Auto Detailing - November 2010

Promises —
Long-Term Protection Products, Part I
By Prentice St. Clair

The other day, I got a call from a long-time retail customer. This is someone that has all of his vehicles detailed on a regular basis —one to two times per year. Great customer.

His question to me at once made me nervous and ruffled my feathers. He asked my opinion about some dealer-applied protection product, which had been hyped by the dealer as he took possession of a new BMW. Fortunately, he declined, with the intention of consulting with me first.

The dealer claimed that the product was a one-time application that came with a 10-year warranty. Sound familiar?

The name of this particular product is not important. The topic of discussion this month, however, is the concept of long-term warranted protection products in general. How many times have we, as independent professional detailers, been approached with a situation like this? A customer asks us about some miracle protection product that claims excellent protection for a number of years, and then the customer questions if they even need our services anymore with this “wonder” product.

Well, let’s explore this concept of long-term protection.

INTERESTING, VERY INTERESTING

I was intrigued by the idea of a 10-year warranty. That’s pretty confident. I’m used to hearing about five to six years for a warranty. So I decided to do some research about the product. First, I asked my customer to relay everything he remembers about the claims made at the dealership.

I checked the detailing forums online and there was virtually no chatter about this particular product. I thoroughly examined the product’s website.

I went so far as to call one of the “authorized application specialists” listed on the website. I had a pleasant and revealing conversation with this 20-year veteran owner-operator of an independent detail shop.

The research helped me understand that the product that was pitched to my customer was simply another example of a long-term protection system that makes many promises. In fact, as I think about the various long-term protection products that I have run into over the years, I realize that they contain many of the same common themes in their claims. These common elements are, at least as I see them, the following:

  • One-time application
  • Special formulation
  • Ultimate protection
  • Long-term warranty
  • Expensive, one-time payment

Let’s examine each of these claims, one at a time.

One-Time Application
Most of the dealer-sold long-term protection packages are sold during financing (imagine that?), with the promise that, for a few extra dollars a month added to the car payment, your car’s paint will be protected for years. The protection terms I have seen have been between three and 10 years.

At first glance, the consumer may see this as a very convenient and valuable service that does not cost too much if spread over 60 months of payments. As professional detailers, we understand, however, that there are a couple of fundamental flaws in this type of program. First, a protective product applied to the paint will not last for more than 12 months in the best of conditions. Second, the paint appearance will slowly deteriorate after the protection has worn off, due to environmental exposure and washing.

My experience, and that of many colleagues, is that the paint on vehicles to which long-term protection has been applied several years earlier looks worn and weathered, as if nothing was applied. This is borne out by the response of the “authorized application specialist” mentioned above to the question: “So, how does the paint look a few years after you apply the long-term protection?” His exact words (and I would have bet big money that the response would be something like this): “It looks like hell.”

Special Formulation
Many long-term protection products talk about super-specialized formulations. Years ago, the gimmick ingredient was pulverized Teflon (registered trademark of DuPont). Most of us now understand that the true active ingredient in such products is a synthetic or polymer resin, not the Teflon. Nowadays, many products claim that they have specialized ingredients, but really they just have a good quality polymer sealant as the main ingredient.

One product claimed to be a pre-mixed two-part epoxy. I really had to scratch my head on this one. Anyone with experience with two-part epoxies knows that when you put them together, they solidify. So how can it be “pre-mixed two-part epoxy” and remain a liquid or cream in the container?

My experience has been that most high-durability protective products have as their main ingredient some kind of polymer-based sealant. So why don’t we, as detailers, stick with what’s worked great for us for decades? Just ask your favorite chemical suppliers for their polymer paint sealant and go with that. It will be more expensive than traditional wax, but your customers will be happy with the better protective results.

Ultimate Protection
I have heard customers say that the dealer told them they never have to wax the car if the dealer-applied long-term protection system is used. I have seen written product claims that the paint will be protected from everything short of rocks and hail. In fact, claims of ultimate protection for many years are a common theme for long-term protection systems.

Yet, as mentioned before, we know that the paint starts to look ratty after a few years, sometimes as few as one or two years, in fact. My question to all involved is this: What’s the point of paying for and relying on “ultimate protection” if your paint looks crummy during the claimed protection period?

Long-Term Warranty
Consumers are easily swayed by the concept of a long-term warranty. The seller of the product makes it sound like the car’s paint will look like the day the car rolled off the showroom floor for the length of the warranty. We know that this is simply not true.

But the promise of a warranty makes it alluring. A friend of mine that works at a high-end dealer in the finance department told me that his response to the skeptical customer is this: “Even if we put nothing on your car, you are getting a five-year written warranty on the paint for only $1,200.”

Here’s the rub: most manufacturers are using paint systems that are designed to last for 10 years! More rub: the written warranty is often misleading.

Often, the warranty is worded such that a claim can be quickly dismissed by simply saying, “that’s not covered.” I have actually seen warranty sheets, that have on one side the promise that the product will help protect against bird droppings, tree sap, etc. and on the flipside of the same sheet of paper, in the official warranty wording, are the words, “warranty does not cover damage caused by bird droppings, tree sap, etc.”

Here’s another problem with a written warranty: Will the company be around for the entire warranty period? It is not uncommon to hear of companies springing up, selling a product like gangbusters for a few years, and then, before claims can start coming in, the company quietly disappears, leaving claimants with a worthless piece of paper.

Yet another problem with a written warranty is trying to make a claim on it. The claims process is likely to be less than straightforward. The 800 number on one product sheet I called had already been assigned to a completely different company. Think about it: a company that is faced with paying several thousand dollars for a new paint job is not going to make it easy for the claimant to succeed.

In fact, years ago a friend of mine filed a claim on her car’s paint job. She had purchased a long-term paint warranty. Yet, after only three years, the paint on her car began to oxidize and dull. She had to go to the dealership on a daily basis for several weeks, write letters, involve an attorney, and obtain affidavits from body shop experts. Late in the process, with the dealer still stalling or flat-out refusing her claim, she created a one-person “strike,” standing in front of the service desk for several hours asking for resolution of her claim and picketing in front of the dealership.

After weeks, they relented and re-painted her car. But really, who has time for such an effort? My opinion is that the bottom line on these long-term protection claims with warranties is that they are banking on the fact that you never file a claim. Many people forget that they even have the warranty.

SUMMARY

Well, it looks like I’m running out of page space for this article. I guess you can see that I am passionate about this topic and have a lot to say. I will continue the discussion in next month’s column and promise (get it?) to offer some ideas on how to convince your customers to allow you to apply “long-term” protection, as well as some sales (i.e., truthful) language that will allow you to compete with dealer-applied, long-term protection systems.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail Prentice@DetailinProgress.com or call (619) 701-1100.

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