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An Industry Perspective: Increase your carwash revenues - Part One

Once an operator decides to improve their wash's financial performance, their mindset and activities must then be more concerned with building a larger and more profitable customer base.

June 05, 2012
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Why is it so difficult to increase the wash counts at your carwash? How difficult can it be, really, to wash 40 or more cars each day at your c-store? Is marketing your carwash as difficult as throwing a nasty curve ball? As challenging as solving a high school math problem, or doing your taxes? As uncertain as hiring and training a top employee?

In a word, "yes!"

Skill, dedication and intuition are needed

Not surprisingly, many operators, I have learned, are regularly fooled and frustrated by what at first glance would seem to be a relatively easy task.

But do not kid yourself. Marketing your carwash successfully in today's economy is a much different task, and a more difficult one, than what it was only a few years ago.

In fact, being successful as a carwash operator and marketer today requires an equal measure of learned skill, focused dedication, and personal intuition.

In some situations, however, these distinct and admirable traits are not always found in great supply among successful entrepreneurs.

But in most cases, owners simply are overwhelmed with so many different and seemingly more important challenges, that the mundane but necessary day-to-day tasks of planning and implementing a carwash marketing program simply fall through the cracks.

What is a busy but determined in-bay operator to do?

Begin with the end in mind

To start, ask yourself this one thought-provoking question: "What one activity, if I did it consistently and in an excellent fashion, would have the greatest impact upon my carwash sales?"

Assume for a moment, that mechanically, your wash works impeccably, because you (and your service provider) have kept it in peak operating condition.

As an operator, you are fully committed to 98 percent uptime, to serve your customers.

Assume too, that you use only the best detergents, waxes and drying agents, and that your customers universally are pleased with the exceptional wash quality which your wash consistently produces.

As an operator, you take great pride in knowing your customers are never disappointed with the wash quality they receive.

Your employees are well trained, too. They don't overlook the obvious, small things which need to be checked and completed each day. For instance, they pick up the irritating trash in the carwash bay on every shift.

Yet your carwash never exceeds 70 percent of its revenue capacity.

Again, what is an operator who has invested $120,000 in a carwash system to do?

Today's market is not "normal"

The frustration which operators feel results from the troubling and unmistakable fact that the financial goal posts today have moved.

When many c-store operators purchased and installed their touch-free or friction washes a decade or so ago, they believed this proven "profit center" would contribute significantly to their bottom line.

Motorists needed to wash their cars, certainly, and why not do so when they were getting gas? Convenience, wash quality and throughput were the exciting buzz words of the day!

I can remember, in fact, when carwashing was touted as a "recession-proof" business! "Build it and they will come," assured many equipment suppliers.

As many operators have learned, however, they can master the basics of operating a model carwash, yet at the end of the month, not be able to report a profit.

Yikes! What happened?

Your customers merit greater focus

Quite simply, the goal posts have moved!

Actually, it is not that the playing field has really shifted, it is that your customers have changed, significantly, in ways that negatively impact your carwash revenues.

Specifically, consumers today have developed, not surprisingly, new shopping habits and patterns.

The inevitable result is predictable; a disappointing decline in sales.

If you need a few comforting words to buffer this upsetting development, know that all other retail businesses in your market are in this same, wretched predicament.

In this "not normal" economy, then, you must focus intensely now on how you can better identify, cultivate, motivate and then fabulously reward your customers!

Be a pitcher, a problem solver and a trainer

C'mon, what is this? This is a unique and interesting mix of different people; let me explain how their character traits will help you increase your carwash revenues.

As you will see, each of these three people has a special skill set which, when applied properly, will help you "break the carwash code," and capture more customers.

Pitchers, you see, are very structured, and highly detail-oriented people. Also, they know they must make constant adjustments to achieve a specific result, in this case, to throw strikes.

Problem-solvers have a special and useful skill too. They are extremely dedicated to finding one correct answer to a challenging problem. In some cases, they may seem to be not very imaginative people, but problem-solvers are very, very task-oriented.

That one trait alone is very valuable in crafting a successful marketing program.

People who are highly skilled as trainers complete this ideal profile of a successful carwash operator. Trainers frequently use their intuition, or "gut feeling," to make business decisions.

This is an incredibly useful trait, too. Planning an uncertain marketing program can be like working with a new hire; no one can be sure how a new hire will work out until he/she has been on the job for a few months.

Also, trainers know they must continually upgrade the people they work with; even the best hires fall occasionally into some "bad habits" with the passing of time.

But how does a carwash owner today blend these diverse skills together to develop a top-performing carwash during a recovering economy?

Be a determined creator and implementer.

