Auto Detailing - September 2010

Kooky Customers —
Learn to Communicate Clearly
By Prentice St. Clair

We all have them. Those few customers who just have the most silly comments and ideas about detailing. I call them “kooky” (but not to their face, of course). In my experience, there seems to be some common themes among the myriad of funny customers whom I have dealt with over the years.

So I thought it might be fun to dive into some of these scenarios and also to share some successful ways of dealing with kooky customers. Those of you who have been operating for a while will probably recognize some of these situations and hopefully get a chuckle from them. Those of you who are relatively new to detailing sales will hopefully gain some insight to common customer comments and learn ways to work through the customer’s misconceptions about detailing.


“How much is a detail?” Ever heard this? I love it when the first words out of the mouth of a phone-in or walk-up customer are: “How much do you charge?” Now I understand that very few customers are sophisticated enough to ask anything else. But there is a “vibe” that I pick up — I can just tell when a person who asks this question will not like the answer.

I have learned that “how much do you charge?” is a typical first question from someone who is only interested in the price and ignorantly ignores all of the other factors. Let’s put it this way: The vast majority of customers who start out with “how much for a detail?” end up saying something like “oh, that’s too much for me,” no matter how much salesmanship goes into the answer.

I may sound too narrow-minded here, but there have also been many customers who have started off the conversation with something like “so, you come right out to the house and detail the car in the driveway?” or “sure looks like you guys are working hard!”

When someone asks me how much I charge, I usually “deflect” the question by offering a brief description of what is included in the detailing package. Then I finish by saying, “and you get all of that for only x dollars.” If, at this point the customer scoffs at the price, then I pretty much know that this is not my customer. It’s okay to accept a “no” from a customer.

Remembering a few important factors will help you get through discussions about price and prevent you from feeling bad about the rejecting customer:

  • Not everyone is your customer — some people just want the cheap detail.
  • Not all money is money well-earned — converting a customer who is cheap may lead to all kinds of future problems with that customer and his/her
  • It’s not just about price — your service is a high-quality, value-packed product.
  • The competition isn’t yours — those who detail cars on the cheap do not last as business operators and are in a different league than a professional, high-end detail shop.

Negotiating discounts can be dangerous. My experience is that the people who whittle you down on your price end up being the most picky at the end. I am surprised that I have not seen a pair of white gloves come out for the final inspections from some of these people. If you do discount your price, make sure you indicate clearly on your written work order exactly what is and is not to be done, and have the customer sign the document. This will help avoid disagreements upon delivering the finished product.

Instead of discounting to close the sale, I would much rather throw in something for free than reduce a standard price. For example, it’s pretty easy to apply polymer paint sealant — for which most operators charge a premium — instead of wax and at no extra charge. Fabric protection is another easy add-on that might close the deal if “thrown-in” for free.


I have noticed the phenomenon of unsolicited discounting at some express detail operations within a car wash. I know that there are some full-service detailers who do this as well, so it is an important topic to address.

The common scenario is that the service writer asks the customer if he or she would like an express detail package for $39.99 (or whatever) and before the customer has a chance to answer, the service writer is already taking $5 off. In other words, the sales staff discounts the price before the customer has a chance to object to the full retail value!

This approach typically results from a fear of the word “no” or from the sales writer trying to increase the number of sales while ignoring total revenue. The more proper approach is to give the customer the first right of refusal. That is, offer the service at full price, and if the customer’s refusal seems to be related to price, then, and only then, offer an additional free service at no charge or a discount.

Think about it, you really have no idea what the customer’s budget is, nor do you have any idea of his or her concept of “good value,” “fair market price,” or even what the customer considers “too expensive.” Moreover, you have no idea whether or not the customer was considering or will consider the service being sold, regardless of the price.


It is sometimes amusing how custom-ers describe their cars over the phone while asking for a quote or setting up an appointment. Here are some common comments I have received.

“It’s so dirty!” This comment comes from the owner of a two-year-old car that only has 10,000 miles on it and is typically garaged. This is typically someone who is obsessed with the preservation of the appearance of the car. I’ve had these customer types bring in the car and I have to hold my tongue not to say “just what exactly on the car do you want me to clean?”

In this situation, it’s about going over every square inch of the car. It’s also about cleaning the “clean” panels. For example, even though the back side of the front seat may appear clean, it probably has a thin film of grime that accumulates as airborne particles and moisture settle on the surface. The “clean” surfaces can be made to look new by light cleaning and proper conditioning.

And, of course the outside of the car probably needs a detailer’s clay treatment, even though the paint looks shiny and clean. A car that was washed and waxed yesterday will still look better after it is waxed again today. So the car that was last detailed months ago will look significantly better after waxing, regardless of how good the paint looks already.

Don’t be fooled by this situation. To do the job right will still take almost as much time as a dirtier car because you are going to have to pay special attention to make sure that all of the surfaces are immaculate, since to begin with, the surfaces were already “clean.” I have found that this type of customer is wiling to pay full price because he or she understands the time and attention necessary for a high-quality detail.

There is another class of “its so dirty!” customers. But these usually make an accompanying comment like “I just can’t stand it anymore.” This is typically the mom driving the kids and the pets around in the minivan — the minivan that has had food, drinks, and who knows what else spilled inside, not to mention the mud tracked in during the summer months.

My pricing scheme already includ-es the ability to add a surcharge for oversized vehicles like minivans and SUVs, and I may add a bit more to these situations. After all, a complete detail in a minivan can easily take upwards of seven labor hours.

“It’s not too bad!” I hear this comment most often from the mom with the kid-mobile. The customer describes the vehicle as “not too dirty” or claims to have taken good care of it. Another common comment is “we bring it through the car wash regularly.”

I learned early on to ignore these kinds of comments and stick to my pricing over the phone. What one person thinks is “not too bad,” would be considered no less than criminal neglect by the clean fanatic described above.

“But it’s such a small car!” I love this one. Just because it’s a Mazda Miata, the customer thinks a discount is in order. As most of us know, working on a small car can actually be more challenging because it’s so small. There’s a lot more bending and stooping to work on the inside, as well as a lot of sitting on the ground and bending over to work on the outside.


By nature, the detailing business involves interactions with customers. Many customers have blissful ignorance about the work involved in producing a truly clean and protected car. The detail sales staff or the owner-operator must learn to communicate well with the customer, especially those who are confused about the activity or value of detailing. Some of the catch-phrase comments described in this article will help you learn cues that indicate potential communication difficulties with customers.

Ultimately, the goal is to create a delighted customer while at the same time receiving fair market value for the service provided.

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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