Auto Detailing - January 2010

Perfection — Pursuit of the Unattainable
By Prentice St. Clair

During training recently provided to a BMW dealership here in California, I was asked to orchestrate their effort to create a detailing process that delivers near perfection. In the words of one of the dealership principals, “We don’t even want to call it ‘auto detailing’ anymore — we want to call it ‘automotive reconditioning.’”

This level of commitment provides us with an interesting case study in auto detailing. I am not suggesting that every detailer and detail shop should take this approach. There are a number of variables that determine what the average outcome will be for a detail operation. Some of those variables include the typical customer profile, the condition of the vehicle coming into the shop, the expectations of the customer, and the price of service that the local market will bear.

Nonetheless, I have generally found that with superiority of service comes increased business success. So, I thought it would be beneficial for the industry as a whole to discuss this one example of an approach to detailing. Perhaps we can all learn some lessons from the reconditioning center at this high-end dealership.


Some might question the purpose of such an effort to achieve perfection. After all, if you can make the car look basically clean, and keep most customers happy, what’s the point of going the extra mile for some seemingly unattainable level of outcome?

The answer starts with the underlying culture of the dealership. The foundation of this culture includes the premise of delivering the ultimate customer experience, regardless of the customer’s reason for coming in. This means creating that “wow” reaction from every customer, whether it be during the purchase of a brand new vehicle, or coming in for a routine oil change. Specifically in the detail shop, this means producing detailed vehicles that are as close to perfect as possible.

Most of the customers that patronize this dealership are repeat or referrals. It maintains a reputation that keeps people coming back and sending their friends. Part of that reputation is the delivery of a premier customer experience. Part of that experience is the delivery of vehicles that look as good as they possible can.

The tenet to deliver vehicles with exceptional appearance was initiated by the dealer principals. One of the owners can see imperfections in a detail job from 40 feet away. He demands perfection. One of the interesting by-products of this commitment to perfection has been that the customers now expect it. So, the dealership not only has the reputation of delivering excellence, it must constantly monitor its efforts to ensure that this level of excellence is consistently delivered.

Dealerships generally know that the appearance of the vehicle is an important factor to the success of the sale. It is a common notion among automotive dealerships that a clean vehicle sells faster and for more money. So, it stands to reason that a vehicle that is in perfect condition ought to sell the fastest and for the most money. Both new and used vehicles “on the line” (i.e., on display in the lot for sale) are thus immaculately detailed before they are displayed and then regularly maintained until sold.

The same level of perfection is delivered to service customers who request detailing. In fact the detailing process that we developed for incoming used car trade-ins, which strives to make the used BMW look as good as any new one on the lot, is the exact same process that is used for service customers’ vehicles.


It’s one thing to demand that detailed vehicles look as perfect as possible. It’s something else to determine what “perfect” looks like on a detailed vehicle. It is yet something else to figure out how to achieve “perfect.” Determining the definition of “perfect” is essentially establishing a standard. To achieve the standard, a set of procedures must be established.

For the BMW dealership featured in our case study, the standard of “perfect” simply means: “It looks new and is without flaw.”

Why do I add the words “without flaw”? It is because vehicles that are delivered as new are far from flawless. Indeed, you would be amazed at the amount of work that goes into preparing a new vehicle for the line. The interior can have minor smudges from the transport crew. The interior glass can be foggy from vinyl discharge and the exterior coated with some mysterious residue that sometimes can only be removed with steel wool.

The exterior is often covered by plastic adhesive sheets that must be removed along with any remaining adhesive from those sheets. And then there is the pervasive issue of leaking cavity wax, which is sprayed into door and hood openings to prevent corrosion. Finally, the paint can have a number of surface issues that require multiple steps of paint-perfecting techniques.

This is not even a complete list of issues that confront the detailer when preparing a new car for the line. So, for used vehicle reconditioning and customer-paid details, imagine what’s involved!


Let’s examine a few of the standards from this BMW dealership to see how they are worded and what is involved in achieving the standard:

All interior panels are clean, spot-free, and appear new. Of course, this starts with a thorough vacuum, followed by basic cleaning with all-purpose cleaner on the vinyl and plastic panels, as well as steam cleaning of seats, carpeting, and headliner. Spots are individually treated with specialized chemicals. Any damage or soil that cannot be removed with these cleaning techniques is referred to the interior repair specialist for re-dying or repair. If repair is not possible, the panels are replaced.

All compartments in the trunk or rear compartment are clean, dirt and dust free, and appear new. To achieve this, the technicians are expected to “take apart” the trunk, opening all compartments and removing all items. (This includes the spare tire, which is sometimes removed and thoroughly cleaned in the prep wash area if it is dirty.) All of the compartments are then vacuumed, dusted, and wiped clean. The compartments are then put back together, including re-installing and dressing the spare tire.

Windows are sparkling clean with no streaks. This is one of the bugaboos of the owner. He is frustrated by getting into a car that is supposedly “detailed” and finding streaks while looking out the windows. I have found this to be true with retail detailing clients as well over the years. So it pays for us to develop techniques — combining the best possible glass cleaning chemicals and towels — that ensure a streak-free finish. With proper cleaning, the glass really does sparkle, giving the vehicle an extra gleam.

The engine compartment is completely clean and appears new. This requires a thorough degreasing rinse; complete drying to a spot-free finish; removal of all cavity wax from typical drip points; application of a satin-finish dressing; and complete wipe-down to remove water spots, excess dressing, and shining of painted panels.

All exterior paint is flawless. The exterior reconditioning process begins with a very thorough prep wash, followed by thorough, panel-by-panel application of detailer’s clay. In fact, each panel is clayed in 12” x 12” sections, which are then individually dried and inspected before moving on to the next “square.” Once the car is completely clayed and dried, the paintwork is thoroughly inspected for damage or flaws that may need to be rectified in the body shop.

If there are no such major flaws, the hood is used as a test area to determine what buffing or polishing steps will be needed to bring the paint back to a flawless shine. In the case of many silver-colored BMWs, this is simply a matter of a quick polish and wax. However, some of the black vehicles need up to five separate buffing and polishing steps to yield a perfect, swirl-free finish. The detail technicians are expected to do whatever is necessary to yield this kind of finish.


Having an established standard of excellence is fine, but it is nothing if it is not clearly communicated to the technicians who are expected to achieve the standard. Further, the detail technicians must be provided with the equipment, chemicals, and hands-on training necessary to achieve the standards.

At the dealership mentioned, there is no skimping on chemicals and equipment. The technicians have full access to whatever they need to achieve the standard. For example, it is expected that buffing pads be changed often to reduce swirls.

The technicians are evaluated and re-trained by an outside training consultant (uh, me) on a regular basis to ensure that the standard operating procedures are continuing to be followed or changed as necessary to ensure that they can achieve the standards. Additionally, the shop is managed by an operational supervisor whose job it is to ensure that the standard operating procedures are followed and that the results consistently match the specified standards.


My hope in presenting this case study of one particular automotive dealership’s detail department is to provide encouraging ideas for the general population of detail operators. Although not all of us have the budget or wherewithal to attempt to reach such lofty heights, we can certainly take steps to improve our own operations with at least a modified version of some of the concepts that have helped one dealership achieve a reputation for excellence.

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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