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A FEATURED ARTICLE FROM

JANUARY 2006

Get Ready for Winter
By Prentice St. Clair

Start Thinking Now about the Off Season

Yes, I know. It's the middle of summer. It's the high season for detailers across the country. It's amazing that you even have time to read this column! (Thanks, by the way.) Preparing for winter? Well, the idea for this column, in following with the theme of this month's issue, is to get you thinking about the off season now, so that you can start to take the steps necessary to make the off season profitable and productive.

I live and work in Southern California, where seasonal changes are minimal. Those of you who work in areas of the country that experience true winter seasons might be wondering what I know about operating through the seasons. It is true, I don't have firsthand experience with "shut-the-place-down" type of weather, but I have several colleagues around the country who do have such experience. Moreover, we do occasionally have winter seasons that include three to five months during which each week seems to have several "bad" weather days. For example, this last rainy season was the second "rainiest" on record.

So my goal this month is to share some ideas that will either give you something to apply directly or spark some ideas of your own. There are two categories of activities that can be performed during the slow season: you can either perform billable services for customers or use the time to improve your operation.

BILLABLE SERVICES

In the ideal world, our workload would be steady and even-keeled throughout the year. As most of us know, this is not the case, and, for some of us, the winter season slows to a relative crawl. So it is important (or should I say, critical) to find ways to keep the customers, or at least the cash flow, coming in during the winter season, regardless of the weather.

It starts with educating your customers. Your customers need to understand that there are two primary functions that your operation can perform. The first is protection - keeping the vehicle protected from the ravages of the winter environment. The second is cleaning - bringing the car back to life during or after the winter season.

Pre-payment Packages

A clever way to "fund" the off-season is to offer pre-payment packages. You are collecting money for services yet to be provided, thus increasing your working capital at the beginning of the season. If you are disciplined with your spending, you may be able to pay for most or all of your operating expenses throughout the off-season with this pre-payment savings fund, assuming you can attract enough pre-paying customers. Additionally, you create customer loyalty - the customer is automatically going to come back to you because he or she has already paid for the service.

An example of such a pre-payment package might be one that includes up to three items:

  • Pre-season protective application
  • Mid-season spruce-up and protection re-activation
  • Post-season rejuvenation

The "pre-season protection" is a complete detail that includes application of polymer paint sealant, window sheeting agent, carpet and fabric protection, and leather conditioner. The customer should be sold on the benefits of creating a barrier between the vehicle's surfaces and the harsh winter environment. The "mid-season" spruce-up is simply another complete detail, with emphasis on removing the caked-on mud and salt,

followed by a re-application of the same protective products. The selling point here for the customer is that the mid-season spruce-up will revitalize the vehicle's appearance, which will probably be pretty dreary by mid-season. Additionally, the protective coatings will be re-activated, helping to protect the vehicle for the remainder of the season. The post-season rejuvenation is a thorough complete detail to remove all evidence of the winter season. The selling point here is that the vehicle will be brought back to life and ready to be enjoyed for the spring and summer months to come.

Other Ideas

Certainly offer some kind of "winterizing" package that includes application of paint sealant, glass sheeting agent, carpet and fabric protection, and leather conditioner. Because of the value-added protection applications, you can charge a premium for these services above and beyond what you normally charge for a standard detail. The idea is to provide premium service that allows you to collect more money just prior to the beginning of the off season so that you have some extra capital to make it through the winter.

You might also promote a mid-season special that emphasizes the interior. By mid-season, the inside of the car, locked-up for weeks, is probably beginning to get pretty messy and smelly. There are certainly some customers who would appreciate a refreshed vehicle interior at some point during the winter season.

The winter season is also time to promote other, non-detailing services that you may (or need to) provide.

Services like windshield repair, minor paint repairs, interior surface repairs, and paintless dent removal. All of these services are relatively independent of the weather when compared to detailing, for which a customer could legitimately object with something like, "Why should I clean up the car today if it's just going to get dirty tomorrow?"

If you are hurting for appointments, it's time to reach out to your customer base. Since day one, you have been collecting contact information on each customer who does business with you, so now you have several hundred names, numbers, and addresses (hopefully on computer). Sit down and start calling each of these customers. Try to make your call more of a friendly check-in instead of a pressure-filled solicitation. Simply remind the customer that you are there - ready and willing to take care of any automotive reconditioning needs the customer may have.

Without getting too weird, those of us who have spent a day or two making phone calls during slow times will tell you that there is something "cosmic" about doing this. It's as if by making outgoing calls, you tell the universe that you want more business. Suddenly, the phone starts to ring with new and existing customers who call in unsolicited with service requests. Don't believe it? Try it.

IMPROVING YOUR OPERATION

So maybe you can't fill every spare moment of open hours with paying customers. Don't let the time go to waste. This is the perfect opportunity to improve your operation, and there are several ways to do so. You can take care of maintenance issues, train and research new skills, and plan for the upcoming season.

Maintenance

Undoubtedly, there are several maintenance items that have piled up over the busy months. Take the time to fix all the problems and perform preventative maintenance on your equipment and building. Order and install replacement parts and clean ("detail") all your equipment.

New Skills

Off-time is the chance to improve your existing skills as well as add new skills and services to your operation. For example, if you have ever considered learning paintless dent removal, the

winter season is a perfect time to learn and practice this new skill, since it takes several weeks or months of dedicated practice to master this potentially profitable skill. Other services that you might consider learning include windshield

repair, tint installation, paint repairs, and interior repairs.

If nothing else, research new products, chemicals, and equipment that can make your detailing more efficient and effective.

Plan of Attack

Start preparing for the upcoming season by analyzing last season's performance and planning new or improved strategies for making the upcoming season the best so far. Sit down with your "constituents" and determine the problem areas in your detailing operation. Your constituents include all of those involved in your operation, including detailing technicians, managers, and salespersons. Your constituents also include your customers, so you might want to interview some of your better customers to find out how they can be better served.

Analyze this information to determine a number of action steps that can be taken to improve your operation. Then, institute these actions in the upcoming season, check the results at mid-season, and make adjustments as necessary.

This is called the "Plan-Do-Check-Act" cycle, a never-ending process that helps you to continuously improve your operation.

An important part of your past-season review is to look at the financial numbers. You may want to sit down with your CPA and bookkeeper and go through the profit and loss statement and balance sheet from last year. It is probably also worth your time and investment to have a business consultant look at these numbers as well.

The goal of this analysis is to determine unprofitable services, unnecessary expenses, and profit centers that should be promoted.

SUMMARY

It's not too early to start thinking about the upcoming slow season. Start thinking now how you are going to spend your time in the off-season. There are things that you can do to make sure that you keep the money coming in, and if you have time leftover, there are plenty of activities that you can engage in that will help your operation down the line.

I get some of the best ideas from operators who contact me with great information. So if you have a tip, trick, or system that works well to keep you busy throughout the winter season, please contact me. By sharing information, we all benefit and the detailing industry as a whole improves.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail Prentice@DetailinProgress.com or call (619) 701-1100.

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