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Business Operations

Confessions of a carwash manager

October 11, 2010
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It seems to me that not many people ever plan to work in the carwash industry. I’m sure there aren’t many kids playing Life and wishing that they could trade their “Doctor” card in for “Carwash manager,” or many college students trying to figure out which major will help them find a way to get bugs off of their truck. Rather, carwashes seem to be something that people stumble into. Or at least it was that way for me.

I got hired to work at Prime Shine Express Car Wash during the summer between my first and second year of college. I was working nights at a local pizza place, but the pay was abysmal and I was in desperate need of some extra income, so I went around from store to store and filled out dozens of applications, resolving that I would work for the first business that would hire me. It just so happened that business was Prime Shine.

First is the worst
My first day was a sizzling August afternoon. Modesto, the city I call home, is located in the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley; a large, flat expanse of land between the Coastal Mountains and the mighty Sierras that has a unique ability to trap in heat, often making summer temperatures linger in the triple digits for days or weeks at a time. I was positioned on the passenger side of the vehicle, which involved nothing but scrubbing bugs all day long. The sun was baking against my skin, sweat dripped down my face, and the muscles in my arms quickly began to turn to jelly. In short, it was nothing less than the most miserable day of my life. I clocked off that day thinking I would quit and find a job that came with air conditioning.

Obviously, I didn’t quit. Not only did I stick with it, but I actually flourished in the company. It’s now four years later, and I am a Site Manager for the company’s Oakdale location fifteen miles east of Modesto, an active participant in the company’s marketing department, and one of the managers in charge of our Career Day hiring events. Furthermore, I can actually say that I enjoy my job.

First impressions
Looking back, I can see that much of the negative attitude I had on my first day came not from the ridiculous heat, but from the preconceived notions about carwashing that I had brought with me. Most of the carwashes I had seen, both in my hometown and on travels, were — to put it nicely — trashy. They inhabited bland, decrepit brick buildings, and the employees all looked and acted like they had just gotten out of jail. On the flip side, the other carwashes I’d seen were gas station carwashes, which were machine-operated and didn’t even have any employees. The assumption, of course, is that carwashes don’t necessarily need employees, but when they do, they go for the bottom of the barrel. Carwashing, in my eyes, was a small step above fast food, and I immediately went in with the idea that I was better than the job I had accepted.

I’ve learned a lot since then. While many of the above stereotypes may be true for some carwashes, they are not true for all. In fact, for carwashes that strive to present a professional and respectable ambience as well as deliver an excellent product, getting customers — and perhaps more importantly, potential employees — to overcome this negative image is a big challenge.

Step one: Educate potential employees
In particular, there are two things I wish I had known before I reluctantly clocked in for my first day of work:

First, that carwashing is a well-established, progressive industry. This is probably obvious to everyone thumbing through this publication, but to many on the outside, including myself at one time, this isn’t as clearly established. We have to remember that the average motorist sees the fundraiser carwash for the local high school marching band as our competition, and if a couple of kids with a hose and a bucket could do a good enough job, why should they expect us to be any more advanced?

I learned very quickly that this was not the case. Through simply working and learning about our own system, as well as meeting and getting to know other carwash owners and employees, chemical sales representatives, vendors, and industry professionals, that carwashes are always evolving and becoming better. Modern carwash equipment is designed to work efficiently in order to maximize the desired cleanliness while taking into account product use and vehicle safety, use chemicals that are constantly becoming more effective and operate in buildings that are more technological, resourceful, and aesthetically pleasing.

Furthermore, in addition to becoming much better at cleaning cars, the carwash industry is constantly cited for being one of the most environmentally-friendly industries out there. This is a far cry from the perception that carwashes are a simple bucket-brush-and-hose kind of operation.

Secondly, that carwashing is a customer service oriented business. Once again, this may seem obvious, but the average carwash customer doesn’t associate “good customer service with a carwash.” I interview tons of potential employees every year with zero customer service experience who think that they’re qualified “because it’s just a carwash,” while at the same time, our company consistently gets feedback that customers are blown away by the quality of customer service they receive from a carwash! It goes to show that to many people, these two ideas are mutually exclusive.

Having had plenty of experience in customer service, this was an aspect of the job that I took to pretty quickly. With Prime Shine’s emphasis on providing the same quality service people would expect from a restaurant or a retail store, I began to see how this simple factor greatly changed people’s perception about carwashes and enhanced their overall experience. In a sense, it raised the bar for the industry, making customers realize that while their car could get cleaned anywhere, they come to us is for the experience. To do this day, my favorite part of the job is greeting customers I’ve grown to know by name with a handshake and a smile. They brighten my day, and I’m sure I do the same to theirs.

Don’t lose potential employees through ignorance
Like I stated earlier, I wish I had known these things earlier. I would have gone to work with a more upbeat attitude from the start, and I would have been proud to work in this industry, as I am now. However, while these ideas are characteristic of many carwashes all over the world, they are not well advertised, and the businesses suffer because of it.

We lose so many potential employees every year because they see carwashing as a waste of their skills and experience, and we lose many customers because they think it’s no different than what they can do at home. Prime Shine is trying many creative ways to deal with this problem, as are plenty of other carwashes, and while it is working to transform the perception of the industry, it is often a slow, steady battle that is won one person at a time. I wish I had been won over a little sooner, that way I could have willingly made my way into this job instead of stumbling into it.


In addition to being a manager at Prime Shine Express Car Wash (www.primeshine.com), Matthew Andrews is a freelance journalist and copywriter who writes on a wide range of topics. For more information, please visit him at www.matthewandrewswords.com.