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Software solutions for hard problems

October 11, 2010
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WANTED: Cashier/manager/sales specialist for busy carwash business. Must have marketing savvy, be skilled in theft prevention, and be capable of tracking and analyzing labor and sales data for all operational hours. Needed to work Monday through Sunday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. No college degree required, but will expect help in improving efficiencies and profits as warranted. Pay: Negotiable Sick/vacation hours: None.

Years ago, carwash operators had to be this employee. No one else was willing to work those hours for low (or even high) wages, and perhaps even more importantly, no one else could be trusted with some of the more important tasks such as theft prevention. Operators were expected to be jacks of all trades; from equipment repair to management and marketing. It was nearly impossible to excel in all areas, and yet, a successful carwash business depended on it.

Recognizing the pressures of operating a business in today’s fast-paced world, manufacturers started to create software programs which could manage certain portions of the business. They began with the basics: Tracking sales and labor data and managing equipment break-down reports. Soon these software programs began to reach into areas that previously relied on a lot of guesswork by the operator. From marketing tactics to theft prevention, management software now addresses nearly all of the operational needs of a busy carwash.

So what’s the problem? Although many operators now have these jack-of-all-trades solutions at their fingertips, few realize the potential of their programs or are knowledgeable about how to use them. Recognizing this gap between capability and ability, Professional Carwashing & Detailing tracked down the manufacturers of several programs that are made for the carwash industry and discovered how carwash operators can put them to better use.

WANTED: The perfect system
Your first step in choosing a software management system will be in identifying the features you require, and the features the system has, according to Jayne Hanlon of DRB Systems, a company that specializes in computer solutions for the carwash and quick lube industry.

Fred Grauer, a full-service carwash operator and an executive vice president with Micrologic Associates, a developer of professional software for carwashes, agreed with Hanlon, adding that most operators underestimate the importance of evaluating their goals and needs before the purchase.

“Today’s systems and software are powerful, comprehensive and fast,” Grauer explained. “It is incredible what a modern system can provide; do you need a race car or will a basic system do the trick?”

Grauer said operators should make a checklist of all the items that a management system would improve. Consider getting input from your manager(s), partner(s), bookkeeper and accountant, he added, as well as visiting other operators to see how they use the technology.

Then the operator should take the next step and look not only at what a software system does, but also how efficiently, reliably and securely it performs these jobs, Hanlon stated. “A software system should minimize the level of human intervention in the processes it’s performing,” she explained.

According to Hanlon, by removing the employees from the equation, your software system will reduce risk of error, improve performance quality and tighten your level of control. She added that operators should ensure their system is able to automate the entire transaction.

“For example, it’s good if a software system has a loyalty feature that lets you reward customers by giving them a frequency discount,” she explained. “However, if the software system you’re looking at doesn’t apply this discount automatically and you have to rely on employees to do this by entering in a code or making a keystroke, you run the risk of an error or fraud taking place, which reduces your level of control and makes your promotion less reliable for customers.”

Integration and multi-site capabilities
Operators should also consider the level of integration the software program provides, Hanlon said, since this makes it more secure and efficient. “Having your cash register system integrated with your tunnel controller, self-pay stations, quick lube and the ecommerce section of your website, ensures the smooth flow of information throughout your business, which is essential to maintaining tight control,” she explained.

Multi-site operators will want to be particularly cautious of this feature, as the software system should be able to share information between sites. Hanlon said this is especially essential if the operator wants to be able to offer the same prepaid cards and monthly passes, or run the same promotions throughout a multi-site chain.

“You can’t control these things if the computer at your south side site doesn’t know pretty instantaneously that a club plan member or monthly pass holder made a purchase on your north side location,” Hanlon explained.

Brian Bath, vice president of sales at Innovative Control Systems, Inc., said his company has addressed these needs through WashNet, a structured query language (SQL) database system designed to monitor activity in real time providing multi-site connectivity.

As Bath explained, “Multiple locations replicate data to a hosted server, operators can access this data from a computer or their smart phone using WashNet mobile.”

No degree required
Jennifer Pedrizzetti is president of AutoPilot Carwash Control Systems, a manufacturer of controllers and point-of-sale and management systems that formerly did business as Compuwash before being purchased by Sonny’s Enterprises, Inc. in 2009. Pedrizzetti said operators should be cautious about choosing a system that is beyond their computer capabilities.

