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Re-washes and difficult washing conditions

October 11, 2010
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Summary: This month, Professional Carwashing and Detailing® asked Bill Consolo, owner of Chief’s Auto Wash in Cleveland, OH, to answer questions from a PC&D reader about re-wash policies.

Question: Recently, I’ve had several customers ask me for a re-wash and I currently don’t have a policy in place. What is a typical rewash policy?

Bill Consolo: Whether you prep all, some or none of the vehicles you wash, inevitably we all have customer complaints and we all face extraordinary washing conditions brought about by Mother Nature. These conditions include things like ice, snow, heavy mud, tar, road striping paint, egg, tree sap, birds and bugs to name a few.

We also know (too well) how customers often times fail to understand that these conditions, the condition of their vehicle and the whatever its particular problems, cannot simply be overcome just by washing but require detailing instead.

Often it is these customers as well as ones who wash their vehicle once every 3-6 months whether it needs it or not (ha ha) that come back around to complain. The question then becomes how you handle their complaint and those like them.

Question: I’ve had vehicles covered with snow, ice, mud, bugs, tree sap and bird droppings. I know the wash won’t remove the majority of these issues. In this instance, what can I do to prevent customers from asking me for a re-wash?

BC: First, when we get vehicles with extraordinary conditions, we will pull out all the stops to address them. For snow and ice removal we use two, 1” hoses, a 15-HP prep gun station, and hogs hair brushes.

For mud, bugs, tree sap and bird droppings we use the high pressure prep guns for these specific areas, then the hogs hair brushes for the fronts and rear.

We also hand a flyer to customers explaining to them that their vehicle may possess one or more of the following conditions and that these may or may not be remedied by washing alone.

It also explains that we cannot guarantee the removal of all the snow and ice off their vehicle due to prevailing weather conditions, especially on the roofs of Minivans and SUVs.

Question: What are some definite “no-no’s” to avoid when a customer asks for a re-wash?

BC: There are four options for how you handle re-washes and customer complaints about quality.

The first choice is the myopic choice — no re-washes allowed. Essentially this involves arguing or debating the issue with customers; telling them they have to pay if they want to go through a second time, telling them, “What do you expect?” or, “It may be Christmas mister, but I don’t do miracles.” Using this approach will require you to find a replacement customer for the one you just lost.

The second option is more likely to win you repeat customers. If it’s not a busy day and you have the time, inspect the problem first hand with the customer.

If indeed you did miss something, then simply offer to re-wash the vehicle for free. If they do not have time, you can also give them a rain check or free wash card. But make it only good for five days. Otherwise, they’ll be coming back with it three months later and you’ll do this dance with them again.

If you know that a simple re-wash is not the solution to the complaint, then you have some options. First off, always greet the customer and exchange names. In this way you can lessen what can often be perceived as the adversarial nature of the upcoming discussion.

Next, inspect the vehicle. Only then can you explain to the customer what it is that didn’t come off their vehicle. Take this time to thoroughly explain why the problem areas simply won’t wash off.

Then explain what it will take to get it off. If the customer is still not satisfied with the explanation, you can offer to rewash if they wish to wait in line again.

Question: Why would I ask my customer to wait at the end of the line all over again? Why not put him at the beginning of the line?

BC: Good question. We believe the willingness to wait in line demonstrates the sincerity of the complaint. It is important here to resist the temptation to cut that customer to the front of the line in front of waiting customers.

First you need to get the permission of the next customer in line that has waited patiently and explain to them why you want to cut in front of them. Then they get to thinking that something is wrong with your wash.

This raises both their level of anxiety and causes them to look far more closely at their vehicle after it comes out then they ordinarily would have.

Again, the free wash card with the expiration may avoid many of those awkward situations.

Question: In all your experience, what have you found to be the premiere solution to the re-wash question?

BC: I’ll be honest. This one takes the most time, but is the one I like the best. Meet and greet the customer and inspect the problem(s). Then explain the problem to the customer as to why their nine year old, red, oxidized minivan won’t come clean or, why road tar is not water soluble.

Then say to the customer, “Let me show you what I’m talking about.” Retrieve a bottle of car cleaner and polish or mineral spirits that you have on hand, get an applicator pad, polishing cloth and/or towels and go back out to the vehicle.

Lathe the mineral spirits on a section of the tar, or polish the surface area the complaint centers around and let it dry. In a few minutes, wipe of the mineral spirits or polish and you’ll be able to show to the customer’s own eyes what you are talking about. Then direct them to the nearest detail shop.

I know it sounds like a lot to go through when perhaps a re-wash would have satisfied the customer (even if it would not have made a difference). However, you have taken their complaint seriously. You have educated them as to the nature of the problem and demonstrated how it could be fixed. You may also serve to make the person a far more loyal customer once they do get their vehicle detailed.

Going the extra step is not always a waste of time. If nothing else you’ve let the customer know that you take their satisfaction seriously and that alone may pay dividends in terms of word or mouth advertising which is always the best kind.

Question: Let’s say I have cars waiting in line, lots of cars, then somebody complains and wants a re-wash. I don’t have the time to do a fancy dance to please them, but I want to keep them as a customer and keep my lines moving. What can I do?

BC: Handling these same complaining customers on peak and semi-peak wash days is another story.

Let’s use your scenario: say an unhappy customer pulls back in to line, waits their turn and pulls up onto the conveyor asking for (okay — demanding) a re-wash with 30-40 cars directly behind him, what are you going to do? Get into an argument? Tell them no re-washes and try and back up the cars behind them and get them to back off the conveyor and leave, meanwhile having lost 4-5 cars in the process? Of course not.

