I remember clearly: it was the day before I was ready to open my first new car wash. The owner of the car wash equipment distributor who had sold to me and installed all of the equipment wanted to take a ride to Home Depot to do some last minute shopping. I wasn’t clear what exactly we would be shopping for. We grabbed a shopping cart on our way into the store and started in the tool isle. The first item was a large tool carry case and then we started filling the cart with tools that would soon fill that bag. Many others that were too large to fit in the bag were added, including large sockets, large wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, grease guns, ladders, and every other tool you could think of.
Repairs are sometimes necessary.
We then moved into the cleaning-product section and filled any remaining space with brooms, dustpans, cleaning solutions among other items. I remember thinking to myself, “This was not in my original budget…” and “Who is going to be using these tools?” At that moment, reality set in. This was not a “set and forget it” business I was getting into and not realizing this is one of the biggest mistakes rookie car wash owners make when building or purchasing their first car wash. There are other mistakes that a “rookie” car wash owner should be aware of as well. To avoid many of these mistakes, I employ my “QCS” mantra, the big three: Quality, Cleanliness, and Service.
Let’s talk about the “Q” or “Quality” first. It was only a few days after leaving the Home Depot, that I realized why the shopping trip with my equipment distributor had been a necessary evil. Even though I had a college degree, and had been running a successful finance business, I came to understand that I would need to get “dirty” and go back to my earlier roots when I enjoyed working on cars in my driveway. Here I was with this brand new $1 million-plus car wash and I needed to revert back to this mechanical skill set from earlier in my life to make sure that my customers had a good experience and that nothing was broken when they wanted to use it.
There was a lot that could break — and it did. In-bay automatic gantries, automatic doors, entry systems, changers, loyalty portals, pump stations, self-serve equipment, vacuums, coin acceptors, vending machines, bill acceptors, timers, bay lighting — it didn’t take long for a repair punch list to evolve. This was my new reality. I needed to come up with processes to make sure that the repairs were done in a timely manner and in a way that would not break the bank. The decision of using a distributor who was located nearly three hours away also started to weigh on my mind. Even though he guaranteed 24-hour response time, some problems could not wait, and the reality was that it would not be fiscally responsible to expect a distributor to travel that distance for every small repair that needed to be made.
As the punch list grew, I decided to tackle them in the following order: Items that impacted revenue the most dramatically would be taken care of first. This would include any problem that occurred with the in-bay automatics, which I realized very early on was nearly 75 percent to 80 percent of my monthly revenue. Making sure that it had zero downtime was my first priority. Customer experience issues would also be a priority right behind issues that impacted revenue.
Common repairs included an entry system that was problematic from day one and that needed upgrading with a better bill acceptor even though it was brand new. In hindsight, it was a bad purchase from the start. It was clear that if a customer could not pay for the wash and/or had problems using the touch screen that walked them through the car wash purchase process it would not be good for revenue or customer retention. Many of the problems I encountered early on in my car wash career were centered on the two auto cashier entry units I purchased for my two in-bay automatics. These were critical because even if everything else was working okay, the process of purchasing a wash needed to be seamless.
Tackle repairs in a timely manner.This clunky entry system kept me up at night for nearly two years and even after a substantial upgrade two years in, it continued to be a problem for nearly two additional years before I took the plunge with units that were designed with more solid state electronics and that had a much better track record. The difference between having a reliable piece of equipment and a non-reliable piece of equipment was like night and day. Knowing what I know today, I would have replaced these units in the first year. Even though it would have been costly to do so, my experience as an owner would have been boosted tremendously not to mention my customers’ experience, which was much more important.
The experience I had with the auto cashiers is just one of many in the numerous systems car wash owners must monitor. There are similar problems and repairs with many of the systems that all work together to give your customer a “quality” experience while patronizing your business. As a “rookie” car wash owner you need to come up with a plan and processes for tackling your repair-and-maintenance punch list in a timely manner and in a way that reduces your costs for the repairs.
Empty trash receptaclesat least twice daily.
