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Handling dealership accounts

October 11, 2010
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Want a dealership account? Well, it’s up to you. The detailer must offer the dealer the best in quality, service and reliability if he expects to get and maintain these delicate, but essential accounts.

Providing services to car dealerships offers detail businesses numerous benefits, including consistent work and the chance to reach a large customer base. But detailers must realize that working with dealerships means constantly proving themselves. It also means handling the complications that can arise, some real and some perceived.

Quality work, quality pay
You must realize that today, dealer margins on new cars are declining and, as a result, more dealers are considering going in-house with their detailing to save money and to turn a profit by selling detailing services to the public.

Too many dealers distrust detail shops because they cannot depend upon them. However, if you show them you are consistently reliable and they can make money by using your service, they might give you the business to avoid the aggravation of operating an in-house department.

Detailers around the country report a definite change in the amount and type of business they get from dealers. Some indicate dealers bring vehicles only when the in-house shop gets jammed up. Most indicate they are not getting the gravy like the old days.

In spite of the growth in the retail segment of the detail industry, dealer work still accounts for nearly 60 percent of the business for many detail shops. And the dealers are still squeezing them on price. What else is new?

Get “used” to it
Because of large vehicle inventories at dealerships and increasing activity on the internet, today’s consumers are able to quickly find the perfect vehicle. This, in turn, has increased sales and the amount of trade-ins at dealerships, meaning a greater need for detail services.

These detail services need to be done quickly and correctly, the first time, in order to get the used car on the lot and sold. Keep in mind, once a dealer has a used car in their possession it begins to depreciate. They want to sell it quickly.

The detailer needs to prove to dealerships they will do a top-notch, professional detail job every time. They have to show them “consistency.”

Many dealers are trying to keep everything they can in-house. If they can make more money from the back of their dealership, they will.

What you have to do is convince them that dealing with you offers more flexibility, more product knowledge and the ability to structure the work so that both the dealership and you can make money.

It is up to you to get that message across to the dealerships. Do not adopt the forlorn attitude: “The dealers are trying to lowball me.”

What to do?
The most important step is to make a conscious effort to go after new dealer accounts rather than relying on them to come to you.

Consider hiring an outside salesperson to call on car dealers. Or do it yourself. Print up some brochures, put on some clean clothes, shave, get a haircut, shine your shoes and make personal business calls to the dealers.

You might be surprised at how much goodwill you can create in a five-minute, face-to-face meeting with the right person in the dealership.

The “right” person is key. Know whom to see to make your sales pitch.

Dealership accounts really come down to personal relationships and getting to know the business you are working for. You have to develop a level of trust.

Make sure the dealer knows you're going to do the right thing by him, and that he is going to do the right thing by you.

This relationship begins by putting a face with a name. Since every dealership operates a little bit differently, it pays to get acquainted with everybody from the salesperson on the showroom floor to the dealer principal (when possible).

Also, if the dealer sells detailing services, you need to find out what kind of relationship the dealership wants. Do they want to send customers to your shop, rather than run the jobs through the service department? This takes a possible headache out of their life, making customer satisfaction your concern.

Others may want to sell the detail service and have you perform it by picking the car up and returning it when done.

Live up to your word
When the dealer sends business your way, whether it's a referral or a sub-contracted retail job, the time has come to prove yourself. It goes without saying that the work has to be done right the first time if you expect the dealer to send you another job.

Beyond that, there's the question of service and responsiveness. The car dealer is injecting you into his relationship with his customer, so do anything you can to make it a positive experience.

If you want dealer work, you’ve got to work around your retail customers to take care of the dealer first. You have to go the extra mile for the dealer, including pick-up and delivery of vehicles. It's inconvenient, but you can tack an extra $10-$20 to the price.

If the dealership calls at 3 p.m. on a Friday and needs a car done, you have to do it. Service is the most important factor in this relationship. Remember, they are a customer, too.

About the green
What about pricing? You have to make a profit on the job. A lowball approach may get you more dealer business, but it will leave you with nothing in the bank to show for your effort. Volume does you no good unless volume allows you to detail the cars faster, and I don’t think that’s a reality.

Make sure the dealer understands what they’re getting for their money. You might be priced higher than other shops, but prove to them your shop does quality work, the first time, and you are reliable and will deliver when you say you will.

Also ask the dealer, "When it comes to price, is that all you consider or do you want reliable service? Do you count the fact that I'll be here to deal with any issues that come up later?"

Have the knowledge to keep jobs profitable for both you and the dealer. Make sure they realize they always make money doing business with you because you are efficient at what you do.

On retail jobs, be sure to let them make a good margin on your detail jobs.

In the end, offering service, reliability and a flawless detail is the best way to show dealerships that working with your shop is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a 37-year member of the car-care industry. He is also a member of the International Carwash Association Board of Directors and can be contacted at