Auto Detailing - September 2009

At the Car Wash Part 14: Wrap-Up
By Prentice St. Clair

This is the fourteenth and final column in a series that explores the issues involved with offering detailing services at a car wash. In last month’s column, the topic of training was discussed.

Proper training of the staff is critical to the overall success of the detailing operation, whether it be express or full-service. A properly trained detailing technician will possess the following:

  • A working understanding of the service elements that are involved with each menu item;
  • The ability to diagnose the condition of the vehicle;
  • The ability to assess the expectations of the customer, or to understand such an assessment as made by the detail manager;
  • The ability to choose the appropriate chemicals and equipment, and combine these with rules of motion that create techniques that accomplish the service elements.

It is ultimately the responsibility of the car wash management to adequately instruct the detailing technicians about the menu items, the service elements involved in each, and the standards that are expected for each element. Additionally, management must train the technicians in the processes required to achieve each standard.

It was pointed out that hiring “experienced” detailers is not always the best route because they probably will not know your particular systems and their specific requirements. Instead, I recommend hiring enthusiastic, energetic technicians who have a great attitude for learning, and then train them in your systems. Make a clear designation of who is responsible for training — usually the detail manager.

If you don’t have an in-house training program, you can train your employees using one of the private detailing schools located around the country. Or, you can bring the training to your location, which will allow the trainer to customize the education to fit your particular situation.

Formal training will help you systematize your detailing operation through the establishment of efficient and effective techniques that produce consistent results that delight the customer.


This discussion of detailing at a car wash has taken more than a year to complete. Hopefully, it has been helpful to you and has answered more questions than it generated. Speaking of answering questions, I looked back at the first installment of this series, which was published in the July, 2008 issue of this magazine. At the end of that column, I listed a number of questions that I promised to discuss throughout the series. Upon re-examination of that list, I realized that there were a few of those questions that were not adequately answered. Answering each of these questions will allow me to summarize the series.

Can the Service be Performed Quicker?
This is really a question of efficiency, which is a measure of how fast things get done. Within the realm of detailing, there are several variables that affect efficiency, including chemicals, equipment, and rules of motion. Using the appropriate chemical for the job will reduce the time required to perform the service element at hand. Using the appropriate equipment will increase efficiency by taking an activity that was originally performed by hand and automating it.

However, all the chemicals and equipment in the world will have little impact on efficiency if the technician is not properly trained on the use of each. Such training will include rules of motion that help the technician to use the most efficient pattern of work to complete the job in the least amount of time with the fewest mistakes.

In my experience in training and consulting with various operations, the answer to this question is most often “yes.” Most operations can be made to perform services faster with a few improvements in techniques.

Is the Detailing Center Reaching its Fullest Profit Potential?
The answer to this question involves virtually all of the issues that we have thus far discussed in this series. If a car wash owner with whom I had a consulting relationship asked me this question, I would look at several things in the operation.

First, I would examine the detailing menu. Typically, there are too many packages from which the customer must choose. Often, there are “bargain” or “mini-detail” packages that detract from the full-service, full-priced packages that yield a higher profit.

Second, I would check out the prices that are being charged for full-service detailing. It is often priced too low, especially in consideration of the time, expertise, and supplies that are necessary to adequately perform full-service detailing.

Third, I would examine the marketing and selling of the detailing services. Do the wash customers know that you can make their cars look new and keep them looking that way? Do the ticket writers know about the various detailing packages and how to sell each one? I would also make sure that the service writers clearly understand the difference between express and full-service detailing. They need to be able to evaluate each vehicle so that the appropriate service can be recommended.

Finally, I would look at the efficiency and effectiveness of the detailing operation. Are the vehicles processed as quickly as they could be? And does the final result meet or exceed the customer’s expectations? Most operations have a lot of wasted effort due to a lack of good technique and a lack of standardized procedures. Moreover, the addition of a couple of pieces of good equipment can significantly cut down on the time it takes to process a job while at the same time improving the results. As mentioned over and over in this series, formal training can greatly improve efficiency.

Are the Customers Really Happy with the Results?
The short answer to this question is that you have to ask the customers. I strongly recommend that all customers be asked for feedback. This can be as simple as asking the customer to take a look at the car as the customer picks up the car. It could be a quick follow-up phone call a couple of days later. It could be a post-card or other feedback questionnaire that the customer is asked to send back to the car wash.

This third option tends to elicit more honest feedback because it is more “anonymous.” You could leave a feedback card or form in the car after finishing the job. Please pre-stamp the item to help encourage the customer to fill it out. Or you could mail the feedback form with a thank-you note. Again, pre-stamp the return card.

If the customers are not happy, then you have to ask “why?” In the case of express detailing, dissatisfaction is often a result of a misunderstanding of the purpose of express detailing. Sometimes it’s because the customer was sold on (or insisted upon choosing) an express detailing package that does not really address what the car needs. The common example is an interior that really needs a few hours of work, not fifteen minutes.

Misunderstanding of express packages can be avoided if the menu items are clearly defined and the sales staff is fully educated on the purpose and expected results of each package.

In the case of full-service detailing, dissatisfaction typically results from the customer’s perception that the job is not complete. The customer points to the relatively high price that was paid for the service and then points out the “missed” areas inside and out. Typically, this problem can be solved by improving procedures in the detail shop, including making sure the technicians have the right chemicals, equipment, and techniques to perform the job at the level that is expected of them.

Delighting customers with the results of the detail center can be one of the most effective marketing tools available. These customers will come back to you year after year, assuming you can provide consistently superior results. They will tell their friends about your operation and they will gladly offer testimonials that you can then use in your marketing pieces to attract new detail customers.


Some readers, after taking in all or parts of this series might come out of it thinking, “Gee, this detailing business sounds too complicated and involved.” It is not my intent to discourage anyone from offering detailing at a car wash. Instead, I am simply encouraging those who already offer or are considering offering detailing to take a systematic and professional approach to the business of detailing. I believe that detailing can be a profitable and worthwhile adjunct to a car wash, assuming the elements mentioned in this series are put into place.

In a nutshell, here’s what I recommend: determine if your customer base will be interested in express detailing, full-service detailing, or both. Then produce very clear definitions of what is to be sold with each menu item. Train your sales staff on the appropriate way to sell each of the items. Supply your technicians with the equipment, chemicals, and training they need to perform their duties efficiently and effectively. Finally, ask your customers if they are happy with the results.

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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