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Business Operations

Your carwash plugged in

October 11, 2010
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There’s a reason that express and flex-service models are the fastest growing segments in the industry today, according to Kevin Detrick, president of Innovative Control Systems, Inc. (ICS). These platforms use unattended POS (point-of-sale) devices to reduce labor costs, increase the customer’s sense of control over choices, and deliver a reliable and repeatable sales process. They’re also the most “plugged in,” according to surveys conducted by Professional Carwashing & Detailing, which show these businesses are more likely to have a website, accept credit cards and use RFID and wireless technology.

But you don’t have to be an express or flex-serve operator to take advantage of these new technologies. All operators are able to improve customer service, increase volumes and better track employee performance and costs by installing these software programs and equipment.

Loyalty and promotions
If you’re hoping to retain more customers, you need to offer a faster speed of service, a positive customer experience (every time!) and convenient hours of operations. As Detrick stated, all of these factors are made possible through the use of an automated cashier.

Speed is one of the most important factors when choosing a POS system. “Study after study has shown that one of the things that consumers want to avoid more than anything else when shopping is waiting in line,” explained Doreen Thorne, marketing manager for DRB Systems.

“When you can clear transactions faster with technology you’re offering consumers a very compelling reason to select your carwash,” she explained. As an example, she cited an operator who installed self-pay stations at three of his sites and saw volumes increase by about 20 percent, while a fourth location that didn’t get new self-pay stations grew at about half that pace.

“A well-designed POS and business management system also should deliver a wide range of promotional tools to both retain existing customers and attract new ones,” Detrick explained. Coupled with advanced customer tracking capabilities to understand buying habits, operators of any type can implement popular programs like:

  • Frequency discounts (on same car, or for multiple family vehicles);
  • Bonus points (work like airline frequent flyer miles);
  • Holidays, birthdays, and anniversary specials;
  • Cascading prices (price reductions on subsequent visits within preset time intervals);
  • Punch cards (buy 3 and get 1 free);
  • Charity events;
  • Time sensitive pricing;
  • Customer specific pricing; and
  • Club and book promotions.

Define goals and manage them
Jennifer Pedrezetti, president of Auto Pilot Carwash Control Systems, agreed with Detrick and Thorne, adding that many of these program capabilities are already built into your system. “Intelligent receipt printing, direct promotions, monthly clubs; these things are becoming more commonplace every day.”

She continued, “The net effect is that carwash operators now have the tools at their disposal to increase both the frequency of customer visits and the amount spent while getting a carwash.”

An additional benefit of today’s POS and management software is increased control of operational costs and quality at your wash. “The use of software can greatly enhance the capability to define goals and manage them,” Pedrezetti explained. These controls are even more important to multi-site and multi-profit operators who can use the software product to cross-market and unify management practices at all of their businesses.

Pedrezetti said today’s programs offer a method for pulling together information from all of your sites and profit centers in order to monitor your marketing efforts as well as give you summarized financial reports to let you know instantly how you compare to your goals. “I don’t know how you could possibly get as much control, or how you could get anywhere near the same marketing capabilities without help from a software solution,” Pedrezetti added.

RFID and wireless technologies
As POS and software capabilities have enhanced, so to have wireless technologies. For example, Gunnar Danielson, national sales manager for Integrated Services, Inc., said wireless handheld cashiers and RFID (radio frequency identification) technologies are able to deliver fast, accurate and personalized service during the transaction process, thereby improving the customer’s experience.

“Also, customer data sharing and web-based loyalty programs allow customers to use carwash locations based on convenience,” Danielson added. So, a customer who preferred your uptown location could continue to use it, while once in a while using a site downtown when they visit their hairdresser and run errands.

But the benefits extend beyond just improving the customer experience, according to Detrick. It’s also allowingcarwash business owners to steady their incomes through monthly wash “clubs” and programs which allow customers to pay each month and wash their cars as often as they like.

“The application of RFID technology in wash clubs is radically changing how customers view their carwash purchase: From a single, random purchase to a membership arrangement,” Detrick explained. The customer pays each month and is able to wash their car as often as they like, at the location they like and the time they like.

