On the Wash Front - July 2007

Leverage Your Labor:
Building a Competitive Advantage
By Anthony Analetto

It is not uncommon for a full-serve wash to hire and fire nearly 400 employees per year.
For some readers this number may seem unbelievable. Others would consider it conservative. The reality is that numerous parts of the country are experiencing rapid shifts in labor supply, and need comprehensive training programs to accommodate rapid turnover and the seamless inclusion of temporary labor.

Even if you’re in an area of relative stability, that is no guarantee that it will remain so. I’ve heard some operators are genuinely concerned that the stress of staffing their car wash is adversely affecting their health. Others have things running so smoothly that managing their employees is one of the most enjoyable parts of operating a full-serve. If you’re not having fun staffing your wash, then you may want to consider improving the process. Positive customer interaction with your staff can be the most effective way to differentiate your business and build loyalty.

People Desire Success and Recognition
Anyone, who has had the misfortune of dealing with a dangerous, disgruntled employee, can’t afford to let the experience negatively affect the hiring process. Most people you interview crave success, both professionally and financially. Car washing is filled with successful owners and managers who built careers that started with on-line labor. Many of us are the children of these people.

The fact is our industry offers a job — with a path to become successful — to anyone willing to work. Not every industry can say that. Exploit this when interviewing potential candidates, and reinforce it during every aspect of your training program.

Sudden shifts in the labor pool can make it difficult to compete with large retailers for the best people. When a new business starts drawing workers from your location, the most ambitious will see it as an opportunity to move up within your organization.

Everyone Starts at the Bottom
An effective training program must create flexibility. On any given day a full-serve wash may scale employees from processing 10 to over 100 cars per hour. To accomplish this, tasks must be viewed, and trained, as distinct items, and their assignment shifted to different individuals throughout the day. Each task should include 15 to 30 minutes of documented training that encompasses a review, demonstration, critique, and in some cases a written test. In addition, the task should be completed successfully three times before the trainer walks away. Train all new hires at the wash in every task potentially assigned to their position, and any position below them.

Incorporate special uniforms or accessories to differentiate the individual’s position. Don’t underestimate the importance of the hierarchy at your wash. I can recall countless new hires who would hide their attendant T-shirt in a bag and only put it on at work. Upon successful training and promotion to a customer service advisor position, they would wear the Polo shirt it included on the bus to work each day. The more ways you provide for exemplary staff to communicate their status and take pride in their success, the closer you’ll get to making staffing a full-serve wash fun.

There are literally thousands of ways to combine tasks into positions at a full-serve. Below I laid out one grouping that clearly separates functions during periods of high volume, and can quickly combine tasks onto remaining staff as things slow down. There is no single “best way” for every location. The important thing is to maintain flexibility of shifting tasks, while preserving a hierarchy of positions where employees see the potential for growth.

  1. Passenger-side vacuum
    It is imperative to have an entry-level position that can be learned in 15 minutes and is removed from any potential customer contact. The process can be taught to temporary labor, allowing managers to quickly add staff during periods of increased volume. Passenger-side vacuuming at the wash entrance is an ideal choice.

    When developing the training, don’t consider anything as obvious. Review each step of your procedure so that anyone who vacuums the passenger side will do so in the exact same order, style, and manner. It may seem silly to include shirt tucking, hair combing, and shaving in written training, but it is necessary to eliminate any potential for interpretation. Make sure to emphasize the importance of their role as the first person to enter the customer’s vehicle.

  2. Driver-side vacuum
    Quickly train all employees who demonstrate a positive attitude and good work ethic how to vacuum the driver’s side of the car. The training involves more than the mechanics of the task, and must emphasize customer interaction and service. Ensure they have completely memorized your welcome greeting and how to properly open a customer’s door.

  3. Passenger window / exterior touch up
    Less experienced staff should start with the less visible passenger side, where they will rarely communicate directly with customers. Depending on the number of tasks you assign to this position, this training may take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes.

  4. Inside front and back windows
    Often there will be different sets of responsibilities to accommodate more attendants during busy periods. Careful documentation and separate training modules for each scenario permit your manager to quickly communicate and adjust for sudden spikes in volume or handle occasional labor shortages. During slower periods, back windows can be assigned to the passenger touch-up person, and front windshields to either the drive-off attendant or the driver-side touch-up position.

