Auto Detailing - February 2007

Detail, Inc., Part VII —
Look Professional, Be Professional

By Prentice St. Clair

This is the seventh in a multi-part series dedicated to the “business” of detailing. In last month’s column, the topic was supply and maintenance. We first discussed the requirements for initial set-up of a detail business. In order to generate excellent results in a timely fashion, it is strongly recommended that the new operator begin with professional-grade chemicals, equipment, and tools. With high-quality supplies, you or your technicians will be able to deliver better results faster.

Once you have put together the supplies to run a successful operation, it’s necessary to take care of them. I recommend having a daily routine that includes refilling bottles, discarding trash, topping off supply tanks, re-organizing stations, and laundering of towels and applicators. Additionally, have a monthly (or weekly) equipment review, during which all equipment is checked, cleaned, and repaired as necessary. A bit of preventative maintenance will assist in keeping the operation running smoothly without downtime caused by unexpected breakdowns.

In the same way that there is a need for initial supply and ongoing maintenance of the detail operation, there are steps that can be taken to establish and maintain a successful detail business. Creating and maintaining success is not necessarily easy, but there are some definite steps that you can take to increase your chances of success.


Because it appears to be a relatively simple business to start, automotive detailing attracts many individuals. Unfortunately, many of these start-ups are predicated not on creating a successful business, but on making a quick buck. For those of us who wish to create long-term success, there are some up-front decisions to be made.

Probably the most important key to having a successful business is an initial commitment to excellence. A conscious decision to take a professional approach will set you apart from the myriad of “detailers” who come and go each year.

Many of the ideas that I suggest as “necessary” to create success are actually topics that we have already discussed at length in previous installments of this series on the business of detailing. Nonetheless, let’s discuss them in light of the goal of success.

Look Professional
The first thing to do is — as mentioned earlier — to take a professional approach in everything you do. Realize that this is your business. It is totally up to you to create your own success. Everything you do is a reflection of your business. When you take a professional approach, you commit to the image and the reputation of your company.

One can spend thousands of dollars on image. This is not necessarily what I am suggesting. Instead, do everything that you can to create a clean and trustworthy image, within your budget. Personal grooming is the easiest way to start. Look appealing to your customers. Likewise, make sure your vehicle or shop is as clean as possible.

Act like a businessman. Obtain professional-looking business cards, flyers, and invoices. It’s not necessary to spend hundreds on these items — there are many inexpensive options for creating company forms, including online printing outfits and programs from your local office supply store. You can also trade services with a graphic designer or printing shop if you are on a tight budget.

A professional approach can be as simple as how you answer the phone. An unenthusiastic, monotone “hello?” is unattractive to customers. Instead, answer the phone with a smile and enthusiastically announce your company name, like, “Good morning! Joe’s Detailing, this is Joe.” The sound of professionalism over the phone will add greatly to the customer’s positive perception of your company.

Be Professional
Looking good is not enough. You also have to be good at what you do. Unfortunately, most detailers simply guess about how to perform a detail. I strongly recommend that you obtain some kind of education and training in the art of professional detailing. You can spend a few thousand dollars at a detailing “school” for several days of hands-on training. Or you can spend a few hundred dollars on a video training package or a seminar put on by a local supplier. The importance of initial training cannot be overemphasized. It helps you work better, faster, and produce better results so that your customers will be happier with your work. This allows you to charge more for your service, since you are providing better service than non-educated detailers (which is most of them).

As you get trained, you will realize that producing professional results requires some investment in professional grade equipment and supplies. One could easily spend $20,000 for a complete shop layout. However, even the most budget-minded newbie can offer excellent results with a minimal investment of a few hundred dollars.

A common undermining factor for detail shops that are just starting out is underpricing the service. Professionally-trained and -equipped detail technicians should be able to yield about $50 per hour of income. Thus, if your “standard detail” takes four labor hours, it should be priced at $200 minimum.

If you start out with lower prices in an effort to attract more customers, you are likely to find that this is a mistake that stays with you for months or years. When you establish a price at the beginning, customers expect to pay that price every time. Then, when you try to raise your prices because you realize you’re not making enough money, your customers may revolt.

It’s funny how many of these ideas are interconnected. If you get proper training, you can charge more for your service because you have more knowledge and can do a better job than most.

If you use professional equipment and supplies, you need to pass on the cost of these items to your customer, who is benefiting from your purchases by receiving better results. At the same time, if you charge a professional’s price, you have extra money to invest back into your business for improved equipment, more training, and image-related purchases (e.g., uniforms, signage, brochures, etc.). These items help you deliver improved results that increase your reputation, which allows you to increase your price even further.

So, you can see that an initial commitment to excellence will start a cycle that almost ensures your success.


Those new operators who are just starting out on a shoestring budget have the greatest challenge. But with that challenge comes great opportunity. Let’s face it, we live in a country where you can start out with almost nothing and end being one of the wealthiest persons in the world. There will be some lean times at the beginning of that journey, however. Even the best-intentioned operator — who is doing everything possible to be a professional — may have some income challenges.

So what can you do to combat those lean months in the beginning? First of all, treat your business like you would a job. So even on those days that you have no appointments booked, get up early, shower, and put on your uniform. Then do something in your business, like write plans, make phone calls, or get out there and find more business. In the beginning of your business, you will have to spend a significant amount of time marketing. If you don’t have appointments, fill the work day with marketing efforts so that your schedule will fill up in the coming weeks.

A great way to get some “bread-and-butter” income coming in during the first few months of operating is to offer regular wash programs. There is a certain percentage of motorists who are willing to pay for someone to wash their vehicle once a week or so. Just make sure that you price such a service so that it
makes sense to spend your time there. For example, a bare minimum for a full-service weekly wash should be at least $25 per week. If you do eight of these in a day, you’ve made $200!

The downside of regular wash programs is that they are labor intensive and not nearly as profitable as full-service detailing. Nonetheless, wash programs can open the door to detailing opportunities with the wash customer. For mobile operators, just being out there washing cars tends to attract other customers.
Create regular service programs (wash, detail, or a combination of both) for your customers. Offer pre-payment packages, which puts dollars in your pocket right now and benefits your customers with a discount on services that they will be using anyway. Of course, you must deliver excellent service every time you visit a customer who has prepaid. Then the customer will be ready to sign up for another cycle.

Eventually, when you have an established client base with many full detail customers, you may decide that regular wash programs are not profitable enough to continue. At this point you are in control of your income. You can significantly increase prices, which will eliminate all but those customers who are happy to pay for your level of expertise. This creates openings in your schedule for more such customers.
In everything you do, go the extra mile. Throw in some extra services that the customer was not expecting. Treat your customers like royalty. These customer-focused activities will help you
establish a reputation of excellent service, for which customers will gladly pay for years to come.


Ensuring the success of your business starts with an initial commitment to excellence. That commitment involves some investment in image, training, and supplies. Included is a commitment to customer focus. In the beginning, take whatever comes along and do a fantastic job, so that you can establish a reputation of excellence, with which you can eventually pick and choose your customers according to the services that you are willing to provide and the price they are willing to pay.

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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