Auto Detailing - December 2006

Detail, Inc., Part V — Multi-Step Marketing
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the fifth in a multi-part series dedicated to the “business” of detailing. In last month’s column, we discussed accounting and bookkeeping. I started by pointing out that many successful business owners attribute their success in part to “staying close to the numbers.” A good accounting system begins with a paper trail of receipts for purchases made and records of income received.

Then, this information can be organized into income categories that make sense to the business owner and expense categories that make sense to the Internal Revenue Service. This task is called “bookkeeping” and it is recommended that you work with a professional bookkeeper to help you establish and maintain good records. With good records, you can present year-end totals to your accountant, who will make sure your tax liabilities are appropriately reduced and properly paid.

Of course, none of this matters if you have no customers to provide you with income or the reason to spend money on supplies. So, in this month’s column, I would like to discuss the concept of marketing.

Depending on whom you talk to or what dictionary you look in, “marketing” can be defined as activities — such as advertising and selling — that encourage the transfer of goods or services from a provider to a consumer. In simpler terms, these are the things you do to get people to buy your stuff.

I like to think of marketing as a multi-step process through which you guide your customer. It starts with promotional activities that solicit or encourage people from your target market to “visit your store.” The next step is to convince the potential customer that he or she should conduct business with you. The third step is to determine the customer’s expectations and then provide excellent service that exceeds those expectations. Next, the follow-up and follow-through activities are performed. Finally, the customer is encouraged to return to your establishment.

Now let’s look at each one of these steps a bit more closely.


Before you can have paying customers, you have to let people know that your business even exists. In other words, you need to promote your business. There are several options for promotional activities, and the choice usually boils down to how much time or money you are willing to spend, as well as how much volume you are trying to create.

For example, in order to recruit enough detailing jobs to keep all technicians busy in a new multi-bay detailing operation, it may be necessary to spend a fair amount in heavy advertising within the local market. Such a campaign might include “Yellow Pages” ads, direct mailers, ads in local newspapers, as well as radio and television spots. These are all examples of more expensive forms of “advertising.”

Advertising tends to generate a large number of inquiring customers who then have to be “sold” or “converted” into paying customers. The achieved conversion rate is dependent upon your salesmanship skills.

There are other options for promotional activities, however. Some operators prefer to rely on referral-based activities. For example, a smaller mobile operation with one or two technicians may find that it needs only one to three high-end jobs per day to be quite profitable. This type of operation is more likely to find its preferred clientele through word-of-mouth referral activities than through mass advertising to the general public.

Referral-based marketing includes such activities as networking, face-to-face sales, and referrals from acquaintances and existing customers. Typically, referral techniques are significantly less expensive than traditional advertising options. However, referrals are also typically higher-quality, pre-sold potential customers who are easier to convert to paying clients.

Referral techniques include joining local business networking groups, joining civic groups (e.g., chamber of commerce), letters to friends and neighbors, attendance at local events (farmers market, cultural fairs, auto shows), and networking with automotive-related businesses in the neighborhoods from which you would like to acquire customers.

Of course, passive advertising techniques are important as well. Signage on your vehicle or fixed location will attract passers-by. The signage should be clean, to the point, simple, and include easy-to-read contact information.


Once you have attracted the potential customer, it is necessary to convince him or her to conduct business with you. The set of skills, abilities, and techniques used to accomplish this task is called “salesmanship.” The easiest sales technique is to simply keep a smile on your face and be friendly with every potential customer. After that, it’s really all about explaining to the customer that you and your staff have the service capability to provide for the needs and desires of that customer.

I believe that good salesmanship requires a friendly air of confidence (without arrogance) along with a willingness to both listen to the customer and take the time to educate the customer about your style of detailing. The sales process begins with a customer interview, during which you can determine the customer’s expectations, inspect the vehicle, and educate the customer about additional services that might be necessary or nice to have.

Since customers in most cities have many options for automotive appearance care, it is important to include in your sales presentation information that helps the customer distinguish between you and the competition. Such information might include the fact that your operation is licensed, insured, and certified. You may also want to offer a “service excellence guarantee,” such that, if the customer is not delighted with something, you offer to take care of that item without charge.

The sales process also affords you the opportunity to add items to the sale. The “upsell” involves upgrading from standard to premium service — for example, adding a paint sealant to an exterior detail. The “cross-sell” involves adding services that the customer may not have even known were available. For example, you could clarify faded headlamps, perform a windshield repair, or use an ozone machine to eliminate interior odors.


I believe that an important part of the marketing process is the quality of the actual service delivery. Make sure the service process is easy for the customer. That is, take care of all the details in acquiring the customer’s vehicle, including things like confirming the appointment the day before, showing up on time, giving the customer a ride if necessary, offering pick-up and delivery service.

Determine all of the customer’s needs and special requests, note them down on the work order, and be sure everything is complete before delivering the completed car. Excellent service also means that you are trained up on the latest detailing information and have all of the tools and chemicals to do the best job. Finally, make sure you deliver the car when promised or communicate with the customer as soon as you know of a change in the delivery time.

Providing excellent service and results reinforces to your paying customer that, indeed, yours is the best operation in town. If your customers are delighted by their experience with you, they will return and send their friends, which, when you think about it, is kind of like free advertising!


Upon delivering the completed job to the customer, go over the work order and the actual invoice with the customer and make sure that all of the customer’s service requests have been fulfilled. Upon receiving payment, thank the customer for the business. Every satisfied customer should be respectfully asked for referrals. You might approach it like this: “I’m so glad that you are happy with our service, Mr. Jones. You are exactly the type of customer that we are looking for. If you don’t mind, may I ask you if you know of anyone else who might be interested in our service — friends, neighbors, co-workers. If so, may I have the names and phone numbers of those folks?” This is a great way to get more customers just like the ones you have.

Another way to increase sales is to ask the paying customer if he or she has any other vehicles that need your work. Also, remind the customer that regular detailing keeps the car looking great and protected for years to come. You may suggest some service intervals and offer to call the customer when that service interval is coming due.

A few days later, send a thank-you card or place a follow-up call to be sure that the customer continues to be pleased with your work. Of course, if the customer has found any shortcomings in your work, offer to take care of it immediately.

An easy way to drum up business is to check in with your customers occasionally by phone or postcard to see if there is anything they need. It’s amazing to me how many times — while I am making sales calls to fill the schedule — people say, “I was just thinking about you but I lost your card.” So, it’s worth staying in contact with your existing customers.


Marketing is a lot more than just placing an ad. It includes all of your promotional activities, from expensive advertising campaigns, to low-cost referral techniques. Marketing also includes everything you do once the customer calls you or walks into your shop. In essence, the way you conduct your business is a big part of your marketing effort. Take great care of the customer, and he or she will come back again and again —with friends.

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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