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How to train detail staff

July 30, 2008
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2006. If you have a topic idea or would like to submit an article to be featured in the Tech Tips section of Professional Detailing e-News, please e-mail Kate Carr.

One of the most challenging issues at a bustling detail shop is ensuring quality results are consistently delivered. An effective way of tackling this challenge is to train everyone in the shop to do the same thing.

Effective training starts with management’s decision to offer consistently excellent results to the customer. This is true for both retail operations and dealership shops.

The customer at the retail detail shop is the private vehicle owner. The in-house dealership detail center also has customers: the end users of the vehicle as well as the dealership itself.

If the cars aren’t clean, they won’t sell as fast or for as much, so the dealership, as a “customer,” is willing to pay the in-house detail shop to prepare the appearance of the vehicles.

Establishing a system

To perform these activities on a consistent basis, it is necessary to establish a system of detailing. In order to have a consistent system of detailing, there must also be a systematic approach to training. In essence, you are looking for a system of training that teaches the detailing system.

The first question to be answered is, “What is to be taught?” Answering this question requires a concerted effort by shop management. There is a several-step process management can take to help answer the question:

  • Determine the target customer and what they want. For example, a high-end detail shop has private vehicle owners who want their cars to look as new as possible.
  • Create detail packages that will cater best to these customers and their wants. Usually, the high-end customer will want a complete detail service of the interior and exterior of the vehicle.
  • Determine the service elements to be included in the package. A high-end interior detail would include a thorough vacuum, cleaning and conditioning of all vinyl and plastic panels, cleaning and conditioning of leather seats, hot water extraction of all mats, carpeting and fabric seating, deodorization as necessary and cleaning of all interior glass.
  • Establish a standard of excellence for each service element. For example, the “hot water extraction” step could have as it’s standard, “the mats and carpeting are clean, dry, and odor-free with no apparent spots or wicking.”
  • Create standard operating procedures to yield the excellence standard in the most efficient and effective manner. For example, cleaning carpets probably would entail pre-spraying with carpet cleaner and spot cleaners, scrubbing, extracting with a carpet extractor with 180-plus-degree water, wiping the carpet with a clean towel, drying in the sun or under an air mover, and light mist of odor neutralizing chemical. This standard operating procedure (SOP) is what needs to be taught. Additionally, the combination of the different SOPs and how they work, should also be part of the training.

Moreover, training should be more than simply a matter of “Do it this way.” The training should include background information on the vehicle surfaces, the purpose and “Why it works” of each chemical, the proper use and maintenance of each piece of equipment and the proper technique to yield the highest efficiency and effectiveness.

Who does the training?

Unfortunately, the most common training program involves the current technician teaching the new technician. With turnover, this cycle repeats endlessly, often resulting in a diminishing of quality with each new “teacher.”

It’s like that old campfire game where you sit in a circle with a bunch of people; one person whispers a phrase into the next person’s ear, who then whispers it to the next person, and so on until it comes back to the first person. Inevitably, the phrase or story has changed dramatically from the original.

A better proposal is if the lead or managing detailer trains each new technician who comes into the shop.

This brings up the issue of whether or not to hire “experienced” detail technicians. My experience, and that of many shop owners with whom I have spoken over the years, is that the “experienced” detail technician is not necessarily the best hire.

This person comes in with a set of notions, preferences and techniques learned elsewhere and which may not fit into your shop’s way of doing things. So you have to spend a lot of time helping the new hire “unlearn” old habits and learn your methods.

Instead, I recommend hiring someone who is energetic and ready to learn a new system. When people refer potential hires to me, my first question is:“Is he or she teachable?”

If you do hire a detailer who has worked elsewhere, make it clear that you expect him or her to learn and master your method for a period of time (e.g., one month), at which point you will entertain suggestions from the new hire about process improvement.

By far the best training is received from a recognized automotive detailing training outfit. There are several schools around the country which provide multi-day structured training. There are also individual detailing “experts” who can provide on-site training.

There are several advantages to bringing in an outside expert, especially for initial training.

  • The trainer can bring an objective, outside viewpoint to your facility.
  • Technicians may absorb more of the training because it is not just “the manager going on another rant about ‘procedure.’ ”
  • The trainer can provide hands-on demonstration, as well as supervision during technicians’ hands-on practice.
  • The trainer can help the operation with the multi-step process mentioned above to determine exactly what needs to be trained.

This last point brings up the importance of working with a company willing to customize training to fit your particular operation. This may require providing the training at your location, which allows the technicians to train in the actual environment in which they will be performing their new skills, using the same equipment and chemicals with which they have been trained.

On the other hand, training at a detail school may help keep everyone focused because they are at a dedicated facility without the normal distractions of “home.”

Both on-site and school training are highly valuable and potentially very effective. They are thus quite expensive.

This “expense” should really be seen as an investment. A good trainer will be able to help you not only with the best way to get the job done, but also with pricing, packaging, marketing and salesmanship techniques to help you recoup the cost of the training many times over in the months to come.

Nonetheless, if professional training is, for some reason, out of the question for your particular operation, consider purchasing a high-quality video training package that shows step-by-step how to perform a professional detail.

Such packages are valuable in that they can be reviewed at any time and used as initial training for new hires.

A never-ending process

Finally, training should not be thought of as a one-time event. It should, instead, be thought of as an ongoing process that begins with an initial, intensive training event.

I recommend a regular schedule of training refreshers. This might include an quarterly or annual one-day review of all standard operating procedures. It might also include weekly one-hour meetings with all detail staff to go over procedures and pinpointing and correcting problems which have occurred over the last week.

I also recommend involving the employees as much as possible in the development and perfection of your detailing procedures, since they are the ones who perform the procedures on a daily basis.

The potential benefits of training far outweigh any expense involved. These benefits include increased efficiency, which leads to lower costs, as well as better outcomes, which lead to happier customers.

Creating a training system to teach your detailing method can be time-consuming. The best bet may be to seek outside assistance in the establishment and management of your detail training effort.

Prentice St. Clair is the president of Detail in Progress, Inc., a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning firm offering consulting, training, and informational products. He can be reached at prentice@detailinprogress.com.