  5. Driver-side windows / exterior touch up
    This highly visible position is often one of the best opportunities to distinguish your wash from the competition. This person must understand your wash’s quality standards and be trained for every scenario that may occur. Written testing is advisable with multiple choice responses for different situations. For example, if it is your policy to re-send a car through the tunnel for residual bugs, then this employee should be trained to make the correct decision quickly and confidently. The alternative is that by the time a manager is located, chances are the passenger windows will have already been cleaned and the body wiped, resulting in wasted labor and chemical. Even worse is the potential for a customer to witness the confusion and possibly leave in a dirty car.

  6. Prep Person
    Excessive prep can erode profits by wasting chemical, water, and electricity, in addition to slowing production. Insufficient prep either increases exterior touch-up time or reduces wash quality. Rarely will you want to bring a new hire or temporary staff directly into this position. Promote your best passenger-side exterior touch-up staff who are uncomfortable working directly with customers. Often they will over-prep to avoid the risk that the car comes to their peers dirty. This is much easier to train and manage than under-prep.

  7. Laundry Person
    During different volumes this task, or portions of it, may be assigned to different individuals ranging from the passenger window/exterior touch-up person(s), the drive-off attendant(s), or — during peak volume — a dedicated person. Don’t leave it to whoever isn’t busy to wash towels — assign this function specifically and train in advance for each scenario.

  8. Drive on - Drive off
    I’ve grouped these two positions for brevity, but they both require separate and distinct training. Often tasked with identifying and accommodating problem vehicles, the drive-on attendant contributes to the overall safety of the wash. Develop written testing that involves each vehicle with special driving and/or wash considerations, and test frequently to ensure accurate knowledge. Drive-off staff needs additional training and testing to fully understand loading your finishing grid for maximum efficiency and safety. Depending on volume, these two key positions, when properly trained, can readily accommodate additional tasks ranging from interior spraying to laundry.

  9. Customer Satisfaction Rep
    Also known as a greeter, training and compensation incentives for this position can make or break a successful wash. An entire book can be written on this position, especially if you also offer express detailing services. Avoid the mistake of relying only on intricately designed commission programs to manage this position. Develop a series of training modules that address discovery and qualification, cross-selling and up-selling, as well as presentation skills in alignment with your washes’ customer satisfaction standards.

  10. Assistant Manager
    The assistant manager, normally tasked with overall quality control, is usually the last set of eyes to see a customer off the property. Involving your assistant managers in the development of your training curriculum and documentation is crucial to build their knowledge and trust of the systems designed to shift staff through the property. Although trained in every position at the wash, and able to fill-in where needed, jumping in to keep things moving prohibits them from giving full attention to equipment function and customer satisfaction on busy days.

  11. Cashier
    As one of the most sensitive positions at the wash, it is important to design training modules with written tests for each major function. Like every position, cashiers, too, must be trained on every task below them. One useful tool for screening new hires is to send them home with a piece of paper that lists directions to your wash, hours of operation, who’s who, and each wash package with the price. Tell them they will be tested on it before they start work. When they come in for the first shift, sit them down to fill in the same piece of paper less all pertinent information. If they can’t do it, send them home.


I intentionally left off the manager and tire-dressing positions — tire dressing, because it is increasingly done with one of many brands of readily available on-line equipment. I left off the manager, because this individual — responsible for keeping everything running with extreme quality and efficiency, both in labor and other inputs — is for many readers the same person who prepares the training program.

A competent and motivated crew will improve consistency, efficiency, safety, and customer satisfaction. Maintaining employee morale in an environment with such rapid turnover is a problem. Even more difficult is to not let the reality of potentially hiring and firing at least one employee every day make you so callous that you lose the ability to identify, motivate, train, and lead good people. Staffing a full-serve car wash is not a trivial task. It demands a systematized training program designed to quickly scale up and down with changing weather and labor-pool availability. Taking the time to document a formal training program that corresponds with a clearly defined path to promotion will help combat turnover. Good luck and good washing!

Anthony Analetto is the chief operating officer of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory and one of the company’s driving forces behind new car wash equipment innovations. Prior to joining SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a national car wash chain featuring 74 locations across the country. He has over 25 years of experience in the car wash industry and can be reached at (800) 327-8723 or via e-mail at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com.


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