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Detail business culture

October 11, 2010
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Thinking about company culture makes me recall 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court was dealing with definitions of obscenity. One of the justices noted that obscenity was hard to define, but “I know it when I see it,” he said.

A business company culture is just as hard to define. To an employee, the culture of the business is the personality, the attitudes and the idiosyncrasies of the company. But, to an outsider like a customer, the culture will mean the difference between he/she buying from you or not.

You see examples of this when you travel. Say you stop at a fast-food joint in Portland, OR, and are amazed at the speed of service, level of cleanliness, enthusiasm of the crew, and other qualities that make your purchase of that same old burger just delightful.

But up the road in Seattle, you can find the same sign, same burger and same price — but a completely different feel for the place. Your experience is distasteful, radically different from that place in Portland. As a result, you make a mental note: “Portland is OK. Seattle: find another place to eat!”

So you see the culture of your business matters. Detailing and the quality of chemicals you use aren’t the bedrock foundation of your detail business; the company culture is.

Why should I care?
The basics of running a detail business are crucial to success — offering the right services, doing the job right the first time, having a good follow-up system and all the other things that make a detail business work. But once you have these under control, your company culture is the difference between a great business and one that is barely surviving or failing.

Have you thought about developing a company culture? Or have you allowed the culture to develop on its own?

A company culture will rear its own head. Let’s consider the negative side first: Is there a sales culture inside your detail business, or are walk-ins and telephone calls a painful distraction?

Are quality control inspections after the vehicle is completed done with care, not done at all, or inaccurate and careless? After all, the detailer will have to re-do it if it’s incorrect.

How about some positive examples: A smiling, involved employee can overcome mistakes in the detail with a positive attitude and a quick recovery. Employees involved and invigorated by their job will stay late or come in early to prep cars or do weekend jobs if the company culture recognizes and rewards effort and results.

New employees will learn faster and more effectively if the culture of your business suggests: “It’s not OK to be ignorant of what’s going on around here. You must participate in your own training. You should care about your company culture because it can earn or cost you money.”

How to define a business’ culture
First and foremost, a culture that’s allowed to define itself, without guidance from the owner, indicates a failure of leadership. When you fail to define the image you hope to achieve and portray to your customers, all the things you do are affected.

Allowing poor cultural attributes to fester is even worse. Nobody wants to be associated with a business that’s viewed as shoddy, dirty, untrustworthy or inefficient. But some are, and it happens right under the owner’s nose.

As the Supreme Court Justice said, “I know it when I see it.” Open your eyes to the telltale signs of a business culture that’s out of whack: high turnover, employees that drag themselves to work, poor profit performance, dirty buildings, bad phone skills, higher customer complaints, etc. You may not like what you see, but the first step to recovery is to use your eyes and your experience to recognize what’s around you.

Fixing a broken culture is hard and can’t be repaired in one day with a simple memo or chewing out your employees. A wise person once told me: “People will listen to what you say, but they really watch — and act on — what you do. When you lead by example, your people will imitate you — for better or worse. So watch what you do!” Truer words were never spoken, but it’s hard to change what you’ve been doing — but it can be done.

Realizing you have issues and resolving to do something about it is a good start. Then, if you build on these successes, day by day, a transformation can begin.

The 10 percent solution
A positive business culture is the foundation for success. The road to transforming your culture should not be lonely. Shorten the journey by involving others.

The industry we’ve chosen to make our own is, like it or not, dependent on teamwork — and teams are made up of people like you. You must involve many others, maybe everyone in your company. It might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but getting your people to help you, or at least not fight you, is key.

Remember, your employees listen to what you say but they really watch, and imitate, what you do. If you move toward change, and you’ve hired your team correctly, they’ll move with you.

The next step is to start talking about what your company is, and what it could or should be. Talking about the current condition of your company culture might make you uncomfortable, but your culture is your bedrock foundation.

Try a little exercise. Describe what you want your detail business to be, and how you want, your customers to view it. Does it differ from your reality? If so, you have a problem. The problem is probably based on performance; your performance, with rare exception, is based on people.

Your culture defines how your people handle their jobs. With a questionable culture, you get poor performance. Without a solid cultural foundation, your businesses’ growth and success will be limited. But the good news is that if you and your employees have a defined goal of what you want, and how to make it happen, good things will result.

Next, strive for the 10 percent solution. By this, I mean breaking your business down into little pieces and striving for modest, but measurable, gains in all you do. Say uncollected bills are at 2.5 percent of revenues. Try to drive it down by 10 percent, and celebrate when you do.

Volume per day is hovering around 10 cars per day. Try to get it to 11 — and celebrate when that achievement is accomplished. Are chemical costs $800 per month? What will it take to get to $720? And when you reach that goal, celebrate!

Every business can be broken down into small parts. Strive for, and achieve, incremental improvements in every part of your detail business and greater success will be yours.

Being on the road to greater success, no matter where you start from is exciting. Successes tend to come in bunches — and tend to build on themselves. Aside from the “feel good” that comes from greater success and meeting goals, it’s a general rule in business that with greater success comes greater profitability. That’s something that the detail business can use. And, if you can accomplish that goal while strengthening your bedrock foundation, what’s not to like about that?

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of DETAIL PLUS Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year member of the car-care industry.
He is also a member of the International Carwash Association (ICA) and Western Carwash Association (WCA) Board of Directors and can be contacted at