Auto Detailing - October 2010

Slow Season — Here’s How to Work It
By Prentice St. Clair

As you read this column, we are entering yet another fall season. For many detailers across the country, business starts to wind down. For some, it grinds to a halt during winter; it is difficult to convince customers to keep their cars clean during inclement weather. Well, the idea for this column is to get you thinking about the off-season now, so that you can start to take the steps necessary to make the slow season profitable and productive.

I live and work in Southern California, where seasonal changes are minimal. Those of you who work in areas of the country that experience true winter seasons might be wondering what I know about operating through the seasons. It is true, I don’t have first-hand experience with “shut-the-place-down” type of weather, but I have several colleagues around the country who do have such experience. Moreover, we do occasionally have winter seasons that include three to five months during which each week seems to have several “bad” weather days. For example, during this last rainy season, there was a multi-day storm almost every week.

So my goal this month is to share some ideas that will either give you something to apply directly, or spark some ideas of your own. There are two categories of activities that I would like to discuss: finding ways to keep customers coming in and using time wisely when there are no customers.

KEEP WORKING

In the ideal business world, our workload would be steady and even-keeled throughout the year. As most of us know, this is not the case, and, for some of us, the winter season slows to a relative crawl. So it is important (or should I say, critical) to find ways to keep the customers, or at least the cash flow, coming in during the winter season, regardless of the weather.

It starts with educating your customers. Your customers need to understand that there are two primary functions that your operation can perform. The first is protection: keeping the vehicle protected during the ravages of the winter environment. The second is cleaning: bringing the car back to life during or after the winter season.

Pre-Payment Packages
A clever way to “fund” the off-season is to offer pre-payment packages. You are collecting money for services yet to be provided, thus increasing your working capital at the beginning of the season. If you are disciplined with your spending, you may be able to pay for most or all operating expenses throughout the off-season with this pre-payment savings fund, assuming you can attract enough pre-paying customers. Additionally, you create customer loyalty — the customer is automatically going to come back to you because he or she has already paid for the service.

Now, I admit that this will be a tough sell during our current economy, but it’s worth a try. If you price the packages right, at least some of your customers will bite. These days, some money is better than no money.

An example of such a pre-payment package might be one that includes up to three items: 1) pre-season protective application, 2) mid-season spruce-up and protection re-activation, and, 3) post-season rejuvenation.

The “pre-season protection” is a complete detail that includes application of polymer paint sealant, window sheeting agent, carpet and fabric protection, and leather conditioner. The customer should be sold on the benefits of creating a barrier between the vehicle’s surfaces and the harsh winter environment.

The “mid-season” spruce-up is simply another complete detail, with emphasis on removing the caked-on mud and salt, followed by a re-application of the same protective products. The selling point here for the customer is that the mid-season spruce-up will revitalize the vehicle’s appearance, which will probably be pretty dreary by mid-season. Additionally, the protective coatings will be re-activated, helping to protect the vehicle for the remainder of the season.

The post-season rejuvenation is a thorough complete detail, removing all evidence of the winter season. The selling point here is that the vehicle will be brought back to life and ready to be enjoyed for the spring and summer months to come.

Other Ideas
Certainly offer some kind of “winterizing” package that includes application of paint sealant, glass sheeting agent, carpet and fabric protection, and leather conditioner. Because of the value-added protection applications, you can charge a premium for these services above and beyond what you normally charge for a standard detail. The idea is to provide premium service that allows you to collect more money just prior to the beginning of the off-season so that you have some extra capital to make it through the winter.

You might also promote a mid-season special that emphasizes the interior. By mid-season, the inside of the car, locked-up for weeks, is probably beginning to get pretty messy and smelly. There are certainly some customers who would appreciate a refreshed vehicle interior at some point during the winter season.

The winter season is also time to promote other, non-detailing services that you may (or need to) provide. Services like windshield repair, minor paint repairs, interior surface repairs, and paintless dent removal. All of these services are relatively independent of the weather when compared to detailing, for which a customer could legitimately object with something like, “why should I clean up the car today if it’s just going to get dirty tomorrow?”

If you are hurting because of a lack of appointments, it’s time to reach out to your customer base. You have been collecting contact information on each customer that does business with you since day one; now you have several hundred names, numbers, and addresses (hopefully on computer). Sit down and start calling each of these customers. Try to make your call more of a friendly check-in instead of a pressure-filled solicitation. Simply remind the customer that you are there, and ready and willing to take care of any automotive reconditioning needs the customer may have.

Without getting too weird, those of us who have spent a day or two making phone calls during slow times will tell you that there is something “cosmic” about doing this. It’s as if by making outgoing calls, you tell the Universe that you want more business. Suddenly, the phone starts to ring with new and existing customers who call in unsolicited with service requests. Don’t believe it? Try it.

My detailing business has been built over the years on relationships, so I prefer the personal touch of a phone call. I realize, however, that some of you have built your businesses more on heavy advertising and volume. Before and during the slow months, it is important to stay in touch with your customers through mass communication avenues such as postcards and e-mail. Make sure your customers know that you are still available to service their needs.

DON’T JUST SIT AROUND

If it is not possible to fill every available working hour with a billable job, perhaps it is a good idea to spend the extra time improving your business. There are several ways to do so. You can take care of maintenance issues, train and research new skills, and plan for the upcoming season.

Maintenance
Undoubtedly, there are several maintenance items that have piled up over the busy months. Take the time to fix all the problems and perform preventative maintenance on your equipment and building. Order and install replacement parts and clean (“detail”) all of your equipment.

New Skills
Off-time is the chance to improve your existing skills as well as add new skills and services to your operation. For example, if you have ever considered learning paintless dent removal, the winter season is a perfect time to learn and practice this new skill, since it takes several weeks or months of dedicated practice to master this potentially profitable service. Other services that you might consider learning include windshield repair, tint installation, paint repairs, and interior repairs.

If nothing else, research new products, chemicals, and equipment that can make your detailing more efficient and effective. One way to do so is to attend the Western Carwash Association’s Annual Convention and Trade Show, which takes place in Las Vegas, NV October 11-13. The International Detailing Association will offer educational sessions as well as product demonstrations on the trade show floor throughout the show. This is a great opportunity to network with other detailing professionals and brainstorm ideas to sustain or increase business during the slow season.

Plan of Attack
Start preparing for the upcoming season by analyzing last season’s performance and planning new or improved strategies for making the upcoming season the best so far. Sit down with your “constituents” and determine the problem areas in your detailing operation. Your constituents include all of those involved in your operation, including detailing technicians, managers, and salespersons. Your constituents also include your customers, so you might want to interview some of your better customers to find out how they can be better served.

Analyze this information to determine a number of action steps that can be taken to improve your operation. Then, institute these actions in the upcoming season, check the results at mid-season, and make adjustments as necessary. This is called the “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle, a never-ending process that helps to continuously improve an operation.

An important part of your past-season review is to look at the financial numbers. You may want to sit down with your CPA and bookkeeper and go through the profit and loss statement and balance sheet from last year. It is probably also worth your time and investment to have a business consultant look at these numbers as well. The goal of this analysis is to determine unprofitable services, unnecessary expenses, and profit centers that should be promoted.

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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