Like a 20-game winning pitcher must do, you too must be fully prepared each day for every opportunity. Never miss a chance to let your wash perform at the highest level.

Also, just as all-star pitchers follow a precise game-day routine, you too must develop and implement a daily "check list" to be sure your customers will receive only the best wash every time.

The best pitchers also know their only task is to throw strikes, and to give their team a chance to win each game. They may have only a very small margin of error.

As a carwash operator, your margin for error is very small too. You may have only one chance to impress an important new customer with a memorable wash experience.

Six in-bay carwash promotions you can easily create and implement tomorrow

Finally, operators must prepare mentally for adversity. Recognize that not every day is going to be a stellar one for washing cars; don't let a temporary setback throw you off what is otherwise a very solid game plan.

Here, your discipline and skill-set as a problem-solver must emerge.

If you were a good student in math, there is no reason why you cannot create a detailed, thoughtful and comprehensive marketing plan. The thinking processes are alike, an intense and compelling desire to produce a correct answer or a final product that will stand alone and be proven correct.

This single-minded focus actually will separate you from average carwashers.

Creating a successful marketing plan, as you realize now, takes a lot of creative thought and focused effort.

In fact, it might be helpful to think of creating your carwash marketing plan as a "weekend" homework assignment, which might best be broken down into three different segments. An answer which might seem correct on Friday, could be adjusted on Saturday, and then, on Sunday, "fine-tuned" to come up with the best or most complete answer.

But ultimately, like an experienced and mindful trainer, you have to know when and how to let this evolving project — your new marketing plan — prove its worth.

This final step may be the hardest part of the marketing planning process.

Here, your own human intuition becomes paramount. Many "best in class" operators can "feel" when a new hire will perform his/her tasks comfortably.

And this "gut feeling" may be true with a new marketing plan.

An effective marketing plan, in many cases, will just "feel right" when you have done the work carefully and completely.

Some things just "feel right" when you have worked on a detailed marketing plan. For example, it certainly "feels right" to offer a complimentary wash to all your c-store customers on their birthdays.

It is at this point, when the thoughtful and detailed effort and hard work finally will pay off handsomely for the most determined and purposeful operators.

Is it worth the effort?

Beleaguered operators who consider and pursue this inspired and exciting new course of action have a right to expect a worthwhile return on their investment.

When I ask operators what an extra $30,000 this year in carwash revenues would mean to their business, however, they are suddenly taken aback. The idea of making more money is attractive to them, to be sure.

But the serious thought that they could indeed capture more carwash customers has somehow eluded them.

Regrettably, most operators know what to do, but just don't know how to do it. No one, in truth, has yet provided a reliable or detailed "road map" or a proven path to help them build a larger customer base.

Though not an actual road map, I have developed a useful tool which allows interested operators to see and seek a more promising path. (See Sidebar, comparing the customer product mix at two different, hypothetical in-bay washes. In Part Two next month, you will learn how to build a larger customer base by pursuing a two-pronged marketing strategy.)

But left to their own devices, many well-meaning operators simply allow their cherished carwash profit centers to deteriorate, slowly but inevitably, as their once-loyal customers today find other, better uses of their discretionary income.

From good to great

Businesses in other low-growth industries face a daunting challenge: How can owners gain the maximum financial benefit from their investment, when there is such little product differentiation, and cash-strapped consumers are putting off so many purchases?

Experienced operators agree, neither the manufacturer's branded product, nor the type of wash (touch-free or friction) is the most important differentiator for you to create.

What merits your closest attention, as noted industry veteran Bud Abraham correctly emphasizes to his many readers and customers, is the exceptional quality of service which you provide each day at your wash.

In-Bay Customer Product Mixes

In truth, as an operator, you can do everything remarkably well to identify, cultivate, and motivate your potential customers, but if at the end of the wash process, your customer does not enjoy a "memorable experience," and he does not leave your site with a brilliantly clean, dry and shiny car, you may have sadly missed a valuable opportunity to increase your customer base.

In this sometimes lengthy customer acquisition cycle, you have ultimately failed to reward your customers with a superior product at the critical point of customer contact. Not surprisingly, this one shortcoming can prove fatal if it is not corrected.

At the end of the day, however, resilient carwash owners should be encouraged by the insightful observation made by famed business writer Jim Collins. "You absolutely do not need to be in a great industry to produce sustained great results," says Collins.

"No matter how bad the industry, every good-to-great company figured out how to produce truly superior economic returns."

In this exclusive Professional Carwashing & Detailing series covering the in-bay market, Perry next month finally gets to the nuts and bolts of the burning question: How do I increase my carwash revenues?

Mike Perry has more than 30 years' experience in retail marketing and in business-to-business sales. He can be reached at 770-330-2490, or at

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