“I would emphasize purchasing a system that is easy to use and operate -- even for novice computer users,” Pedrizzetti explained. “You can get a sense of how difficult a system will be to use from the software demonstration. Don’t just ask to see how an item gets sold; find out how many steps it took to setup the item before it could be sold.”

According to Pedrizzetti, operators should request a copy of the user manuals and ask plenty of questions during the demonstration to learn how the system really works.

For operators who currently have a system that seems beyond their capabilities, or are considering a program that is a bit more complex, Pedrizetti advised them to be prepared to invest the time necessary to learn how to properly operate it, instead of settling for using only parts they understand.

“Even if you don’t have strong computer skills, don’t let this stop you from investing in a good software management system,” Pedrizzetti continued. “The benefits a system can provide to your facility are numerous and should not be overlooked.”

Get familiar with the system
Bath agreed, adding that becoming computer savvy is only part of the equation. “While basic computer skills are essential in most technically driven businesses today, the carwash operator must also have a basic knowledge of the equipment and hardware systems at his site,” Bath explained. “Unless the operator has sufficient familiarity with the fundamentals of hardware and software, he’s unlikely to be able to extract the full value of any of them.”

And in fact, many operators aren’t using their current systems to their fullest capabilities. Pedrizzetti said these operators, and those still shopping for a system, should ask for a software demonstration that covers all the types of transactions you will see at your wash.

“See how many steps it takes to sell a basic wash. Get copies of the reports and see if they have the information you need to run your business,” she advised. “If you are confused and overwhelmed by the initial software demonstration, it may not be the system for you.”

Bath said that in addition to a demonstration, operators should anticipate a minimum of two to three days of start-up training for software/management systems, depending on the products used at any site. Ongoing “refresher” training is also a must, Bath said, as new releases of software, and hardware upgrades occur.

Ensure there is a support structure
Finally, you have to look at the support behind the software product you’re considering, Hanlon said. Software systems are different than most other carwash products in the amount of support they require, she continued, and the way you use software will change as you become more experienced and as your business changes.

“The fact that software is so dynamic makes ongoing support essential,” Hanlon said. “So the level of support a company delivers should be high up on the list of things you consider.”

Grauer agreed, adding that operators must take responsibility for their own abilities. “Here is where due diligence is critical,” he explained. “Ask lots of questions, have demos, talk to other users and if possible have you and anyone else who will be working with the system submit to online as well as be present during installation and set up. Good system providers have 24/7 on call technicians so if you can program your phone you can learn to handle the basics.”

The basic features of the job
According to our experts, you’ll want a few basic features in your system. These include:

  • Ability to process fast transactions; and integrate with your POS
  • Inventory control;
  • Chemical/utility analysis;
  • Marketing capabilities such as gift and loyalty programs;
  • Security to prevent theft and audit control;
  • Sales tracking; and
  • Labor tracking.

Bath said operators should focus on two areas in particular when evaluating a system: Labor and cash management, as they are most important to the overall success of the location.

“Operators can’t control weather or the economy, but they do have the tools to manage their revenues and expenses through quality computer programs,” Bath said.

As Bath explained, cash control for the carwash industry generally means programming the controller from the point-of-sale (POS) system. “However, by itself, this does not provide adequate cash control,” he cautioned. Instead the operator should consider several important issues:

  • How vehicles are edited;
  • Whether cars or services can be manually added to the stack;
  • Filtering out accidental gate interruptions on the controller; and
  • Reporting exceptions.

“In reality, a comprehensive cash control system starts where most carwash industry POS systems end,” he stated. “Your software should reconcile the cash register to cash and to tunnel activity. This ensures that you are getting paid for all of the services you are providing.” Bath said ICS has developed and patented technology which does just that.

The interview: Ask questions!
Pedrizzetti said operators should also consider the way the system will grow with their business. “If you own a full service wash and want to add an express exterior lane, you want a system that can handle it,” she explained.

Think about your expectations for marketing features, in particular any programs that make it easier for your customer to patronize the carwash, Pedrizzetti said. These include monthly wash programs, loyalty cards, and wash books that can be customized to your business.

