menu item that fits his or her expectation as well as the condition of the vehicle, it is up to the detailing center to provide a service that matches.

The detailing technician must be properly trained and equipped for each service item. I have seen several situations in which the technician provides much more or much less service than is required by the specific menu item chosen. Providing too much service means the car wash owner is losing potential profit in two ways: first, the technician is tied up providing unrequested service, and second, the service is provided for free when it could have been added to the ticket up front.

Note: I realize that there are occasions when it is nice to take care of something extra for the customer as a courtesy. I am not speaking of these situations. Instead, I’m referring to those situations in which money is being left on the table on a consistent basis simply because of misunderstandings of service delivery specifics.

Providing less service than ordered has the more obvious result of a customer who is dissatisfied with the outcome. This can lead to either a non-returning customer or a re-work, which takes more time away from the technician than if the service had been correctly provided in the first place.


So far, we have talked about the role that the service writers play in selling detail services, the importance of determining as well as shaping customer expectations, and the necessity of ensuring that the detail technician knows exactly what to do (and not do) for the package that was sold. Who is responsible for making sure this all happens the way it is supposed to? The leadership at the car wash.

Typically, the owner of the wash often leads the determination of the actual packages. The onsite manager is then typically tasked with ensuring proper selling and execution of the detail packages. Nonetheless, I have witnessed many situations in which the manager is left in charge and clouds the distinction between express and full-service detailing.

I believe that the operation must be led from the top, that is, from the person who has the final say. In order to reduce confusion between the departments and between the car wash and its customers, there must be a clear program established by the leader of the organization.

That is not to say that input from the various levels is not important. Quite the opposite is true. The leader would be foolish not to include the important constituents in a discussion about detailing services. The service writers communicate with customers on a daily basis and have (or should have) a keen understanding of trends in customer expectations. By the same token, the detail center manager and technicians know what the cars look like and have an understanding of how well the cars coming back fit the profile of the service that was sold.

Another source of information about all the nuances of offering detailing service is from other car wash operators who offer the service. The trade organizations (e.g., the International Carwash Association and the regionals) are packed with members who can be a wealth of information. It is also advisable to seek the objective guidance of a consultant in the field of detailing. Often an outside eye sees things to which we become blind in our everyday habitual operations.


It is important to have clear definitions of express and full-service detailing at your operation so that the customer knows what to expect, the service writers know what to sell, and the detail technicians know what to perform. This approach offers the most opportunity for efficient, effective operation and happy customers.

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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