On the Wash Front - February 2007

Uncle Joe Syndrome — Don't Let
This Happen to You

By Anthony Analetto

Today I listened to a story of an express-exterior operator having trouble. He was chasing away customers using his free vacuums without washing. I was tempted to call him. He’d obviously never heard of a terrible affliction hurting many car wash operators. I call it “Uncle Joe Syndrome”. Rather than call that one operator, I decided to take a break from writing about equipment maintenance, safety, and operations. This month, I’d like to share a lesson I learned early on —indirectly — from my Uncle Joe.

Uncle Joe and my Dad were business partners. Together they owned our family’s first car wash, a five-bay self-serve with a Minuteman rollover and gas. Needless to say, my Uncle Joe — like many self-serve operators — disliked “bucket washers” for obvious reason. Like many, he would literally chase them off the property. It didn’t matter if it was pouring rain and it was the only customer of the day, he would throw them out. Nearly 30 years have passed, and I still have distinct memories of yelling customers leaving the wash with soap dripping from their car.


In some ways the logic made sense. He argued that if he allowed one customer to use a bucket, pretty soon they would all use buckets, and the wash would lose money. At only 13 years of age and in charge of little more than removing the trash, it made sense to me, too. Actually, having to deal with all the disgusting things people can leave at a self-serve every day, I practically cheered when he threw off a person who wasn’t at least paying full price to use the wash. If that hint of anger at a customer seems reasonable to you, you’re suffering from “Uncle Joe Syndrome” — an expensive luxury in today’s hyper-competitive marketplace.

Let’s go back to the express exterior with people using the free central vacuums without washing. Whether to offer free vacuums or not is a separate debate. For this scenario, disregard the option of vending vacuums or going through the expense of using tokens. Trust that this operator is having success offering free vacuums. They only want to stop people from using them without washing. Friendly signage has deterred most from using the vacuums without paying. The pitfall to avoid is trying to chase the few remaining less-honest people away.


Everyone is familiar with the 80/20 rule stating that 80 percent of your business comes from 20 percent of your customers. The problem with any attempt to restrict or control how a fringe population abuses your free vacuuming service is that the action also presents a risk of alienating the 20 percent of your customers who provide most of your revenue. Before becoming too aggressive, stop and think who might be using the vacuums without washing. It could be a regular weekly wash customer who spilled something on the floor of his vehicle. Maybe it was a hurried parent who washed the day before with a screaming child in the car but returned to vacuum the next day while the child was in school. If you can think of any plausible reason why one of your best customers may return to vacuum on a different day, be very careful how you try to control it. You don’t want to discover that the head of a local organization — influencing hundreds of customers — viewed being able to wash and vacuum on separate days as the competitive advantage and reason to use and recommend your wash.

So how can you approach the problem? Walk up and welcome them to your wash. Ask them if they’ve had a chance to try it. Whether they say yes or no, offer them a free wash. When they come out, ask them how they liked it. Invite them back. Apologize that you can’t offer free vacuuming without
a wash, but hope they liked the wash enough to return. When done properly, guilt can have a powerful influence on behavior. That person will now avoid your wash, recommend it to others, or become a regular customer. That short conversation may be the least expensive and most effective marketing you can do. In the extremely rare case they continue to use the vacuums without washing, they have openly admitted to stealing. Some operators will continue trying to convert the customer. Others will write down the tag number of the vehicle and leave it at that. This is a difficult situation that happens seldom. How you respond will depend on the actual person and the neighborhood where you are located. Regardless, you’ve confirmed that the person is not one of your top 20 percent.


Now I’d like to go back to our family’s first self-serve. A friend read the first draft of this article, laughed, and said, “I can’t believe you’re using Joe’s real name”. I thought about changing it, but decided that above all else, Uncle Joe was always willing to help other car wash operators succeed. He has since passed on, and so has ownership of that original self-serve wash. The last time I checked, the rollover grew into an exterior-only tunnel — but little else has changed at the location. The industry, on the other hand — and what it takes to become successful — has seen dramatic change over the last 40 years. Marketing, advertising, and what we must do to differentiate our business and attract customers have changed. Competition has increased both in volume and quality. Each day innovative operators — listening to consumers — are introducing new products and variations to entice prospects onto their property. Today we have self-serve washes offering a one-price unlimited service. The express-exterior free-vacuum format continues to gain momentum across the country. Growth is coming from offering a better value. No business today can afford to chase customers from its site, especially after having spent thousands of dollars to get them there in the first place.

In retrospect, I wonder what would have happened if instead of chasing away the bucket washers, we embraced them. We could have had a “Bring Your Own Bucket” on rainy days and even discounted the wash. Maybe we could have sold a brightly-colored bucket with our logo on it that was valid to use any rainy days. Would it have worked? I don’t know. The point is we never asked, we never listened, and we never tried to innovate a better value for the customer and create a reason to wash more. What I do know is that too much effort and money is spent on marketing, signage, and advertising, to ever forgo an opportunity to sell to a person who ventures onto a car wash property. The fact that they are there means that they have enough money to drive a car and value our service. Uncle Joe would have recognized the change in the market and found a way to get them to pay for the service and thank them for it. I think he would have been happy if avoiding “Uncle Joe Syndrome” helps even one operator reading this article become more successful.

Anthony Analetto has over 25 years experience in the car wash business and is the chief operations officer of SONNY’S Enterprises, Inc. 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 via e-mail at aanaletto@sonnysdirect.com.


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