Auto Detailing - October 2006

Detail, Inc., Part III — Employee
and Labor Issues

By Prentice St. Clair

This is the third in a multi-part series dedicated to the “business” of detailing. In last month’s column, we discussed the importance of training. We broke down training into three important components: operational — having to do with performing the duties of detailing; administrative — having to do with running the business; and, continuing —getting involved in your industry so as to keep updated on the latest information.

Training is also important for your employees, which is the subject of this month’s column, in which we will discuss employee and labor issues.


To begin, let’s establish the bottom line with employees. In my opinion, the ultimate responsibility for employee performance lies with the owner or manager of the business, that is, the person “in charge” of the employees. There are three reasons why employee performance can be poor: Inadequate training, inadequate motivation, and poor recruiting.

Most employees can only perform as well as they are taught. Additionally, even the employee that provides the best results will only produce as much as he or she is motivated to produce. Both of these areas are, for the most part, under the control of the employer. If your employees are not doing what you expect, it’s probably because they have not been trained well enough. If your employees are slowpokes, it’s probably because you have not provided them with enough motivation to work faster.

And yes, there is always that employee who gets it wrong or works slow no matter what you do. Guess what — it’s still your fault, because you hired that person! This illustrates poor recruiting. Some people just don’t get it, and to avoid these people, work on your recruiting sources and process. Finally, don’t be afraid to let someone go if you have made a mistake (and we all do so from time to time).


I believe that one of the biggest mistakes that employers make in this industry is treating employee turnover as a crisis. Many act as if the no-show, the quitter, or the recently-fired employee is a surprise. Then there is a mad rush to fill the position, often resulting in hiring the first person that comes through the door, regardless of quality. The cycle then continues because the new hire doesn’t last very long and, BOOM, another crisis.

If you expect high turnover, you need to treat it as a normal, everyday part of your business just like paying bills or ordering supplies. I suggest spending a small portion of every workweek working on recruiting. Part of this work is looking for good sources of new hires, then soliciting those sources, then interviewing and applying the potential hires. You end up with a short list of potential hires that you have already pre-qualified. Then, when someone leaves your operation, you have several people to call who are already good candidates to fill the position. Sure, some of them may already have other jobs, but you are at least starting with a quality list instead of grabbing the first kid who walks in the door.

An interesting note on turnover: Those operations that keep employees for relatively long periods of time (e.g., 3 to 10 years!) tend to take very good care of their employees by offering better-than-average pay structures, lots of perks, and an overall great atmosphere in which to work. Food for thought: you might be able to avoid the entire turnover problem by simply taking great care of the employees you have instead of worrying so much about sheer profit.

What about the “experienced” detailer? Most of us who have hired such individuals agree that they can often be a lot of trouble. Experienced detailers tend to be set in their ways with certain products, tools, and processes. I would rather have a gung-ho, ready-to-learn young person who can be taught my method of detailing as opposed to someone who is going to question and argue every step of the detail.

Here’s an interesting and helpful anecdote: In my college days, I worked for an older gentleman that was one of the largest post-WWII home developers in Los Angeles. He would tell me great stories about his career, including this one: While in the process of hiring new employees, he would excuse himself during the job interview and go downstairs to look at the interviewee’s vehicle. One indication for him was — “is the car clean?” Look at the vehicle in which they drive up to the interview. If this makes sense for someone hiring carpenters, how much more sense does this make for someone hiring people to clean cars?


Once you’ve hired that employee with the perfect ingredients of can-do attitude and teachability, it becomes your responsibility to create a top-notch detailing technician. I think that one person in the operation should be in charge of training new hires. This helps to ensure consistency in the operation.

In order for your employees to understand what it is that you expect from them, you must have a clear description of those expectations and the ability to communicate it to the employees. I believe that this involves three tiers of information:

  1. Packaging: clearly defined packages with specific service elements listed
  2. Standards: descriptions of the expected result for each service element
  3. Standard Operating Procedures: step-by-step instructions on how to achieve each standard

If you expect high turnover, you may want to establish a training program or process of training that each new hire must go through. This might involve sitting down to a detail training video or reading a manual that describes in words and pictures your standard detailing process. After this, you can demonstrate the actual process on a vehicle while the employee watches. (During this step, pay attention to how focused the employee is on your instruction. If he or she is distracted, this may be an indication of poor work habits later.)

The next step might be supervised practice on another vehicle. Then, perhaps, you can have a review period during which you verbally go through the entire detail process with the employee. Finally, let the employee loose on a basic detail and see how he or she performs by conducting a thorough inspection at the conclusion of the detail. This is your opportunity to show the employee what level of quality you expect by pointing out the elements that were done correctly and those that weren’t.

I recommend creating an atmosphere of feedback as opposed to criticism. After all, in these early stages of learning the process, the new hire is doing just that — learning. Teach him or her what you expect. Later, if he or she consistently misses the mark, then you can shift, as necessary, from feedback to critical review.

Don’t expect your employees to be perfect detailers right from the start. You will need to provide for extra inspection time for the first few detail jobs.


Those who pay their detail technicians well may complain about lower profits. But you will not hear them complain about turnover problems. Also, their customers tend to be very happy. In contrast, those employers who look for the cheapest labor possible complain about turnover, employee training, quality control, and customer dissatisfaction. They are always putting out customer complaint fires and stepping in to check for quality control.

The bottom line is this: if you want to take good care of your customers (i.e., the people that fund your profitability), take good care of the employees that produce the widgets that are purchased by your customers! Consider the Japanese manufacturing model — build quality into the system of manufacturing so that the resulting product is almost automatically the best possible. Recruit, train, and motivate quality employees and you increase your chances of producing quality automotive detailing results that delight the customer. (Of course, another important component of building a quality automotive detailing process is to provide those employees with the proper equipment, tools, and chemicals.)

There are many models of employee compensation out there. Which one works best for you is a matter of your specific situation. Nonetheless, here are some ideas.

If you pay straight hourly or salary, there’s less motivation to work quickly. On the other hand, with straight commission or percentage, there is always the risk of employees rushing through jobs, yielding lower quality results. Nonetheless, commission-based compensation tends to work well in situations where there is a constant stream of work and time is of the essence.

A model that seems to work fairly well in most situations is a combination of the two: a base hourly wage (or salary) and an additional bonus for each completed job. This helps to keep employees motivated to provide both quick and high-quality results.

Keeping employees around longer is always a challenge. One idea is to offer “length-of-service” bonuses every six months or so. Make it a few hundred dollars and promote it often as a carrot to your employees to stick around.


Employee issues are never simple. But you can help to simplify the issue by taking responsibility for creating a recruiting process that brings in high-quality candidates, creating a training process that teaches your process well to new employees, and creating a compensation system and work atmosphere that encourages the best performance and retention of your employees.

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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