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Business Operations

Welcome to McCarwash, may I take your order?

March 08, 2011
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As a carwash operator, I’m sure you have often pondered ways to improve your wash in an effort to increase profits. Maybe you have considered upgrading equipment, adding services, improving traffic flow or extending business hours to grow your business.

As you consider your options, you might want to consider becoming the “McCarwash” in your area. No, I don’t mean selling burgers and fries at your site (although I have seen this work at some locations!), but rather I am referring to the distinct parallels between professional carwashing and the fast food industry.

Applying the fast food success formula
Customers select both fast food restaurants and carwashes for their convenient location, as well as for the ability of the business to provide a quality product or service at a competitive price point.

Consistent product quality, friendliness of staff and the proper delivery of service, as well as a clean and well-lit site all add value to a business and attract customers. As carwash operators, we should consider each of these areas critical to our success. If you think about it, these are the same things that the largest fast food chains use as key components of their success formula.

How can you take advantage of the fast food success formula at your business? Put the “carwash spin” on many of the processes used in the fast food industry and begin using them at your wash.

For example, in fast food restaurants, management performs thorough inspections of the grounds and dining room on a regular basis. Begin by walking your lot daily to make sure it is clean. Keep the landscape tidy and free of litter and cigarette butts. Clean up oil spills, empty the trash cans and check for pot holes.

Some other areas to regularly inspect:
• Every bay. Pay particular attention to anything that comes into direct contact with your customer, such as pay points, self serve bay equipment, vacuum hoses, etc.
• The walls and floors. Remember, these bays are the “dining room” of your carwash, and the customer’s perception is “a clean bay means a clean car.” Imagine looking for a table to sit down to eat at a fast food restaurant and finding all of them littered and soiled with the last customers’ messes. Ugh!
• The lighting. Just like in a restaurant, lighting creates “dining ambiance” at the carwash. Inspect the lighting regularly to ensure that everything is working properly.
If it appears lacking, consider upgrading what you have, or adding additional lighting. This will not only increase night time business activity, but also site security.
• All equipment used on a daily basis. Check for proper water pressure and fully functional, non-leaking application equipment in every self-serve bay. Then check for equipment functionality in the automatic bays.
• Pay points. Test each payment method for proper operation.

Choose your food carefully
Another critical aspect of your business is the proper choice and usage of chemicals, or the “food” that you serve to your customers. Start your inspection in the equipment room — the “kitchen” of your carwash.

Water quality is crucial to your product. Chemical performance and the most economical usage rely heavily on the proper conditioning of water. Check both water softness and TDS regularly. Remember that the activity level of your chemicals is much higher in a soft water environment. When using soft water instead of hard water, you will use less product to get your desired results. Water hardness test strips are inexpensive, quick and easy-to-use.

If you use heated water at your site, check for proper equipment operation and correct temperature settings. Around 110 degrees Farenheit is the ideal temperature. Use an inexpensive electronic TDS meter to test your spot free water. Note that vehicle spotting can occur with as little as 25 parts per million (ppm) and will become readily apparent at anything more than 50 ppm of total dissolved solids. A tip here is to change your spot free unit’s pre-filter regularly. These filters are inexpensive, and, by changing them often, you will greatly extend the life of the much more expensive filter membranes in your unit.

Test out your product
Once you have verified your water quality and the proper operation of all application devices, including all chemical lines, hydrominders, pumps, injectors, etc. in the equipment room, carry your inspection over to every point of application.

In fast food restaurants, managers sample menu items to duplicate the customer experience and ensure that the quality of the products sold to the customer meets or exceeds established standards. This process helps to ensure that customers consistently receive the value they expect, which plays a major role in securing repeat visits.

“Taste” your products by running test vehicles through all automatic and tunnel equipment and by testing all functions on every self serve bay meter. Don’t assume that because one bay functions properly, they all will. You will often find a bay that does not dispense the proper amount of a particular chemical, while the same function works fine in another bay. Don’t forget to “sample” peripheral equipment such as vacuums, shampooers, vending machines and bill changers for proper operation.

