Auto Detailing - November 2008

At the Car Wash Part 5:
Selling Detailing Services
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the fourth in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In last month’s column, we discussed full-service detailing menu options. First, the choice to offer full-service detailing was considered, and it was noted that the decision to offer full-service detailing is really separate from the decision to offer express. Full-service detailing requires its own dedicated space, equipment, and staffing that is different from express.

Menu structures vary from operator to operator. I noted that many operators tend to over-complicate their menus with too many options, especially if both express and full-service items are offered on the same menu. Given multiple price points for multiple detailing items that fall in the same category, most consumers will almost automatically opt for the lowest of the prices.

Hence, I recommend a full-service menu scheme that is simple and direct. For example, “exterior detail,” “interior detail,” and “complete.” This can be backed up with a non-advertised list of specialized additional services that can be discussed if the car’s condition warrants or the customer makes a specific service request. I also recommend pricing your detail packages to ensure the detail center generates between $50 and $100 per hour per technician.

Once the packages have been established, it is necessary to get the customers to buy them. In this month’s column, we will discuss the selling of detailing services.


Those of us who operate standalone detailing businesses envy the car wash operator, who has a built-in captive audience to which to sell detailing services. Whereas the typical detail shop owner must continually find ways to attract customers to his or her shop, the car wash owner has a never-ending stream of potential customers driving into the car wash.

Nevertheless, it is still necessary to somehow convert these wash customers into detail customers. Part of this is the responsibility of the service advisor that greets the wash customers as they first drive onto the property. Another important factor is the marketing effort at the car wash itself. This includes signage, brochures, and customer mailings, among other creative activities that increase wash customer awareness of the detailing services that are available.

Since the customer’s point of contact at the car wash is the service advisor, it is important that the service advisor possess a keen understanding of the differences between full-service and express detailing (please see the first two installments of this series, in the July, 2008 and the August, 2008 issues). He or she must also be aware of the capabilities of the detailing crew.

Further, the service advisor must have a complete understanding of each of the detailing menu items (please see the third and fourth installments of this series, in the September, 2008 and October, 2008 issues). This includes knowing the primary purpose or goal of each menu item, the limitations of each menu item, and the vehicle condition to which the menu item applies.

In order to ensure that the customer chooses the menu item that is most appropriate for the condition of the vehicle, the service advisor must be able to evaluate the condition of the vehicle. Additionally, he or she must determine the expectations of the customer. Finally, the service advisor can help educate the customer on what can and cannot be done to the vehicle.

Obviously, the service advisor is a critical component to the success of the marketing plan of a car wash. It is incumbent upon the owner or manager of the car wash to spend time with the service advisors and work with them to make sure they understand the detailing menu items.

Also, train the service advisor on how to evaluate vehicle condition. I recommend bringing in the detail-center manager for this training, as he or she is — or should be — the real expert on vehicle appearance problems and their solutions. I also recommend that the service advisor be included in any training that you provide for the detail technicians. This will help the service advisor understand what is involved in professional detailing.

I have found over the years that there is often a misunderstanding of the effort, equipment, and expertise that is involved in professional detailing. Most customers have little concept of what’s actually involved. Just because the service advisor happens to work at a car wash that offers detailing, does not mean that he or she understands detailing. If nothing else, the service advisor should be afforded the opportunity to watch each of the detailing menu items being performed to better understand what is involved.


In my opinion, the primary responsibility for selling express detailing lies with the service advisor. Express menu items represent, for the consumer, a perfect balance of maximum benefit, minimum wait, and low cost. Since express services can typically be delivered in 15 minutes or less (assuming a properly trained and equipped staff), it is a relatively simple matter for the service advisor to up-sell wash customers to express services — agreeing to an express service does not require a large investment of time or money.

The immediate benefit to the customer is easy to identify: quick application of protection and gloss enhancement, clean mats, or clean seats — each in 15 minutes or less. Vehicles that are newer or in great condition stand to benefit the most from express services, which will help these vehicles to continue to look great month after month, year after year.

Yes, express detailing is relatively easy to sell, and therein lies the rub. Express detailing should only be sold when its capabilities match the condition of the vehicle and the expectation of the customer. Because of the time limitations involved, express is appropriate only for vehicles that are newer, in good condition, or are detailed regularly.

The service advisor must be trained to quickly evaluate the condition of the vehicle, inside and out, to be sure it is appropriate for the express area. He or she should also be provided with scripts that help explain both the benefits of and limitations of express detailing.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of working with the service advisors in the proper selling of express detailing. Mistakes in this area lead to dissatisfied customers and frustrated detailing technicians.

There will be situations in which the vehicle does not fit the profile of an express service. Often this is because the customer requests an express but the service advisor recognizes that the vehicle’s condition is beyond what can be satisfactorily treated within the 15-minute window. This situation presents an opportunity to sell the customer on the benefits of full-service detailing.


Selling full-service detailing begins with marketing efforts that make the customer aware of your full-service detailing options. The effort should center on helping the potential customer understand the importance of maintaining the appearance of the vehicle for two primary reasons: 1) to maintain the value of the vehicle, and 2) greater customer enjoyment of the vehicle.

The marketing effort includes the signage in the drive-up area. This signage is important for a couple of reasons. For those customers who are already familiar with full-service detailing, it lets them know that they can obtain such services at a location that they already know and trust — your car wash. Also, the full-service menu options will prompt curiosity among those customers who are not familiar with full-service detailing.

The signage can be augmented with simple educational pieces. In the customer lounge or waiting area, try tabletop displays (like the ones you see at restaurants). This area is also the perfect place for a freestanding sign or banner. One trick that will help increase the effectiveness of these pieces is to rotate several, each with a very specific theme.

Another basic way to educate the customer is to give a simple handout to each drive-up customer with a short verbal description. The educational effort can be coordinated to focus on one aspect of full-service detailing by creating a “special of the week.” This can be a discount or free added service focusing on one particular menu item, for example, exterior detailing with a free polish step.

The service advisor should have a script memorized that helps him or her explain why the customer should opt for the more expensive full-service detail package that will likely require a return visit with an appointment. If your operation has an articulate detail manager and enough detailing technicians, it can be beneficial for the service advisor to call in the detail manager to help consult with the customer. The detail manager can more thoroughly diagnose the vehicle condition and better explain the steps that will be taken to correct the problems.

In fact, I believe that the detail manager (given adequate support staff) plays an important role in the selling of full-service detailing items. The manager can act as a sales consultant, presenting information and analysis of the vehicle condition to help the customer make an informed decision.


Selling detailing services at the car wash begins with a simple and clear menu. The service advisors should be trained to understand the menu items, vehicle condition, and customer expectations. Express detailing is most easily sold by the service advisor. Full-service detailing takes more marketing effort to help the customer understand its benefits. Marketing will be discussed in depth in a future installment.

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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