Auto Detailing - June 2009

At the Car Wash — Part 12: Staffing
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the twelfth column in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In last month’s column, we finished up the discussion of detailing chemicals by suggesting a list of chemicals for use in full-service detailing and a list for use in express detailing.

It was pointed out that full-service detailing requires a supply of virtually all of the detail chemicals discussed in the previous months’ columns on the subject. In contrast, express detailing requires a smaller selection of cleaners. It was also mentioned that the use of a vapor steam machine virtually eliminates the need for some of the cleaning chemicals typically used in express. Moreover, since the purpose of express exterior detailing is only to apply protection, most of the specialized paint correction and rejuvenation chemicals are rendered unnecessary in express service.

So, one of the factors that might influence the decision to offer express or full-service will be the level of involvement in chemicals the operator would like to have. Less chemicals means fewer supply head-aches, less employee training, but also reduced service capability.

In this month’s column, I would like to turn to the issue of staffing. There are many factors that will influence staffing decisions for detailing at a car wash.


The most important factor in determining staffing levels is the expected volume of the operation. In general, staffing full-service detailing is a bit more flexible because the customer is not typically waiting for the vehicle to be completed. In fact, often the vehicle is dropped off at the beginning of the day and picked up at the end of the day. When this is true, a single technician can thoroughly process one or two vehicles per day.

Express, on the other hand, because of its time-intense nature, is more demanding on staffing. The customer is waiting for the vehicle and has been promised a 15-minute wait time per service. In this case, a single technician can handle at least four express detail services per hour. To keep wait times down for those customers who select more than one service per visit, however, two or more technicians will be necessary.

Most operations that process a larger volume of detail jobs per day find that two technicians per vehicle offers a good balance between getting the job done fast and creating chaos by having too many people working at one time. This is definitely recommended for full-service detailing. In some cases, with properly orchestrated execution, more than two technicians can perform express detailing. But the process must be laid out carefully and each technician assigned to a specific task on a specific part of the vehicle.

When utilizing two technicians to perform service on one vehicle, it is important that the duties of each technician are carefully orchestrated — eliminating overlap in tasks as well as missed areas. The result is a sort of dance that allows the technicians to work around the vehicle without bumping into each other.

Determining the right number of employees will take time. First, the average number of labor hours per menu item must be calculated. Then, the average daily number of orders for each menu item must be determined.

For example, if your “standard full-service complete detail” takes five labor hours on average, and you expect to have to process three of these during normal working hours, you would be advised to have at least two detail technicians. With proper training and equipment, these technicians should be able to process each of these jobs in 2.5 hours, thus filling an eight-hour workday with lunch.

And an example from the express side: Let’s say that your ticket writers are able to sell about eight express exterior details per hour. With the advertised promise to the customer that such a service will be completed in 15 minutes or less (after the wash), you would need two dedicated express detailing technicians to complete this work. They could either work on one car at a time and finish each car in 7.5 minutes, or they could each work on their own jobs and hopefully each process four cars per hour, one every 15 minutes.


Some operators choose their express detail technicians from the finish area. The problem with this is that you are typically taking your best finishers, leaving a gap in service in that area. It might be better to try some of your moderate finishers and see if they thrive in the new environment of the express area.

The express detailing technicians should go through their own training program to learn the new skills, equipment, chemicals, and processes. They should also be at a higher compensation rate than finishers, which makes the express area appealing to those who want to move up in the company.

I do not recommend hiring “experienced” detailing technicians for express detailing. A detailing technician that is accustomed to performing full-service detailing will typically have great difficulty adjusting to the “incomplete” and rushed atmosphere of express.

Full-service detail staffing is a bit more complicated. Since the work requires much more learning and thoroughness, it takes a unique person to be able to provide quality detailing on a consistent basis. Some operators choose full-service technicians from their express staff, looking for those who seem to be the most conscientious about completing the express service in a thorough manner. Of course, you run into the same problem of losing your best express technicians.

Hiring detail technicians from the general public can be a challenge, on the other hand.

If you hire an “experienced” detail technician and allow him or her to get to work with little or no discussion of your expectations — much less training — you are assuming that the technician will be able to put out work comparable to the other technicians that you have employed. At this point, you are relying on the judgment of the technician as to what constitutes a quality job. A set of five “experienced” detailing technicians, asked to each fully detail a vehicle, will produce five quite different results.

Instead, it is recommended that the operator create a systematic training program for current and new hires. Then, he or she can recruit for attitude, energy, and willingness to learn the program.


Consistent excellent results are one of the primary goals of a professional detail shop. The achievement of such a goal results in delighted customers that will return again and again, and send their friends. Your operation will develop a reputation for consistently excellent results, which allows you to charge more than your competition without worrying about losing customers.

In order to achieve this type of consistency, I recommend that you set up your own list of standards that are to be achieved by each detail menu item, then set up the processes that can most efficiently lead to those standards. Then you have a built-in training system that can, when properly used, bring virtually any new employee up to speed in a short time.

Additionally, current employees can be offered refresher training at any time that it is needed. In fact, if there is any problem with outcomes, the detail manager can check on how the employee is working within the process. Usually faulty outcomes are a result of not following the process. If there is a consistent problem with the outcome, the process can be checked and modified to prevent the problem.

Another advantage of a carefully organized process is that, if a technician must break away from a job, he or she knows exactly where to continue. Additionally, another technician can step into the process at any point and continue the work without worry of duplication of effort or missed tasks.


Well, let’s just open a can of worms. We could spend the rest of the editorial copy area of this magazine on this subject alone. But let’s try to reason this one out, with the understanding that all of the variables in your particular situation may or may not jibe with the following comments.

Express detailing in a high-volume situation seems to lend itself perfectly to flat rate per vehicle. The more you do, the more you make. This will help motivate the workers to move fast, assuming there are plenty of cars pulling into the express area. If express is more hit-or-miss at your operation (first you need to talk with your ticket writers), a per-hour situation might work better.

Compensation for full-service detailing also depends on the situation. But there is another factor with full-service: quality output. Sometimes flexibility is necessary to achieve consistently excellent results because every vehicle is different. There can be as much as a two-hour variance between vehicles on the time it takes to complete full-service complete details.

If you are detailing one vehicle per technician per day, this is not so much of a problem — the technicians are not under a time crunch and they can take their time to get the job done right. On the other hand, if you have some volume in your full-service area, there needs to be some motivation built into the compensation system so that the detailers will not only perform well but also perform quickly.

The staffing and volume variables must be closely monitored as the full-service area grows to make sure the current staff does not become overloaded. Proper scheduling then becomes an important duty of the manager. Some jobs have to be scheduled on later days to ensure that the jobs currently in the detail area can be completed to the established standards of excellence.

In general, my experience has been that the operations, express or full-service, that have low turnover and provide excellent detailing outcomes, are those that take very good care of their employees, both through generous compensation and great treatment. In fact, the most successful operations appear to treat their employees with the same care and respect as the customers.


Staffing issues are never simple. Staffing decisions at a detail center at a car wash will be driven mostly by the expected volume of customers sent to the detail area. In general, two technicians per vehicle are recommended for higher-volume operations. Offering wash employees the opportunity to promote into the detail area can have a motivational impact, but then you lose your best employees in other areas. In general, do not hire “experienced” detailers. Instead, create your own in-house training program and hire on attitude. Finally, treat your employees well to reduce turnover and increase productivity.

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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