You’re going to enter them on the re-wash sheet and just let it go. They were sincere enough to patiently wait in line again. Had they pulled off to the side and walked up to complain, you probably would have offered to rewash it again anyway, so all they did is save you the time and save them a few spaces in line. Anything else would be totally counterproductive and most likely alienate a customer.

The ones that roil me the most are those who pull onto the conveyor demanding a re-wash because when they were there two weeks ago, their car came out dirty. We tell them we are very disappointed to hear that and that we would have re-washed their car two weeks ago had we known, but cannot offer that now We can only re-wash their vehicle if we are told before they leave the premises.

After that, all bets are off. Most will pay again, then there are those few who refuse. Again, depending how busy you are and how much emotional energy you wish to spend, you can either let them go through with a warning that we have to be told of their dissatisfaction immediately to honor our clean car guarantee, or begin World War III. A great deal depends on how nice vs. how belligerent the customer is.

Question: In my area, we get some wicked snowfalls and low temperatures from mid-November to early March. We can wash all the salt off the cars, just not all the salt that’s in the cars. When the customer drives away, all of the salt-laden water leaks out of the door panels and mirror housings and moldings and streaks when on the car as it dries. There’s nothing I can do about it, is there?

BC: To those customers I try to explain this and tell them that the streaks are powder-like and can easily be wiped away, but only after they dry, with a slightly damp towel. If they still put up a fuss we normally let them through again but let them know it’s going to happen again.

Question: How do I handle damage claims?

BC: When customers come in during any given time of the year, particularly in the winter, their vehicle is filthy (the reason they came). It’s practically white and the last time they closely inspected their entire vehicle was months ago, if ever.

Now the vehicle comes out of the tunnel, clean and shiny. Now they see the ravages of winter with stone chips, small 1” long scratches here or there, waist high dents, etc. here it comes… immediately they assume the car wash is responsible.

Handling damage claims is entirely different. Only my partner and I adjudicate claims. If we are not on site, customers fill out a damage claim form which they get a copy of and we use it to follow up with them.

Question: It’s winter; a customer just had their car washed. They leave, only to return 15 minutes later complaining their car is dirty — and it’s my fault. What now?

BC: This is perhaps the most frustrating complaint of all. Just like your scenario, it typically happens after a snow storm. A customer comes in for a carwash when the roads are still wet. Then they have the audacity to come back and complain that their once again filthy car, the one they just drove out onto either wet, damp or puddle ridden streets came out of the car wash that way.

Well, I have to admit that this is where I tend I draw the line in the sand. First, I know darn well that their vehicle did not come out of the tunnel that way. Secondly, while I was born at night, it wasn’t last night. We simply inform them that we are not responsible for the streets not being totally dry and that if they wish to wash it again they have to pay again.

No rewash, unless of course they pull the old jump back into the conveyor waiting line on a busy day and demand a rewash. In that situation, of course I give in — but not without a warning about all complaints having to be lodged before they leave. Hey, I’d like to wash more cars. I’d just like to get paid for it too!

Question: I don’t want to find, train and pay for labor that I could otherwise do without at my stand-alone express exterior wash. Can I still address problems efficiently without an attendant?

BC: The idea that one can operate a tunnel like an in-bay only faster is I believe wrong-headed precisely because customers of a tunnel carwash expect a far better wash than when they go through an in-bay.

With all of the extra-ordinary conditions we all face from time to time and season to season, I cannot imagine not addressing those conditions and still having satisfied customers. As everyone knows, for every unhappy customer who complains there are nine who didn’t bother and won’t bother — to come back!

For the operator of a carwash that also has gas, a c-store, lube, etc, the carwash is part of the multi profit center site. But for a stand-alone express exterior carwash, there is nothing more important to your bottom line than keeping customers coming back.

Re-washes due to extra-ordinary washing conditions is an inevitable part of being in the carwash business. Some prefer no prepping or even no attendants with a policy of a rewash for anyone who complains. That’s fine if they bother to complain– if there is an attendant.

Others prefer addressing those conditions to make sure the job is done right the first time. When did the definition of customer service and satisfaction become, “We’ll give it a try and if it’s not right, tough or we’ll get it the second time — maybe?” Instead of, “We strive to do it right the first time.”

Personally, I am amazed at the operator or new investor who wants to wash a 1,000+ cars and take in $6-8,000 in a day but doesn’t want to pay a few hundred dollars in labor for 3-4 employees to increase customer satisfaction and make sure nothing goes wrong — which if your customers are anything like mine is also inevitable.

Problems like vehicles jumping rollers and vehicles bumping; a vehicle jumping the guide rail and running into equipment; someone lost a license plate or a car magnet; their power window won’t go back up; a damage claim; problems with a vending machine; change machine down; their power antenna won’t retract — they went through anyway and now its “broken”; snow and ice, mud, bugs, tree sap, and bird droppings, eggs, etc.

Question: Okay, so I need an attendant. How do I train one to do the job right?

BC: Good attendants are the key to a smooth running, high volume, express exterior as well as to the satisfaction and safety of your customers They are also your front line in handling customer complaints and damage claims.

Explain your policies for handling problems, complaints and damage claims to your attendants. Train them to listen to the customer, inspect the problem, evaluate the problem, inform the customer, re-wash it if required or otherwise address the problem.

Develop a complaint form for customers to fill out and return so that you can address the problem with the customer at a later time if you are not on site. Provide your attendants your business card to hand out to customers too.

In any event, when it comes to customer complaints handle it, handle it well, and keep your existing customers. If you do not take this approach, then don’t waste bother advertising for new ones.


Bill Consolo is the owner of Chief’s Auto Wash and Chief’s Manufacturing & Equipment Co. in Cleveland, OH. Consolo can be contacted at bconsolo@aol.com.