Consistency is everything
The consistent quality of products is a key to the fast food industry’s success. Employee training includes the application of condiments, such as ketchup, mustard and pickles, not only in the proper amounts, but also in a particular pattern on every burger. To maintain portion control, fast food restaurants use automatic dispensing equipment and proper container sizes and weigh many products.

Just like in the fast food industry, consistency is everything in professional carwashing. Giving the proper and consistent amount of “ketchup” and putting the “pickles in the right place” every time will keep your customers coming back for more. Monitor chemical application usages via flow testing (otherwise known as volumetrics) and regularly titrate the strengths of all cleaning solutions at each point of application to ensure optimum performance.

If you are not utilizing these tests at your site, I strongly urge you to contact your chemical provider and request that they perform them and review the results with you. A knowledgeable chemical representative is invaluable to your business and highly recommended.

Use the chemical manufacturer’s recommended application information as a starting point to set usages and discuss the settings with your chemical consultant. In most cases, published application data is a starting point, addressing wide cross sections of geographic areas, types of equipment and performance requirements and their associated costs. You can determine the settings which give you the best results by considering the individual conditions and cleaning requirements at your site and by factoring in your desired level of performance.

Scent is one of the most powerful human senses, one which evokes a strong emotional response. Restaurants offer pleasing aromas to their customers to increase their appetites and to increase the sales to satisfy them. Carwash operators can take advantage of pleasant scents, too.

Studies show that carwash sites that utilize pleasant fragrances in their chemicals, along with a strong visual display at the wash, offer a much more positive experience to their clientele and employees. This helps to promote a more pleasant and relaxed atmosphere at the wash.

Relaxed, happy customers spend more per visit than tense, hurried customers. As is common practice at many restaurants, you may also consider piping music into your bays. Just be careful in your selection and choose playlists and volumes that appeal to the largest cross section of your demographic.

Expand your menu
If you provide other “menu items,” such as car care products or detailing services, pay close attention to what your customers are buying, as opposed to what they aren’t. Just as fast food chains introduce new items and change or remove existing ones, you too should not be afraid to “refresh your menu” by offering new products or services and by improving or discontinuing unpopular ones.

Consider running “for a limited time only” promotions or “frequent diner” programs. These programs typically increase the traffic at fast food establishments and can do the same for you.

Also, at some fast food restaurants, an employee will occasionally walk through the dining rooms offering free samples of new or underperforming products in an effort to increase sales. Consider using this same approach at your wash to increase the sales of a targeted product or service and to encourage direct customer interaction.

I’m sure you have seen a “comments welcomed” box at a fast food outlet. One popular chain hangs a bell on the wall in the dining area and welcomes guests to “ring in and tell us how we are doing.” Managers study this invaluable feedback to determine how to better satisfy the needs of the customer. Food for thought!

Don’t forget to train your staff
You should also consider implementing an ongoing training program with your staff. On-the-job training for new staff is extremely important to achieve consistency. It is always important to cover the basics but don’t limit the training to “how to change a hose” type tasks.

Consider role playing exercises as part of your program. Start with you, the owner or manager, acting as the attendant, and your attendant as the customer, then reverse roles. You may be surprised what you learn by doing so.

To make sure that you are properly monitoring all aspects of your business in a timely fashion, utilize daily, weekly and monthly checklists like most fast food chains do. Immediately address any issues you discover.

If you don’t do so already, consider providing shirts and/or hats to your employees so customers can easily identify them. Consistency applies not only to the products and services you offer but also to the people that provide them. Having approachable staff members with a clean appearance and a consistently friendly and knowledgeable attitude will go a long way toward making your business “McAmazing!”

I’m sure by now you are seeing the potential of this concept and may already be thinking about other similarities between professional carwashing and the fast food industry. As carwash operators, we can use the fast food success formula to our best advantage. If we give our customers the “value meal” they expect every time they come to do business with us, why would they go anywhere else?

Steve Arnovick is the Rocky Mountain Regional Manager for Blendco Systems. Blendco manufactures a full line of detergents and waxes for the professional carwash industry. You can contact Blendco at: