On the Wash Front - December 2009

Customer Value —
'Tis the Season to Maximize Profits
By Anthony Analetto

As many car washes gear up for a hopefully busy winter season, the following quote from famous management guru Peter Drucker should play center stage in your preparations: “Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. Customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value. Nothing else constitutes quality.”

So, as you look to invest in your business before the busy season, evaluate your options in terms of the value that an improvement will deliver to your customers. Ask yourself, what it is about your car wash that customers value most. Then honestly admit to yourself, what inefficient or ineffective procedures detract from your ability to deliver that value. I’ve outlined several key areas to consider below, but when trying to determine what your customers value most, don’t overlook the obvious — you can always ask them either in person, or through a survey. Price and wash quality are of course important, but not always what your customers are most willing to pay for. On that note, I’m going to start this article with one of the most frequently neglected investments you can make.

OWNER SANITY

Yes, you read that correctly. It’s hard to motivate your staff and lead them to work more efficiently and elevate your customers’ experience if you yourself aren’t in the right frame of mind. Look at your business and list the top five incorrectly performed activities or missed opportunities that drive you crazy. Maybe it’s how your staff fails to earn loyalty and increase add-on sales when they interact with customers. Possibly you’re tired of unscheduled repairs because preventive maintenance tasks aren’t being completed on time. Whether it’s production efficiency, facility appearance, utility and detergent consumption, or wash quality, is there anything that stops you from looking at your business, taking a deep breath, and sighing with relief that everything is how it should be?

There’s nothing more soul cleansing for a car wash owner than spending a couple of days at a tradeshow with fellow operators discussing solutions to problems. If you can see problems at your car wash, chances are they are detracting from the value your customers perceive when they visit. For anyone who is struggling to list five opportunities to maximize the profitability of the season, you can be sure that they exist. Here are a couple of areas to consider.

CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

It would be naïve to disregard customer experience as part of the value proposition. Factors from staff appearance to the cleanliness of your bathroom impact the perceived quality of your wash. Assuming your site is clean and well maintained, your paved surfaces are in good repair, the landscaping is attractive and trimmed, employees are well groomed and in uniform, and buildings have been freshly painted, there may still be many things in need of changing. Be creative. Your ability to refine the added value customers feel when visiting your wash can be a competitive advantage more powerful than wash quality or even price.

Hours of Operation
Is your car wash consistently available when your customers want to wash? Just because you’ve had the same work hours for years doesn’t mean they fit the changing demands of customers in your market. Some operators have experimented and captured large car counts during hours they were previously closed. Look at your reports and trends. Has traffic in the morning dropped off and evenings picked up, or vice versa? Taking the time to look at the numbers and creating graphs of the trends can highlight opportunities not noticeable on a daily basis.

Show Them the Love
Have you ever heard the expression that a horse can sense fear? Well I truly believe that a customer can sense if you truly love and value their business. Demonstrate that, and you’ll garner loyalty and higher ticket averages. But how? You may be well connected to your community and know many of your customers by name, however this isn’t always possible. The overall appearance of your site makes an impact, but this season, you may consider revising your policies and how you present them. Rewash guarantees are effective, but also look at your signs and make sure they are friendly and inviting. Don’t overlook the power of sponsoring fundraising events in your community. You may already have a coupon redemption feature in your POS system that can easily deliver and track fundraising programs as an effective way to drive traffic and improve ties with your community. Make use of it. Evaluate the cost of delivering a VIP program. This type of effort not only shows customers you recognize their value, but provides you with an e-mail or mailing address to send newsletters and promotions to.

Training
It’s difficult for managers to focus on improving customer service if they’re constantly struggling to keep up with the day-to-day operation of the wash. As you develop a training plan to improve the positive interactions between your staff and customers, don’t forget to address ways of expanding your manager’s abilities to maintain the wash more efficiently. By training basic repair skills, employees have a much better chance of fixing problems quickly during an emergency. What else can deliver a better customer experience than being open for business when they expect you to be?

WASH QUALITY

We’re all familiar with the oath that doctor’s take: “First, do no harm.” Well I’d like to throw out one for car washers: “First, don’t break down.” Once you’re confident that your existing equipment package is prepared to reliably handle your peak anticipated wash hour, employ the following procedure to identify means of improving the quality, consistency, and timeliness of the product you deliver.

Pick a slow Tuesday. Run a subcompact, SUV, and pickup truck through each of your wash packages. Don’t prep. Don’t wipe. Now, honestly list all deficiencies in descending order of how visible they are to a customer. Next increase the chain speed to where it would have to be to process your busiest day, the kind we all dream about, and again list all areas missed for each vehicle profile. Compare the lists. Evaluate the cost of options to either retrofit, supplement, or replace any part of the wash process that isn’t up to snuff. Rank each project in terms of your cost and the value you expect it will deliver to your customers’ satisfaction. Enhancing customer value begins with delivering a consistently clean, dry, shiny product. Without that foundation, everything else will be an uphill battle.

EFFICIENCY

Automated equipment is for washing cars and labor is for improving a customer’s experience. In my opinion, that statement holds equally true for both the full-serve and express-exterior operator. Earlier, I touched upon using your staff to improve a customer’s experience at your wash. Now I want to emphasize the urgency of eliminating them from the wash process. You can’t begin a serious project to improve efficiency while using people to wash the exterior of the vehicle. Labor disrupts production, uses varying and costly amounts of chemical and utilities, and creates inconsistencies in your product that turn customers away. There are plenty of solutions from every equipment supplier to prep, wash, and dry a car on line at almost any chain speed. Before exploring ways to reduce your utility or chemical expenses, look at your labor. Once you’re finished, look to reduce your consumption of the other variable expenses that eat into your profits. Documentation is crucial. Whether you keep a notebook, enter values into a spreadsheet, or get reports from your tunnel controller, make sure you have a system to easily compare year-to-year and month-to-month periods that can highlight spikes. Once you have a clear way to monitor the impact of your activities on controlling variable expenses, you’re ready to begin improving your business.

Electric
Absolutely consider programs to turn off any electrical appliance when not in use and explore the use of VFDs or other energy saving devices for vacuum and air dryer applications — but don’t stop there. Calculate the savings of replacing older motors on some equipment with newer, more efficient products on the market. Evaluate the estimated utility consumption on older compressors, pumps, and heaters, with that of newer, more economical designs.

Also make sure you’re utilizing all the options to tune your tunnel controller for more accurate activation of equipment in the wash process. Make it a habit to stay on top of advancing controller technologies. Also, if you’re in a cold climate, keep careful control of your thermostat.

Water
For the most part, water reclamation has become a standard practice in our industry, but there remains room for many locations to increase the percentage of water reused. One-hundred-percent water reclamation is a reality. Also on the water side of the operation, look to incorporate check valves, and size nozzles accurately for maximum efficiency.

Detergent
As with electrical settings, accurate tuning of your controller for efficient equipment activation can deliver handsome savings on detergent. Whereas most equipment today arrives with check valves and properly sized nozzles, excessive detergent consumption can often occur as nozzles gradually wear and small leaks occur. Review your preventive maintenance routines and documentation to make sure you’re on top of this aspect of your wash. Attention to comprehensive daily preventive maintenance can literally save many locations tens of thousands of dollars each year.

SUMMARY

I’d like to wrap this article up with another quote from Peter Drucker, one of my all time favorites: “Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.” I hope you found something in this article to help you decide on the best investment you can make this season to improve both the value you deliver to your customers and maximize the return on your investment.

Good luck and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.

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