There are steps that can be taken to establish and maintain a successful detail business. Creating and maintaining success is not necessarily easy, but there are some definite steps that you can take to increase your chances.
A DECISION FOR SUCCESS
Because it appears to be a relatively simple business to start, automotive detailing attracts many individuals. Unfortunately, many of these start-ups are predicated, not on creating a successful business, but on making quick buck. For those of us who wish to create long-term success, there are some up-front decisions to be made.
Probably the most important key to having a successful business is an initial commitment to excellence. A conscious decision to take a professional approach will set you apart from the myriad of “detailers” who come and go each year. It is important to understand that a “commitment to excellence” does not necessarily have to translate into “spending a lot of money.”
The first thing to do is to take a professional approach in everything you do. Realize that this is your business. It is totally up to you to create your own success. Everything you do is a reflection of your business. When you take a professional approach, you commit to the image and the reputation of your company.
One can spend thousands of dollars on image. This is not necessarily what I am suggesting. Instead, do everything that you can to create a clean and trustworthy image, within your budget. Personal grooming is the easiest way to start. Look appealing to your customers. Likewise, make sure your vehicle or shop is as clean as possible.
And remember that spending thousands on image without backing it up with high quality results and great service will render that expenditure a waste; customer’s perception of your beautiful image will sour quickly if they are not happy with your work.
Here’s another one: Act like a businessman. Obtain professional-looking business cards, flyers, and invoices. It’s not necessary to spend hundreds on these items — there are many inexpensive options for creating company forms, including online printing outfits and programs from your local office supply store. You can also trade services with a graphic designer or printing shop if you are on a tight budget.
A professional approach can be as simple as how you answer the phone. An unenthusiastic, monotone “hulloh?” is unattractive to customers, and will create instant confusion and doubt with the potential customer on the line —“gee, did I call the right number?” Instead, answer the phone with a smile and enthusiastically announce your company name, like, “Good morning! Joe’s Detailing, this is Joe.” The sound of professionalism over the phone will add greatly to the customer’s positive perception of your company and instantly put the customer at ease.
But looking good and sounding good is not enough. You also have to be good at what you do. Unfortunately, most detailers simply guess about how to perform a detail. I strongly recommend that you obtain some kind of education and training in the art of professional detailing. You can spend a few thousand dollars at a detailing “school” for several days of hands-on training. Or you can spend a few hundred dollars on a video training package or a seminar put on by a local supplier.
The importance of initial training cannot be overemphasized. It helps you work better, faster, and produce better results so that your customers will be happier with your work. This allows you to charge more for your service, since you are providing better service than non-educated detailers (which is most of them).
As you get trained, you will realize that producing professional results requires some investment in professional grade equipment and supplies. One could easily spend $20,000 for a complete shop layout or skid mount. However, even the most budget-minded newbie can offer excellent results with a minimal investment of a few hundred dollars.
I built my detailing business and reputation with virtually no power equipment; instead, I used the best products I could find and spent the time to do a really thorough job. I’m not suggesting this is the best approach for the modern professional detailer. In fact, there are only a few very important initial purchases, without breaking the bank. My point is, no matter what your equipment layout looks like, just do a really good job.
A common undermining factor for detail shops that are just starting out is under-pricing the service. If you are just starting with minimal training and equipment, you should price your service so that you are making at least $50 per hour. As you put all of the elements of success into place — license, insurance, equipment, training, certification — then your shop rate can legitimately increase to between $75 and $125 per hour. You can determine the prices of your various detail packages by multiplying the average time it takes to perform each of these packages by your shop rate.
If you start out with lower prices in an effort to attract more customers, you are likely to find that this is a mistake that stays with you for months or years. When you establish a price at the beginning, customers expect to pay that price every time. Then, when you try to raise your prices because you realize you’re not making enough money, your customers may revolt.
It’s funny how many of these ideas are interlinked. If you get proper training, you can charge more for your service because you have more knowledge and can do a better job than most. If you use professional equipment and supplies, you need to pass on the cost of these items to your customer, who is benefiting from your purchases by receiving better results. At the same time, if you charge a professional’s price, you have extra money to invest back into your business for improved equipment, more training, and image-related purchases (e.g., uniforms, signage, brochures, etc.). These items help you deliver improved results that increase your reputation, which allows you to increase your price even further.
So, you can see that an initial commitment to excellence will start a cycle that almost ensures your success.
THE LEAN MONTHS
Those new operators that are just starting out on a shoestring budget have the biggest challenge to success. But with that challenge comes great opportunity. Let’s face it, we live in a country where you can start out with almost nothing and end being one of the wealthiest people in the world. There will be some lean times at the beginning of that journey, however. Even the best-intentioned operator, who is doing everything possible to be a professional, may have some income challenges.
So what can you do to combat those lean months in the beginning? First of all, treat your business like you would a job. So even on those days that you have no appointments booked, get up early, work out, shower, and put on your uniform. Then do something in your business, like write plans, make phone calls, or get out there and find more business. In the beginning of your business, you will have to spend a significant amount of time marketing. If you don’t have appointments, fill the workday with marketing efforts so that your schedule will fill up in the coming weeks.
A great way to get some “bread-and-butter” income coming in during the first few months of operating is to offer regular wash programs. There is a certain percentage of motorists who are willing to pay for someone to wash their vehicle once a week or so. Just make sure that you price such a service so that it makes sense to spend your time there. It is my opinion that a professional detailer should provide a professional car wash that is performed from the perspective of a detailer. It will be the best car wash that car has ever had and include some additional service elements that are provided as an add-on at the traditional car wash.
The downside of regular wash programs is that they are labor intensive and not nearly as profitable as full-service detailing, especially if you are not charging your shop rate for the service. Nonetheless, wash programs can open the door to detailing opportunities with the wash customer. For mobile operators, just being out there washing cars tends to attract other customers.
Create regular service programs (wash, detail, or a combination of both) for your customers. Offer pre-payment packages, which puts dollars in your pocket right now and benefits your customers with a discount on services that they will be using anyway. Of course, you must deliver excellent service every time you visit a customer who has prepaid. Then the customer will be ready to sign up for another cycle.
Eventually, when you have an established client base with many full-detail customers, you may decide that regular wash programs are not profitable enough to continue. At this point you are in control of your income. You can significantly increase prices, which will eliminate all but those customers who are happy to pay for your level of expertise. This creates openings in your schedule for more such customers.
In everything you do, go the extra mile. Throw in some extra services that the customer was not expecting. Treat your customers like royalty. These customer-focused activities will help you establish a reputation of excellent service, for which customers will gladly pay for years to come.
Ensuring the success of your business starts with an initial commitment to excellence. That commitment involves some investment in image, training, and supplies. Included is a commitment to customer focus. In the beginning, take whatever comes along and do a fantastic job, so that you can establish a reputation of excellence, with which you can eventually pick and choose your customers according to the services that you are willing to provide and the price they are willing to pay.
Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999. He is available at (619) 701-1100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.