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The carwash industry has elements of retail, service and manufacturing involved in turning out the end product of a clean vehicle. Dealing with customers is like a retail business, managing employees is more like a service operation and keeping the place running smoothly with all of the equipment to take care of is very similar to running a manufacturing facility. Because of the basic nature of this complex business, a manager’s job is particularly challenging.
After working for over 20 years in this industry and being involved in the recruiting, initial training and ongoing development of managers at all levels, both new to the business and experienced, here are six major challenges that make a carwash manager’s job very difficult to accomplish. Lest you get a little depressed reading this, please know that I will give you some solutions for these issues at the end of this article.
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There is a very simple concept involved in this challenge that needs to be understood. When people’s natural behavior traits fit the job requirements, it is a lot easier for them to be successful at that job.
Most jobs do not have a clearly defined analysis of what it takes to be successful nor a way of figuring out if a person matches those requirements. So, what my overwhelming experience has been in recruiting or assessing managers is that most of them are not a match for the job. This makes recruiting new managers time consuming (have to talk to more people to find the ones that match) and makes working with existing managers more challenging. It is always difficult to do a job well when you are not suited for the work by your very nature.
Many managers who are not a natural fit at managing a carwash can be trained and managed to do the job. For example, our firm has worked with many managers who are not naturally great with equipment and over time these managers have become very skilled at preventive maintenance. Again, without training and ongoing development if someone isn’t a “natural” they are unlikely to be a successful match long term.
Assuming that a manager is a match for the nature of the work, one of the biggest problems they face is that the image of the carwash industry is not a positive one. Parents are not telling their kids that someday they hope they will work at a carwash (unless they own one!). This lack of a positive image makes it extremely difficult to attract and retain the best workers from the employment pool from which a carwash is drawing: i.e., the $8-$10 an hour group of entry level workers.
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Managers at most carwashes need some kind of support above the location level to attract potential candidates. Whether it is advertising, screening candidates, working with local schools or employment organizations, some kind of assistance is needed to generate potential employees. Unfortunately, most managers are stuck with talking to whoever comes in off the street. Although this is one viable method, it usually leads to the following dilemma carwash managers find themselves in.
As a manager when you do not believe that you can easily, or at all, replace an hourly employee, your ability to expect high performance from your people is severely limited. Why do so many minor workplace infractions that lead to poor performance get overlooked? Because what is really happening in that organization is that the employees are actually in control. They know it and the manager knows that he or she will have difficulty in replacing them and that’s why employees are allowed to slide until, eventually, the company slides out of business.
Working at a carwash is highly physical work. An employee is on his or her feet all day, moving around, lifting, bending and exerting themselves physically. They are outside when it is very cold and when it is very hot, and for at least half the year in most climates the weather is a challenge. Their breaks are often irregular. Cleaning and disposing of trash is one of the most frequent tasks of a carwash worker. This is a much harder job than most at comparable pay and, again, poses a recruiting challenge.
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The carwash business is affected greatly by the weather. Other weather related businesses like construction, for example, are not affected to the degree that a carwash is. A passing cloud that blocks the sun will cut the volume instantly at some washes. A negative weather forecast will affect volume even if the forecast for bad weather does not come true. The effect variability of demand based on weather has is that employee hours are impacted. A site can only be cleaned for so long and rainy day projects eventually get done. It is not easy to find employees that have enough flexibility in their lives, because many of those hours lost due to weather can be regained when the sun comes out again.
Pay for entry level workers at most carwashes is low. The pay itself is not as much of a problem as it is the physical work, variable hours and low image that makes the pay “not worth it” for many. It has always been hard to attract the best employees at a carwash because of the perception has been that the pay is low. Many carwashes with tips or incentives for selling extra services or gift books actually provide higher than perceived pay. Perception, however, is reality and any position at a carwash is seen as one of the very lowest paying jobs in most markets.
The combination of all of the above factors is why a carwash manager is one of the most challenging positions in front-line management in the U.S. The good news is that there are methods and strategies that can make this situation a lot more manageable. Here is how these issues can be addressed.