The monthly unlimited plan using RFID technology takes the purchase from a random decision to a membership agreement, Detrick pointed out. “It takes all the work out of the operator’s hands as the credit card processor handles all the transactions,” he said. “Carwashes nationwide have generally experienced declining car counts, due to inclement weather and/or economic downturn. However, washes that have a fully functional customer loyalty club plan are experiencing steady growth because they have a strong base of repeat customers that are locked into a monthly or annual club plan.”

RFID also comes back to speed, according to Thorne. “[RFID] doesn’t just save time for the customers that uses it, it also saves time for every other customer who visits the wash because the entire line is always moving faster,” she explained. DRB now has over 100,000 FastPass wireless acceptance tags out on the field and customers using the company’s monthly wash program have as many as 1,000 customers enrolled, Thorne said.

Remote management
Advancements in POS, management software and RFID technologies have also extended to remote management capabilities, according to Danielson, who explained that until now the phrase ‘remote management’ generally referred to receiving updates regarding car counts and sales statistics via cell phones and email.

“The latest technology is pushing remote management to include entire carwash operations,” Danielson said. He referred to remote reporting and pre-emptive alerts from tunnel controllers which continually update real-time tunnel conditions allowing operators to effectively troubleshoot and make informed managerial decisions regarding tunnel performance.

“With remote programming capabilities, operators can diagnose problems and effectively manage their entire carwash operations from an on-or offsite location,” Danielson said.

These remote management systems are also improving customer service beyond the monthly unlimited wash program and loyalty options, Danielson said. “Wireless handheld greeters allow operators to provide personalized service with greeting customers by name and offering services based on their purchase history,” he added. “When personal time is valued like it is in today’s society, providing quality service as well as saving time at the carwash leaves a lasting impression that brings customers back.”

These additional controls also allow the operator to hold employees accountable for their performances, stated Pedrizzetti. “By getting this data in real time it gives management and the employees a chance to react and adjust now, rather than just getting the results at the end of the day, or even worse the end of the week when nothing can be done about it,” she explained. “They now have much more control and have no reason to be surprised by the results.”

Your website is key
When selecting a site for your carwash you probably considered daily traffic counts, the demographics of the surrounding area, and the layout of traffic lights and intersections. You might have even envisioned how nearby businesses could complement and boost volumes at your wash. But did you consider how your business would access the information highway?

Your A-1 piece of property can’t do much with the latest POS systems and RFID loyalty programs unless you’re putting your carwash directly on the Informational Highway with, you guessed it, a website.

“An attractive website can be an effective tool for operators in promoting their carwash,” according to Detrick. And it’s a great way to sell your loyalty programs. Thorne said operators can sell monthly wash passes, prepaid cards/ticket books and even individual washes directly to consumers online, as well as offer coupon and discount opportunities.

“When you can buy a carwash from home online, have your transaction approved wirelessly without even having to stop and lower your window, and have your monthly passed renewed automatically by the computer system billing your credit card, the carwash buying process becomes pretty simple, fast and convenient,” Thorne explained.

Social networking
In addition to a website, your carwash needs to take advantage of at least one of the free social media sites available. Twitter, Facebook and MySpace offer your wash a way to collect customer comments and feedback, as well as encourage word-of-mouth advertising.

“All these comments can be tracked by the operator, giving him an edge on his competition as well as the ability to respond positively and quickly to a situation,” Detrick explained.

Ryan Carlson, project manager for WashCard Systems, said operators who jump on the social media bandwagon now will be pioneers in the field. Aside from passively taking feedback from customers, Carlson said operators can actively seek out comments and engage clients.

For example, Carlson cited Cable TV giant Comcast, who experimented with Twitter by having an employee use the site’s search function to find any Tweet that had the word “Comcast” in it.

“What he was looking for were people who had a poor experience, bad reception, technical issues, etc.,” Carlson explained. “The employee would contact these people directly through a Twitter ‘direct message’ and ask, ‘Hi, my name is Frank — I’m with Comcast, how can I help?’”

According to Carlson, this program was so successful that Frank now has an entire department of social-media customer service reps out on the Internet looking at Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, Friendfeed, and any other social media network. These staff persons look for dissatisfied customers and convert their bad experiences into good ones.

Carlson said carwash operators can use these websites in the same way. “I believe that carwash owners have the opportunity to not just appeal to their customers with promotions but use these social media tools to retain customers and prevent public relations nightmares and nip bad word-of-mouth in the butt.”

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