Last year I got a call from a distant relative asking about an estimate he had received to have his vehicle detailed. He knows that I am in the detail business and used to operate two centers here in Portland. This is not the first time this has happened. Callers contact me to double check a quoted price or to recommend a “good” detail shop, because, they say, most look like shoddy operations run by shoddy looking people. Alternatively, they have been told that the operations at car washes are not very professional — they are run by car wash employees who do not understand proper detailing techniques.
Today’s vehicles are relatively complex in construction. Constructed with high-tech paint finishes, exotic leather upholstery, special plastics, coated windows, expensive alloy wheels, and engines with sophisticated computer systems. It is no wonder people are concerned about who works on their vehicle.
This is where the element of consumer trust comes into play and, as we have all been taught, if your clients do not trust you, they will not come back. For the car wash operator, this not only impacts the detail business, but also the car wash business. The saying “sales sells the first detail and service sells the rest” has never been truer. This is where the Internet can be your greatest ally or your worst enemy. However, this article is not about some online reputation-management plan or system. It is about business policies and procedures that can aid in minimizing negative exposure to your online reputation.
Before the Internet, detail shops and automotive repair businesses in general had a very bad reputation for ripping people off. Too many unscrupulous businesses used their knowledge and skills to “bamboozle” unsuspecting customers into work that the vehicle really did not need. While these things unfortunately still happen, today’s motorists have more information than ever available at their fingertips to educate themselves before and even after getting service work done to their vehicle. Our customers today are more informed, or at least, “they know what they don’t know.” This means they ask many questions and do not simply say “okay” when a business tells them what their vehicle needs.
In my relative’s case, he was told the vehicle’s paint needed to be wet-sanded to remove the heavy scratches, then buffed twice, polished, and finally waxed. How do customers know if they really need the work? Is the amount being quoted reasonable or not? And if they say okay, how do they know what was actually done?
Let us start with the first question: “How do I know I really need the work?” In many ways, this is actually the hardest to answer unless customers have the technical ability themselves. This issue, like most in our business, centers on trust.
Back in the “old days,” you could simply ask friends and relatives in the neighborhood to find a trustworthy service provider. Today there is much more help. Sites on the Internet like Yelp are specifically set up for people to recommend or complain about most any business. Think what you like about them, they are here to stay and the public thinks they are accurate. If you run a detail business that is too busy and ignore these sites because you feel “they are nothing but complainers” or “site management manipulates the results,” you are only kidding yourself. They represent a much greater cross section of people and their opinions. There are many vehicle-specific sites, such as RepairPal, which are very popular with today’s “suspicious” motorist. RepairPal is not affiliated with any car businesses and it provides much of the information we are discussing. Do not forget Facebook and Twitter. For those who have large groups of local friends, you would be surprised how this kind of viral recommendation seeking gets results.
Bottom line: your business policies and procedures, your technical training, and your pay plans need to be designed with the customer, integrity, and transparency in mind. Start by not getting a poor reputation on these sites to begin with. That is stating the obvious, but starting with a good reputation is far easier than fixing a bad one. Whatever you do, resist the temptation to engage people on these sites when negative comments are given. It never ends well.
The second question was: “How do customers know that the amount quoted is reasonable or not?” It is not as if they can easily pull their vehicle out of your shop and start shopping around for the best price. Again, trust comes into play here.
You need to be aware of detail-service pricing in your area. You need to know if your pricing is competitive, if your detail pricing is consistent. This is where menu pricing can be important. It gives you the opportunity to evaluate the pricing on all detail services and, more importantly, assures that the price is consistent.
Next: “How does the customer know the work requested was actually done?” There is no Internet site that will help with this one. While not absolute, the answer is pretty simple. As a matter of policy, always review exactly what you are going to do and how you will do it. Going “through the motions” at least gives the customer confidence that you know what you are doing.
You may ask: “Do they really understand? They don’t know what they’re looking at.” That is not the point. Reviewing the process tells the customer you run a transparent operation. Remember the objective is transparency. You need to make a point of “selling” this to the customer, both at write-up and at delivery. Few customers will actually know. However, they think they know due to your transparency.
All of this may seem painfully obvious, but it is surprising how often we see operators fail to take these simple steps. When customers bring their vehicle in for a detail service, try to give them a written estimate of how much it will cost for the services described and always get customer authorization for any additional work (paint chip repairs, body side molding, etc.). If you call the customer to get authorization for additional work, write down the work authorized, who authorized it, and the amount authorized. Many states mandate this by law. If you are in a state that does not, do it anyway. If you want to guarantee being on an Internet site with negative reviews, surprise a customer with a substantial charge when they pay. The amount of the bill when they pay should never come as a surprise.
Trust is what all of this relates to.
As we all know, trust is earned and today’s customers have many verification tools. The old saying from President Reagan, “trust but verify,” has never been truer. Your ability to grow your detail business today hinges on trust, integrity, transparency, and a clean online reputation.
Oh, and after checking with me, it turned out that my relative did, indeed, have a trustworthy detailer and was paying a fair price. Now, if he details his vehicle on a regular basis, maybe his future detail service costs will not be quite so high.
Bud Abraham is a 40-plus-year veteran in the car wash and detailing industries as a manufacturer, distributor, operator, and consultant. He was a founding member of both the Professional Detailing Association and the current International Detailing Association and their first executive director. He conducts seminars on detailing at industry events and consults worldwide.