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October 11, 2010
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Reader question: How do I raise my price without hearing my customers grumble?

Let’s face it, as much as we may love the carwash business, when all is said and done it remains a business. We can streamline operations and cut back on labor, but we’re still going to be faced with cost increases — leaving us no choice but to raise our prices.

Anyone who has raised prices knows there will be some adverse reaction from customers. By anticipating this reaction we can minimize any negative impact, ensure a smoother transition and walk away happy.

Strategic planning
Our carwashes are located in the Chicago market. We have always timed our price increase to coincide with the start of the busiest time of year: December. In our area this is the snow season, which means salt on the roads and on the cars. In other areas it may be the bug season or the pollen season.

You should schedule your season whenever customers become desperate for a wash (usually your busiest time of year). This is when price becomes a secondary concern. There are lines at the low-volume, high-priced full service washes as long as those at the high-volume, low-priced exterior only washes.

During these seasons, customers are more concerned with speed and quality of service than cost. This provides an opportunity to “condition your customers.” They become used to paying the new price and do not find it objectionable when their need for a carwash is not as extreme.

That being said, there will still be at least one customer who complains about your new price. This is only natural since dealing with enough members of the public increases the likelihood that someone will find something to complain about.

No hidden surprises
One of my favorite price complaints is my regular customer who comes in May and claims that every time he comes in the price is higher. I tell him we raised the price six months ago, where has he been? I also tell him it’s been two years since our last increase. This usually takes the wind out of his sails.

I have seen some businesses attempt to justify increases and minimize complaints by posting signs explaining why a price increase was necessary. These signs usually refer to the higher costs of doing business; such as labor, utilities, rent, taxes, insurance, raw materials etc.

While you are certainly welcome to try this approach, I do not agree with it. Most consumers do not operate a business. They have no idea and no interest in what costs are involved to operate a business. Those who do operate businesses are well aware of your cost and price issues.

Instead, just as you would do with any other complaint, this issue will need to be addressed on an individual basis. However, as with various customer complaints, you will find that they will fall into several categories.

The Jokester: “Wow, with this price increase you must be making so much money you need to weigh it instead of count it.”
Professional Carwasher: “Yep, part of it went to purchase a bigger scale.”

The Cynic: “This seems to happen every month. Will you ever stop raising your prices?”
PC: “Absolutely, as soon as the utility companies, government, credit card companies and insurance agents stop raising theirs.”

The person who counts other people’s money: “What are you doing with all this extra money you’re making, anyhow?”
PC: “My spouse and kids figured it out for me.”

The person who thinks the ‘grass is always greener’: “Carwashing is such a great business, look at this line! With the prices you’re charging, you must have a lot of money. I should get into this business.”
PC:”Yes, I have lots of money, that is why I am here working only seven days a week. If you really want to get into this business, no problem. I’ll sell you this place for the three million dollars I have in it. When would you like to take over?”

The person who knows the perceived value: You charge $11 for a carwash, that’s a lot of money.
PC: “Really, did you ever get your suit dry cleaned? How much did you pay? $7.50? Now, how much did your suit cost? $250? That’s three percent of the cost. What is your car worth? $10,000? What did you pay for the wash? $11? That’s one-tenth of one percent. Now, who do you think has a more expensive facility: the dry cleaner or carwash? It’s a bargain.”

If all else fails and you do not want to hear any grumbling from customers concerning price increases, wear earplugs!

Earl Weiss is the owner/operator of four exterior carwashes in Chicago.

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