As a rookie car wash owner you need to take to heart the saying “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Applied to your car wash property, it is one of the easiest and least inexpensive ways to market your car wash. Your customers will spread the word within your community with comments like, “That car wash is always spotless” — and the word spreads quickly! Keeping up with all the maintenance issues along with keeping your car wash clean can create some tall marching orders for new car wash owners.
Some owners keep their car washes staffed with full-time attendants. I opted for part-time attendants. From the very beginning, I hired two part-time employees to empty the trash, sweep the lot, and hose down the bays on two separate shifts each day. However, even with these part-time employees, I realized very early on that I would not be immune from performing many of these duties myself in between their morning and evening shifts.
I think it was the third day after I opened when I walked out with a broom and a stand-up dustpan to do some general cleanup at my wash after seeing a bunch of trash thrown on the asphalt near the vacuums. Waiting for my employees’ next shift was not an option, the place looked like hell. As I started to sweep up the lot, I realized that one of my customers’s had too much to drink the night before. There was puke all over my beautiful new asphalt. Now it was not just a matter of sweeping up some trash, it now required dragging out my newly purchased 100’ hose and hosing off what my customer decided to leave me in my new car wash. Less than a month later, another customer decided to stack four old tires in one of my self-serve bays and then used the center of the stacked tires as a trash receptacle inside the bay. Another new reality had set in for me as a self-serve car wash owner.
Keeping the place spotless was not going to be easy. I created a workload list that was broken down into daily, weekly, monthly, and annual cleaning/maintenance chores. The list looked something like this:
DailyAddress customers complaints head-on and quickly. • Empty trash receptacles (twice per day and beyond as needed) • Sweep lot of all debris • Hose down self-serve bays (twice per day and beyond as needed) • Check all coin acceptors • Check all equipment is in good working order • Check chemical levels • Fill vending machines • Tighten vacuum nozzles • Clean trash from grass areas and flower beds
Weekly • Daily chores from above + • Cut grass • Pull weeds • Power wash automatic bays • Clean stainless and glass • Empty vaults and fill changers with coin • Check chemical titration • Clean water reclaim bins • Empty and clean vacuums
Monthly • Daily chores and weekly chores from above + • Clean bay walls with power washer • Check lighting fixtures • Clean chemical mixing tanks
Annual • Reseal asphalt • Pump tanks or clean tanks (or as needed) • Mulch flowerbeds.
Finally, we need to cover the “S” or “service” part of my QCS (Quality, Cleanliness, Service) mantra for new car wash owners. Even after meticulous maintenance and cleaning, you are going to experience customer problems and complaints. In the old days, prior to social media, they would call you to complain, and then tell 10 of their friends about the bad experience they had at your car wash. If you were lucky enough to handle the problem with the customer being satisfied with your solution, you might get away with the customer being civil and not spreading the word about their bad experience. Today, they will bash you on every social media outlet available to them, and the unfair outcomes of these bashings can be detrimental to your business.
You need to tackle customer complaints head on and quickly. When I opened my first wash, customers called an automated answering service that would text me that I had a call on my customer-service line. This was the number that appeared throughout my wash and made it easy for customers to reach out to me. I later moved to using my direct cell phone number, so I could answer questions and provide solutions as quickly as possible.
Some of the complaints you receive will make you want to jump through your phone and choke the person who is complaining. I remember a women using one of my self-serve bays in zero degree weather. She complained that the water was “freezing” her car. I had to bite my tongue as she discussed how her car was now frozen. I offered her a code for a free wash in my automatic bay once she thawed out. She actually became a regular user of my automatic bays after that first ridiculous complaint. It might not have gone that way if I had called her out on her stupidity. Over the years of car wash ownership, you will field 100s of complaints, some real, some not so real. Your focus on my QCS mantra will eliminate many of these complaints, and, when you get them, you will know how to handle them properly.
Keep your car wash in clean, good working order. Many rookie car wash owners think they can build or buy their first car wash, then just collect and count their money. The reality is that, like any business, you will need to make sure that you keep your car wash in clean, good working order. Focusing on quality, cleanliness, and service, will put you ahead of the game and will put you ahead of your competition in most markets.
Buzz Glover is the author of Car Wash Business 101: The #1 Car Wash StartUp Guide available on amazon.com and a downloadable version at www.carwashbusiness101.com.