Auto Detailing - March 2008

New Year:
It's Filled with Opportunity

By Prentice St. Clair

As I write this, we are a few weeks into the New Year. Everything seems fresh and bright — well, at least here in San Diego. Apologies in advance to those of you who have spent their time hibernating in a dark, cold, winter. Just remember that spring is almost here! By the time you read this, we will be well into the New Year. But the year is young and, I believe, full of opportunity.

Contrast this to the last few months of 2007. In my personal detailing operation, I experienced a bit of trouble keeping my schedule filled, despite several postcard campaigns and hundreds of follow-up phone calls. Virtually every business owner with whom I spoke in San Diego experienced slow sales. Moreover, speaking with colleagues from around the country at this year’s Mobile Tech Expo in Florida, it became apparent that this trend seemed to be nationwide.

Here’s the good news: It seems (cross your fingers) like 2008 is starting with a bang. My phone has started ringing more frequently and others I have spoken with are experiencing the same trend. Better yet, many of the phoning customers attribute their call to one or more of the postcards they received last year. Thus, although the postcard campaigns did not seem to work at the time of release, they did keep me “in front of” my customers, who called when they were financially ready to pay for service.

Personally, I feel re-energized about my business and ready to take things up a notch in 2008. Here are some things that we operators can take on to start ramping up our activities, get back into the swing of things, and really make this a great detailing season and a great year. In this month’s column, I would like to discuss some ideas regarding:

  • bringing in new customers
  • encouraging existing customers to return
  • adding new services
  • marketing to unusual clients
  • seeking out continuing education


Those of you operating in climates in which the winter months bring real weather can start thinking about creative ways to bring in new customers as the new detailing season unfolds. Consider, for example, an advertising campaign that entices the customer with slogans such as:

  • “Spring clean-up”
  • “Wash away winter!”
  • “Protect your vehicle’s paint now from the harsh summer sun”

At this point in the New Year, many motorists are probably sick of the way the inside of their car feels, looks, and smells. So, how about this: “We can make the inside of your car look, feel, and smell fresh and new again.”

Motorists are also probably sick of the caked-on winter junk on the exterior — the stuff that won’t come off in a normal car wash. So, try this one: “Are you dissatisfied with the way your vehicle looks even after a car wash? Not quite clean or shiny enough? Bring it in and let us pamper the paint by removing accumulated surface contamination, refreshing the shine, and applying premium protection that helps inhibit the damaging effects of the strong sun in the upcoming summer months.”

New Customers
Consider working with a postcard company to design a “Spring Clean-up” campaign, and mail it out to potential new customers in selected neighborhoods. Use a compelling photo of a beautifully shiny vehicle on the front, keep the verbiage very simple, and use a special offer to encourage the recipient to call soon and make an appointment. I recommend making the offer “value added” instead of a discount. An easy one is offering free fabric protection application (“a $50 value!”). People like to get something for free, and your special offer will increase the chances that they call.

Don’t expect immediate results, however. There is often a lag between the mailing and the responses. It may be a few weeks. You may even want to send out a second postcard in a month to the same recipients to remind them that you are still available. Also, don’t plan on a huge response rate. Be thrilled if 5 percent of the recipients actually call you. Remember that it only takes a handful of paying customers to reimburse you for the cost of the campaign.

Existing Customers
Remember to market to your existing customer database. In fact, if you are a bit short on funds for the new customer postcard campaign, start your spring marketing push by contacting your existing customer base. You could send the same postcard campaigns mentioned above to your existing customer database. Then, follow up with a phone call. If money is really tight, just start making phone calls. I recommend a low-pressure approach with a conversational style. For example, your phone script might go something like this:

“Hello, Mr. Jones. This is Prentice with Detail in Progress, your auto detailer of choice. Thanks for your past patronage. I’m just following up on a postcard we sent out a couple of weeks ago. Just wanted to make sure you got it. We’re encouraging our clients to bring in their vehicles for a “spring clean-up” to wash away all the winter build-up. How’s your car looking these days?”

If the customer is not interested in taking advantage of your special offer at this time, ask him or her if it would be okay to call back in a few weeks. Make a note of those who wish a reminder call and put it in your calendar.