“It’s also a good idea to check and see if your provider ‘locks’ you in to certain features or if you have choices,” Pedrizzetti said. “For example, if you want to process credit cards, can you choose your own provider or do you have to use a pre-selected company they have chosen for you?”

Grauer suggested some other questions the operator should ask himself before making a purchase:

  • Are upgrades to software included in the price?
  • What do I need to do to ensure I always have the latest version of the software?
  • If adding a new POS/ management system will it communicate with my existing controller?
  • Is the credit card reader integrated with the POS?
  • Can I use any merchant clearing house for credit cards?
  • Can I sell and accept gift cards without transaction fees?
  • Can you access your business remotely from any internet connection and check sales, labor, and or any other key metric?
  • Can you easily invoice house accounts from your POS?
  • Can you record and have an electronic copy of a customer signature for house and or unlimited customers?
  • If a multiple site owner can your system replicate customer files and share them among multiple sites?
  • Can your system handle and track multiple profit centers?

Minimizing labor requirements
Perhaps the most important function of your management software will be its ability to help you manage and control labor costs, our experts said, and you will want to carefully consider your carwash’s needs when evaluating a system.

Bath said labor management is the operator’s largest controllable expense. “Too much labor is very expensive, while too little labor can be a bottleneck to your sales,” he explained. “You need to be on top of this all the time and a good software program will help you establish standards for the optimum number of employees required for different levels of volume in each profit center. These levels can be monitored in real time to allow the manager to adjust as necessary.”

Pedrizzetti said that at a minimum, your system should be able to keep track of your employees and hours worked. This will help you analyze your costs.

Grauer said operators should look for systems that can help minimize hours, ensure maximum production, and produce the maximum revenue possible per employee. For example, Grauer said all Micrologic systems have the ability of reporting these statistics and most all operators establish labor goals and judge their management on their ability to meet these objectives. “Recently providers have added the ability of minimizing hour falsification by using recognition and/or biometric software for employ sign in and out,” Grauer said.

Tracking your staff
Continuing on that point, Pedrizzetti said salaried and hourly employees can be input into the system to help you identify areas of higher costs, such as overtime, and you should be able to use your system to have staff clock in and out, as well as to create timesheets and labor reports.

“Instant reporting, that can be accessed anytime, anywhere also help a wash to control their labor costs to determine times when you need to staff up or down to maximize your profitability,” Pedrizzetti explained.

A good software system will also help your employees to be more productive, Hanlon added, by identifying inefficiencies and reducing overtime.

“This is especially true when a system provides you with a constant picture of your labor picture in terms of vehicles and dollars per employee hour over a secure Internet connection so you can stay in touch with your carwash from anywhere,” Hanlon stated. “When you have constant access to this information, it’s much easier to identify emerging patterns and adjust your staffing levels accordingly.”

Today’s systems also allow operators more leeway in using self-pay terminals for transactions, as there is better control and management of these systems. The technology can also free employees from certain tasks so they can devote their time to more important jobs at the wash.

“So instead of having to complete transactions for every customer, clearing credit cards and making change, your employees at self-pay stations can focus on talking only to those customers who have questions, or on moving between your tunnel entrance and self-pay station, depending on where they are most needed,” Hanlon explained.

A good management program will also keep data on who’s not working, Bath said, “so you can decide who to call first when understaffed.” Look for a program that can track contact information, as well as help you see how many hours they’ve worked this week at a glance.

And finally, consider a program that helps you close your payroll period, Bath stated. “[Y]ou you should be able to export time clock data to ADP® and most major payroll services.”

Evaluating the needs of your carwash
According to Bath, each carwash business model has its own special features that promote unique services to the customers and operators will want to be mindful of this when choosing a system.

For example, Bath said express exterior operators will want to be able to take cash out of the employees’ hands. “So, the cash management program documents all transactions and provides the necessary reports for audit trail,” Bath explained.

Full-service carwashes will want to focus on customer tracking and promotions tools, he continued. Operators should look for the tools to offer special pricing options to reward loyal customers and increase wash frequency and loyalty.

Continuing down the line, flex-serve washes will utilize both express-exterior and full-service software programs, “but with the addition of a hand held device,” Bath said, that will be used as a pre-sell or point-of-sale device. Your system should be integrated with this device.

In-bay automatic operators should consider the use of radio frequency identification technology (RFID), as should express exterior operators, Bath said. RFID is a way to accept payment wirelessly.

