It Isn't No Service
Imagine an incredibly profitable business. All you have to do is
run outside and catch money falling your way; set your business
on autopilot and cruise to dizzying profits accompanied to the tune
of ringing cash registers. Consider an Internet business that will
produce outrageous fortunes automatically through the magic of residual
income. Profits without work or investment sound great - almost
too good to be true. Millions believe the myth. But profit without
service or customers still is a myth, or is it?
For some, self-service businesses meet the definition. The challenge
for these would-be entrepreneurs is to find the right business so
they can run outside with a bushel basket.
Are self-service businesses uniquely American? No. The search for
the mythical business is worldwide. Ever so many believe that they
can eliminate service from their offerings and rake in the profits.
As you know, self-service relates to more than just car washes.
There are self-service versions of almost every business. A quick
tour of the web resulted in over 500,000 hits on the word "self-service"
and the collection in the illustration on this page. Take a look
at the last banner. I'm not sure what a self-service mortuary is,
and I'm not dying to find out!
Self-service really does not mean no service or no attention to
the needs of customers. Service is an integral part of self-service.
Remove the service and all that remains is self, a grim reminder
that if you don't provide the services your customers want, you
will only be servicing yourself. Surely, this would be a formula
for disaster. This month's article will consider the service part
SERVICE EXISTS TO SATISFY A NEED
If you provided more services than your customers need or are
willing to purchase, you might find profitability an elusive goal.
Similarly, if you fail to provide needed services you might find
both profits and customers lacking. Obviously, there is a point
where providing needed services and exceeding expectations meet
to produce both satisfied customers and sufficient profits.
Well, it is nice to talk about this point, but how do you find
it? Therein lies the challenge. There are probably many parts to
this question, but I believe that the answer can be found first
by defining who your customers are - or should be - and then understanding
As always, "understanding customer needs" sounds so neat.
Reader responses to statements like this vary greatly, ranging from
"Ah, hum" to "Huh, I musta dozed off." The problem
is that we have heard this so many times without significant benefit,
that we no longer hear the message. WAKE UP!
Hearing and heeding the voice of the customer isn't easy. Consider
the fate of K-Mart. They once were the shining example of retailers,
and then they lost touch with their customers and went bankrupt.
What are the odds of survival? Right now, I'd say grim, because
K-Mart has raised prices, reduced selection, and cut inventory and
staff. Rather than finding out what customers want and then providing
it, they have decided to do what appears best for them. Unfortunately
for K-Mart, I don't have to go there, so I won't. Millions of others
won't either. Can you predict the fate of a business? Yes.
The success of a business is directly related to its ability to
satisfy customer needs. Self-service businesses are not exempt.
Every year people start self-service businesses because they believe
that they can avoid providing service. They answer a need, like
cleaning vehicles, but mistakenly believe that once they have built
the facility customers will come. This is not a formula for success.
For example, within five miles of my house there are six self-service
car washes with about 20 bays. This is probably a pretty good ratio
for a small city of around 20,000. Some of the self-service car
washes are better than others, which makes choosing where to go
easier. What makes choosing one over the others easier? Convenience,
quality, layout, longer bay times per quarter, better equipment,
etc.? Perhaps the deciding factor lies less in any one of these
individual considerations than in the perception that some meet
my needs better than others.
When you consider your competition, do you understand whose needs
you are satisfying? This is an important question. Often we look
at a business based on our own requirements rather than those of
customers. An investor may consider maximum return on investment
as the key role of the business and pay less attention to the condition
of the car wash. You can see this quickly. How good is the lighting
and maintenance of the facility? Are the brushes and wands in good
condition? Are the floors clean? What about the paving around the
car wash? A quick look around will tell you about the owner's priorities.
Just to be fair, I should acknowledge that any business must be
profitable, but many times people focus on profit rather than profiting
by successfully meeting customer needs. You see, service can be
both visible and inherent in the manner in which the services are
PUTTING YOURSELF INTO SERVICE
Who's getting serviced? It's often a matter of perspective.
John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath had a brief section about putting
a bull out to service a cow, but one of the characters raised the
question regarding who was getting serviced. Cow or bull? This is
a powerful question. When you consider your business, think about
your answer to the question. Somewhere there is a balance. By understanding
your customers you will find an answer and be able to make needed
One way self-service car wash operators - and any other self-service
business owner or manager - can learn to understand customers is
to spend time with the customers as they use the facility's services.
How often have you ever seen or spent time with customers as they
used your equipment? Did you ask questions? Did you help the customers
get better results? Did you write down responses and resolve to
provide solutions to these and other customer needs?
Unfortunately, many owners are seduced into thinking that they
only need to provide a product or tools. I have mentioned this before,
and I really don't want to belabor the issue, but I do believe that
this is crucial. Years ago the importance of understanding customers'
needs was emphasized at a general sales and marketing meeting. The
president of the company brought a collection of the company's products
and items to be repaired with the products. He then told people
to take a broken item and then repair it with one of the company's
products. The results were surprising. Many people could not even
select the right product, or if they selected the right product
they had difficulty using the product. The supposed "experts"
were having problems. Besides producing an embarrassing half-hour,
it illustrated an important point: You need to know both your product/service
and what the customer expects from you.
Asking questions and resolving to provide answers is the key. When
you commit to personally resolving customer complaints, you create
an atmosphere of personal service. Taking time to teach customers
how to get better results reinforces your commitment to service
- both real and intangible.
What do I mean by intangible service? In a self-service operation,
intangible services are the little things that help the customer
get better results. Some examples of intangibles are pleasantly
scented products, faster transition times from one type of cleaner
to another, clean floors and walls, well-lit bays, better positioned
pay/selector boxes, and a generally attractive appearance of the
property. A tangible or real service can be the presence of a helpful
attendant during posted hours, properly working equipment, clean
brushes, and also the appearance of the property (yes, I mentioned
this as an intangible, but appearance also offers a real reflection
of your attitude toward the customer).
Putting yourself into self-service is a crucial element of success.
When you can put yourself in your customer's place and find your
business' strengths and weaknesses, you can then plan for improvements
- or even seek additional business.
John Lamade has extensive experience in the marketing of detailing
products and is a contributing editor to Auto Laundry News. Contact
John via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.