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JUNE 2002

Self-Service It Isn't No Service
By John Lamade

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 of self-service.

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 their needs.

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 provided.

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 adjustments.

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


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