I have been fortunate to have had dozens of opportunities to provide training at dealership detail centers over the years. An interesting situation arises when I am asked to orchestrate their effort to create a detailing process that delivers near “perfection.” In these instances, I first discuss the concept of “perfection” as it relates to automotive detailing, in an attempt to temper the dealership principal’s expectation.
It is understandable that the dealership would want the used-cars inventory to look as good as possible, with the outcome of being able to sell the vehicle faster and for more money. But the reality is that perfect results are typically left to the realm of concourse and collection detailing, where money and time are no object in the performance of the detailer.
This level of commitment to results provides us with an interesting case study in auto detailing. I am not suggesting that every detailer and detail shop should take this approach. There are a number of variables that determine what the average outcome will be for a detail operation. Some of those variables include the typical customer profile, the condition of the vehicle coming into the shop, the expectations of the customer, and the price of service that the local market will bear.
Nonetheless, I have generally found that with superiority of service provision comes increased business success. So, I thought it would be beneficial for the industry as a whole to discuss this one example of an approach to detailing. Perhaps we can all learn some lessons from the reconditioning center at this high-end dealership.
WHY SUCH AN EFFORT?
Some might question the purpose of such an effort to achieve perfection. After all, if you can make the car look basically clean, and keep most customers happy, what’s the point of going the extra mile for some seemingly unattainable level of outcome?
The answer starts with the underlying culture of some dealerships. The foundation of this culture can include the premise of delivering the ultimate customer experience, regardless of the customer’s reason for coming in. This means creating that “wow” reaction from every customer, whether it be during the purchase of a brand new vehicle, or coming in for a routine oil change. Specifically in the detail shop, this means producing detailed vehicles that are as close to perfect as possible.
Some dealerships rely on repeat or referral customers and must maintain a reputation that keeps people coming back and sending their friends. Part of that reputation is the delivery of a premier customer experience, and part of that experience is the delivery of vehicles that look as good as they possible can.
Dealerships generally know that the appearance of the vehicle is an important factor to the success of the sale. It is a common notion among automotive dealerships that a clean vehicle sells faster and for more money. So, it stands to reason that a vehicle that is in perfect condition ought to sell the fastest and for the most money. Both new and used vehicles “on the line” (i.e., on display in the lot for sale) are thus immaculately detailed before they are displayed and then regularly maintained until sold.
The same level of perfection can be delivered to service customers who request detailing. In fact, the detailing process that I developed for incoming used-car trade-ins is the exact same process that is used for service customers’ vehicles. The customer vehicle can be made to look as good as any new vehicle on the lot, but at a great price.
WHAT IS “PERFECTION”?
It’s one thing to demand that detailed vehicles look as perfect as possible. It’s something else to determine what “perfect” looks like on a detailed vehicle. It is yet something else to figure out how to achieve “perfect.” Determining the definition of “perfect” is essentially establishing a standard. To achieve the standard, a set of procedures must be established.
A simple definition of “perfect” might be: “the vehicle looks new and is without flaw.”
Why do I add the words “without flaw?” It is because vehicles that are delivered as new are far from flawless. Indeed, you would be amazed at the amount of work that goes into preparing a new vehicle for the line. The interior can have minor smudges from the transport crew. The interior glass can be foggy from vinyl discharge and the exterior coated with some mysterious residue that sometimes can only be removed with steel wool.
The exterior is often covered by plastic adhesive sheets that must be removed along with any remaining adhesive from those sheets. And then there is the pervasive issue of leaking cavity wax, which is sprayed into door and hood openings to prevent corrosion. Finally, the paint can have a number of surface issues that require multiple steps of paint perfecting techniques.
This is not even a complete list of issues that confront the detailer when preparing a new car for the line. So, for used-vehicle reconditioning and customer-paid details, imagine what’s involved!
STANDARDS OF EXCELLENCE
Let’s examine a few of the standards that might be included in a near-perfection detail.
All interior panels are clean, spot-free, and appear new. Of course, this starts with a thorough vacuum, followed by basic cleaning with all-purpose cleaner of the vinyl and plastic panels, as well as steam cleaning of seats, carpeting, and headliner. Spots are individually treated with specialized chemicals. Any damage or soil that cannot be removed with these cleaning techniques is referred to the interior repair specialist for re-dying or repair. If repair is not possible, the panels are replaced.
All compartments in the trunk or rear compartment are clean, dirt and dust free, and appear new. To achieve this, the technicians are expected to “take apart” the trunk, opening all compartments and removing all items. (This includes the spare tire, which is sometimes removed and thoroughly cleaned in the prep wash area if it is dirty.) All of the compartments are then vacuumed, dusted, and wiped clean. The compartments are then put back together, including re-installing and dressing the spare tire.
Windows are sparkling clean with no streaks. It can be frustrating for the person in charge to find streaks in the windows of a “freshly-detailed” vehicle. I have found this to be true with retail detailing clients as well over the years. So it pays for us to develop techniques, combining the best possible glass cleaning chemicals and towels that ensure a streak-free finish. With proper cleaning, the glass really does sparkle, giving the vehicle an extra gleam.
The engine compartment is completely clean and appears new. This requires a thorough degreasing rinse; complete drying to a spot-free finish; removal of all cavity wax from typical drip points; application of a satin-finish dressing; and complete wipe-down to remove water spots, excess dressing, and shining of painted panels.
All exterior paint is flawless. The exterior reconditioning process begins with a very thorough prep wash, followed by thorough, panel-by-panel application of detailer’s clay. In fact, each panel is clayed in 12” x 12” sections, which are then individually dried and inspected before moving on to the next “square.” Once the car is completely clayed and dried, the paintwork is thoroughly inspected for damage or flaws that may need to be rectified in the body shop.
If there are no such major flaws, the hood is used as a test area to determine what buffing or polishing steps will be needed to bring the paint back to a flawless shine. In the case of many silver-colored vehicles, this is simply a matter of a quick polish and wax.
However, some black vehicles require several buffing and polishing steps to yield a perfect, swirl-free finish. The detail technicians are expected to do whatever is necessary to yield this kind of finish.
COMMITMENT TO THE STANDARDS
Having an established standard of excellence is fine, but it is nothing if it is not clearly communicated to those technicians who are expected to achieve the standard. Further, the detail technicians must be provided with the equipment, chemicals, and hands-on training necessary to afford them the ability to achieve the standards.
When demanding these high standards, there can be no skimping on chemicals and equipment. The technicians must have full access to whatever they need to achieve the standard. For example, it is expected that buffing pads be changed often to reduce swirls.
The technicians should be evaluated and re-trained by an outside training consultant on a regular basis to ensure that the standard operating procedures are continuing to be followed or changed as necessary to ensure that they can achieve the standards. Additionally, the shop must be managed by an operational supervisor who’s job it is to ensure that the standard operating procedures are followed and that the results consistently match the specified standards.
My hope in carrying on a discussion of “perfection” detailing is to provide encouraging ideas for the general population of detail operators. Although not all of us have the budget or wherewithal to attempt to reach such lofty heights, we can certainly take strides to improve our own operations with at least a modified version of some of the concepts that have helped one dealership achieve a reputation for excellence.
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.