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Ready, set, go!

January 05, 2012
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Now that a new year is here, it's time get off on the right footing and plot out a 12-month success plan. Boosting car counts and attracting more customers, more importantly loyal customers, are both achievable goals. And, even if you are happy with your numbers and can say you're consistently in the green, there is always room for improvement. So, let's kick off this new year with a goal to attract new patrons.

According to Steve Gaudreau, a carwash consultant with 20 years of experience and founder of Steve Gaudreau & Associates, LLC, there are three major factors that impact an operator's ability to increase customer visits or car counts at a carwash, and they include: Marketing, service delivery (perceived as well as actual), and the strength of the brand. We will not only address all three facets, but offer you the tools you need to succeed.

On your marks
Marketing encompasses everything that you do because every aspect of your business either attracts customers or repels them — it is rarely a neutral equation, according to Gaudreau. "However," he said, "marketing is mostly thought of in terms of advertising activities, and when it comes to increasing car counts, price promotions are the most commonly utilized focus for marketing activities." This price focus can begin with a low everyday base price, extend to offering discounts by means of direct mail couponing, Internet media services like Groupon or Living Social for example, website promotions, point of purchase bounce back offers, and continue on to traditional media like billboards, newspapers and broadcast media, he added. "The more spectacular the offer — like a $3 base price, for example, or a 50 percent off promotion — the more customers are attracted. The key is always to attract enough customers over and above your normal numbers so that there is enough profit left over to maintain the health of the business."

Anthony Analetto, president of SONNY'S The Car Wash Factory, also recommends using services such as Groupon and Living Social. "These promotions can deliver tremendous volume, fast, but at a steep discount, so make sure the numbers make sense. Also, don't overestimate the long-term value of these discount shoppers. A few may become loyal repeat customers, but many will simply jump to the next competitor who offers a steeper discount."

And, in terms of attracting through marketing, Analetto suggested some colorful and eye-catching moves. "When looking for affordable ways to bring in more customers, first look for ways to create action and motion that attract attention to your property," Analetto said. "Balloons, banners and outdoor signs are always an effective choice, but you can also try repositioning your staff to draw the attention of people driving by. Having several attendants sweeping the driveway from a visible, but safe, area can often increase your capture rate and costs nothing."

Get ready
Now it's time to do a little investigating and find out what it is you need to do first. And, a good way to start off the year right is to turn to one of your greatest resources: Your customers. Start by interviewing them, asking them how their experience was at your wash. Ask them through a social media forum, an online survey or give them comment cards with their receipts. You can also use a secret shopper service, or ask a friend to visit the carwash and give their honest opinion.

Also, try to step back and see the carwash through the eyes of the customer.

Russell Bell, director of corporate and marketing communications at Ryko Solutions Inc., a full-line manufacturer of vehicle wash systems and accessories, said that not listening to the voice of the customer is what could actually decrease wash counts. Bell listed the following top two reasons a customer chooses a carwash:

  • Is it clean? A clean bay equals a clean car.
  • Is it worth their hard-earned money? Make sure that each penny they are spending matches the service received.

The fundamental challenge in building volume for any service business is meeting and hopefully exceeding the customer's expectations for the delivery of that service, said Gaudreau. "The more people involved in delivering the service the greater the difficulty exists in satisfying customers. Also, a carwash is dealing with customer perceptions as well as the actual quality of the service. For example, a full-service carwash can produce a perfectly clean, dry, shiny car in 15 minutes flat (a very difficult accomplishment in itself in terms of actual quality of service), and if the service advisor is not professional or if no one properly sends off the customer at the exit end, the customer perception regarding the quality of the service is much lower. Creating an excellent service experience is the surest way to increase car counts and it is also very hard to do."

Get set
It's important to consistently size up your competition. Drive through their wash on a regular basis and see what you like and don't like. Also, take a look at their menu and consider making adjustments. According to Bell, the right menu pricing for the market is critical. And, he said, "If your top wash is over 60 percent of your sales, you may be underpriced." Also, he added, "Look at a $5 entry price to help combat express washes in your market."

Analetto said some of the latest trends involve express-exterior and flex-serve operators finding success by increasing the selling price of their top exterior wash package and using that to boost their dollar-per-car averages. "There have been some exciting success stories. I expect to see a growing number of equipment options for higher-end pay waxes and polishes applied online. I also expect to see more operators currently offering free-vacuums to explore adding other free extra-value services," he said.

A few of the extra-value services Analetto said to consider, if they're not already offered, include:

  • Bug-prep areas;
  • Mat machines;
  • Air-fresheners;
  • Glass cleaners; and
  • Towel exchanges.

"The jury is still out, but there is some evidence being reported of increased dollar-per-car-averages with increased free services provided," Analetto added.

Also, make sure your customers are fully aware of who you are and what you do. A brand, said Gaudreau, is the relationship that a customer has with a business. "Branding is more about how a person feels about a product, service or company than what it actually is. It is not what you say you are — it's what your customers say that you are. Because developing a brand is an imprecise science at best and requires considerable focus on understanding what customers really want, most businesses, including carwashes, never develop a real strong brand. However, make no mistake about it; a strong brand brings customers in. Take the golden arches down from a McDonald's and see how much their customer counts would drop. It is the toughest challenge by far to develop a successful brand and is the most enduring in terms of increasing customer visits."

And, go!
Also, for your carwash to operate at maximum capacity, make sure you're maintaining it properly and on a regular basis. This is the best way to cut down on downtime and keep the equipment running smoothly.

"It goes back to the saying, what gets measured, gets done,'" Analetto said. "Simply referring to the owner manuals and making a schedule of daily, weekly, and monthly tasks isn't enough. An effective preventive maintenance schedule has to be visible."

An ideal preventative maintenance schedule includes: Daily, weekly, monthly and annual and semi-annual checks. Analetto said he personally prefers using large dry erase calendars with areas for staff to sign-off when a task is completed. And that way, managers can also sign-off that they've confirmed the work was done. "Once everything is visible and transparent, it's a lot easier to make sure preventive maintenance gets done."

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