“[This technology] is redefining the delivery of carwashing service,” Bath stated. “A fully functional customer loyalty club plan provides a guaranteed fixed revenue base for the operator, regardless of the weather, and customers’ credit cards are automatically billed on a monthly basis. It takes all the work out of the operator’s hands as the credit card processor handles all the transactions.”

Last, but not least, is the self-serve operator, who is often the forgotten segment in management software. According to Grauer, the increasing popularity of credit cards is making software more useful to self-serve operators, though.

“[I]t is becoming far easier to track basic sales and usage information” in the self-serve market, he said. “And as in the IBA the choice for accounting and other basic control of the site is done with off the shelf software in a laptop or desktop computer.”

Advancements in 2010
As the popularity of management systems has grown, so too has innovation and technological advancements. According to our experts, today’s systems have the best mix of functionality and form, although they differed on what they think is the most important advancement.

Grauer said he is impressed with biometric technology that allows operators to track employee ins and outs with the press of a finger. This advancement is saving operators time and money, he stated, and also ensuring a new level of accuracy in labor tracking.

For Pedrizzetti, the future is all about Software as a Service model (SaaS), a model of software deployment over the Internet. This allows a company like AutoPilot to provide a system that is up and running ‘out of the box,’ she said, and operators that choose SaaS software can access it on any Internet connection anywhere in the world.

“A wash can eliminate weeks of costly and time consuming training on site. Cashiers and staff are more easily trained on the system which helps reduce labor costs,” Pedrizzetti claimed. “This model also eliminates the need for extra servers and computer hardware. Data backup, recovery and updates are all handled automatically for the wash allowing the site to focus on washing cars, not taking care of computers.”

Hanlon said she believed operators could best benefit from technology that allows customers to complete their transactions at a self-pay station without even lowering their windows. These systems read a barcode on the customer’s windshield through wireless payment technology, Hanlon said.

“More recently, we’ve begun to see the emergence of monthly passes at those self-pay lanes as well as at attended positions,” Hanlon stated. “Advances in carwash software have made it easier to manage and control monthly pass programs. This has made it more practical for operators to sell monthly passes. The fact that software systems can renew pass accounts by automatically recharging customer credit cards every month is helping operators generate a steady cash flow.”

Bath agreed with Hanlon, adding that RFID technology is especially important now that carwashes face more competition, fewer days of good washing weather, and customers changing their spending habits.

“Operators are focused on seeking ways to keep their loyal customers while expanding their services,” Bath said. “The RFID technology is newest and most advanced feature that clearly is the wave of the future.”

“RFID tags are an improvement over barcodes due to their read / write capability,” Bath claimed. “Data stored on RFID tags can be changed, updated, and locked. The one thing that remains constant with customers however is that RFID technology is synonymous with speed and convenience.”

Another new development helping operator improve their businesses is the convergence of Internet technology and carwash computer systems, Hanlon said.

“A lot of our carwash operators are enthusiastic about selling their services online and having these sales entered directly from their website into their cash register system. This seamless interface makes selling on line much easier to control,” she explained.

Management software from DRB is also able to show operators the realtime performance of their businesses on their iPods, iPads or laptops, Hanlon said. “Technology has created an expectation in all of us that we should always be connected to the things that are important to us,” she admitted. “So it’s essential for a software company to offer operators a product that keeps them in constant touch with their carwashes.”

Into the future
For now, it doesn’t seem like there is much more you could ask out of your management system, but our experts agreed there is even better innovation on the way. For instance, Pedrizzetti said tomorrow’s systems will allow for a “deeper level of integration between the software management system and the tunnel equipment itself.”

“The ability to analyze and predict preventative maintenance, adjust equipment performance to operate more efficiently and automatically order supplies before they run out,” Pedrizzetti explained. “The ability to communicate with the wash remotely and in real time so a carwash operator can react quickly to changing circumstances.”

Hanlon added that systems in the future will help operators to push self-pay transactions and monthly pass programs.

“Americans are showing an increasing interest in automatically renewed monthly plans, whether it’s in their movie rentals or cell phone purchases,” Hanlon confirmed. “Aside from saving them money and time, these plans help consumers maintain a stable monthly budget for the things they want, like home entertainment, cell phone connections and clean cars.”

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