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This first key to success is by far the most important one. Because site managers affect the results of their wash, it is worth the effort to create a Job Model for that position and evaluate internal or external candidates to see if their behavior traits match the requirements of the job. When someone is a match for a job, they achieve more, are happier in their work and are actually less influenced negatively by family and friends in terms of industry image. When the job satisfaction of a successful manager is high, the likelihood of retaining that person is better.
Find employees who want to do the kind of work that you provide. Look for what they call in psychology, intrinsic motivators. What long term, successful carwash employees have told us are the reasons they have stayed are that they like being outdoors, working physically, being around cars, keeping things clean, having every day be a little different, etc. People perform better and stay longer if they enjoy the work. Looking for people who want this type of work has led to employers pursuing the next “great match.”
C. Immigrant Work Force
The group of employees who most want the type of work described above is the recently arrived immigrants to this country. This has been true since the founding of this country. The next wave of immigrants performed the work that the previous group no longer wanted to do. Although this group is under fire more than ever before, the majority of conveyor carwashes, especially full-serves and flex-serves, still employ this segment of the work force. Although it is highly recommended that all laws be carefully observed, immigrants still find a way for an employer to fulfill the letter of the law. Cultivating, at the least, a segment of the work force where English is the second language has proven to be very beneficial to most carwashes.
D. Opportunity to Move Up
Most carwash managers started as entry level workers and moved up over time based on their hard work. Very few managers have extensive education above the high school level. This fact can be extremely motivational to attract and retain good people. Match people’s motivation not only to the starting position, but to a future one as well.
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Most entry level workers get recruited at a carwash by walking in off the street and getting hired almost immediately without any kind of an interview. When this happens, the image of a business desperate for anyone gets reinforced. Instead, conduct a formal interview. Ask for and check references. Have at least one other person interview any new hire to get a second opinion. Call the person back and let them know that there were multiple applicants but they got the position. People decide if the place they are going to work has any merit by the process they experience. Avoid the negative attitude created in a new hire by a non-interview process. Instead, let them know you are careful about who you hire because you have expectations for good performance.
Most new employees at a business are undertrained. New employees learn what they are doing wrong by being corrected. A lot of potentially good employees quit very early on because of this lack of training. It is not that hard to train a new employee at a carwash, it just takes a commitment to do it with every new hire. Again, this improves not only a new employee’s results but also affects their opinion of the business and their opportunity there.
The key to lowering turnover is obviously increasing the retention of the best people. The number one reason why people leave their jobs is because they do not feel appreciated. This fact has been documented in dozens of surveys over the last three decades. Once you have someone who likes the industry and has performed well over time, hanging on to them should be the focus.
Some wonderful aspects of appreciation are that it costs you nothing financially, can be utilized immediately, and it never gets old.
Research by many sources has determined that the three most wanted acts of appreciation in the workplace (in order of importance) are positive feedback on work performed well, one-on-one quality time and acts of support to assist someone in performing their job. Also, everyone is different and these acts of appreciation are wanted in different degrees by different people. The ideal is to individualize the appreciation as much as possible. Small, non-monetary or monetary gifts also are acts of appreciation but cost money and have to be handled carefully in order not to create organizational problems.
More tightly binding on people’s behavior than any policies, procedures or operating methodologies is the culture of an organization. Corporate culture is defined, for our purposes, as the set of informal practices and attitudes that prevail in an organization.
For example, is your organization always trying to improve your service to the customer? Are you having regular meetings where employees get to contribute their ideas on how to improve your services? Real employee engagement is rare, and when it happens good employees want to stay and get better.
Another example of an important area of corporate culture is the perception by the employees of the organization’s purpose. If the purpose, as is often the case, is simply a financial investment and the owner is not really engaged or involved, employees sense that. If, however, there is a positive feeling and a sense that professional growth and development of the employees is important as well as financial success, employees feel that as well. “What is your culture?” and “How does it affect what we do?” are good questions to ask.
Carwash owners should have a sense of compassion for how difficult and challenging the job of carwash manager is. That compassion can positively affect your relationship with that manager. A manager who is really successful at all areas of the job requirements has a very secure future in the carwash industry because good managers are hard to find!
Steve Gaudreau is the president of Brink Results, LLC, a 25-year carwash industry veteran, author of the books “Creating Exceptional Managers” and “So You Want to Own a Car Wash” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.