Weather Woes
Some of you might still be stuck at home during a snowstorm while we in SoCal are probably wearing shorts on a 70-degree day. Of course, we do occasionally have bouts of rain that send our more “timid” customers running away from the detail shop. So what do you do if the weather is not cooperating with appointments that you have already made in advance?

The hardier customer can be convinced of the reality that a detail is much more than a car wash and that the protection applied during a detail will help the car to look fantastic for weeks after the detail. I will usually offer a discount of $15-25 so that the customer can use that money toward a full-service car wash after the rains have stopped. Those of you working in facilities with attached car washes can simply offer the customer a free wash coupon for after the rain.


Another way to make this detailing season really shine (sorry about the pun) is to consider adding a new service. For example, you could add a relatively simple service like deodorization, headlamp clarification, or convertible-top sealing. These services are simple to learn, simple to perform, and inexpensive to supply. Yet they command great prices that rapidly increase your bottom line per vehicle.

Yet another possibility for generating new business might be to consider new detailing opportunities. For example, there is a lot of money to be made in servicing fleet accounts. There are many companies that use multiple vehicles in the operation of their business. Look for those businesses that are conscientious about their image, including the cleanliness of their fleet.

For example, I recently serviced a fleet of five carpet cleaning panel vans on a Saturday when they were all idle. With a crew of two, we were able to wash, clay, and one-step each van in an average of 1.5 hours at $150 each. That’s $100 per hour!

Yes, it was hard work and took all day with set-up and takedown included. And, yes, I would not want to do this kind of work very often. Nonetheless, this can be a nice chunk of income if you can arrange to have all of the vehicles in one place at one time (or at least delivered sequentially and just-in-time). After the first one you will find that you get into a rhythm and that the remaining trucks get done pretty fast.


The detailer that thinks he or she knows it all is missing the boat. There is always something new to learn; a new way to perform a task, a tip or trick, and completely new services. Information about new techniques is available through conversations with fellow detailers in your area (yes, talk to your competition!), through online forums (but be careful — not all the information is useful or correct), and through seminars and workshops.

One relatively new source of information in our industry is the offerings of the National Association of Professional Detailing and Reconditioning (NAPDR). The association has stepped up to the plate in the last year to provide more education for detailers and reconditioning technicians than I’ve ever seen. The NAPDR put together full days of education and training sessions at last year’s Mobile Tech Expo (Florida, January) and Car Care World Expo (Las Vegas, March).

This year’s Mobile Tech Expo program was packed full of educational sessions, including several general aspects of detailing, as well as sessions on more advanced services like leather repair, interior surface color matching, plastic bumper repair, windshield repair, headlamp clarification, and paintless dent removal. They also put on several seminars and workshops with great information about the business side of the operation. Additionally, there were several events that allowed detailers and other reconditioning technicians to mingle, network, and share tips and tricks in a casual setting. The amazing thing about this program is that the admission is only about $20.

The best part of these gatherings is the capability to network with other professionals from around the country. I look forward to seeing old friends and meeting new faces. I learn just about as much from these contacts as I do attending the seminars. Moreover, such contact allows you to discuss the experiences of others who have added services that you might be considering.

I strongly recommend that you pay close attention to the advanced notifications of the NAPDR, Mobile Tech Expo, and Car Care World Expo to see if there are any future educational offerings designed for our industry. Consider the travel and fees associated with attendance at such sessions to be a deductible investment in the future of your business.

Winter Prep
Another activity that will benefit you in the long run is to start planting seeds for next winter’s slow time. You might want to start talking with owners of fleets for full-service washing or express detailing. You may have to compromise on your price a bit. Any of you who have followed my articles will know that this is an unusual thing to hear me say because I am usually ranting and raving about charging full price and avoiding discounting like the plague. But in my travels around the country over the last few years, I have come to realize that Southern California is like another world when it comes to the impact of weather.


What about you? Is it going to be just another mediocre detailing season? Try marketing to the need to refresh cars that are beat up from the winter season. Remind your existing customers that you are ready and willing to help them keep their cars looking great. Consider branching out into new services and seek out educational opportunities from within our industry. All of these activities will help you to make this season the most profitable yet.

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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