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Controlling labor costs

August 12, 2009
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Detail operations, like all businesses today, are faced with declining sales and increasing costs. To survive one has to determine ways to maintain sales and at the same time, decrease costs.

The largest expense for most detailers today is labor. To be successful, you must control labor without cutting down productivity.

Understanding labor pains

Probably the biggest mistake any detail business owner can make in this business when hiring employees is to hire an “experienced detailer.”

Training in the detailing industry is a “learn as you go” type of deal. It is very difficult to correct a habit learned incorrectly the first time. If you’re going to hire an experienced detailer, bear in mind you will have to accept their methods. You simply are fighting a losing battle trying to train a person who has had any length of experience detailing cars.

Instead of hiring an experienced detailer, my recommendation is to hire a person with good values. You can teach skills, but you can’t teach values. Find someone who is trainable and motivated; they will far outpace the “experienced” detailer.

Using technology to control labor

Businesses should also look at the technology available to help them do the job as perfectly, quickly, efficiently and as less expensive as possible. The same must be true of the detail business.

For example, it takes a detailer 30 to 45 minutes to apply and remove the final wax from a vehicle by hand. A mini orbital waxer (around $200) can decrease the job time to 15 minutes, saving you 20 minutes per car.

Increasing production by the simple addition of mechanical tools is one of the oldest tricks in the book. Plus, you will have far better employees than those who struggle to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time and with good quality.

It also adds an element of consistency. A machine can perform the same task in the same manner every time; your employee most likely cannot.

Step–by–step processing

Once you have the right equipment technology and the right employee you then have to look at the step–by–step procedures for each detail job such as:

· Engine and wheel cleanings;

· Jambs and body washes;

· Trunk cleanings and shampooing;

· Complete interior cleaning from top to bottom and front to back;

· Paint finishing procedures;

· Final detail procedures; and

· Final quality control inspections.

Unless you have these processes in place, you will have as many different ways to detail as you have employees. That is how a lot of detail businesses operate, every detailer is doing things their way and use tools and chemicals they prefer which can be a real mess in my opinion and a huge labor cost for the owner

Create a step–by–step guide for each of these services in place to ensure there is consistency in your processes and that reasonable time constraints are being met.

Establish “average times”

The key to controlling labor is to establish an average time for each one of the above processes. The amount of time you allocate to each process will depend on the type and amount of equipment you have available for them to use.

For example, you cannot have a four-bay shop with five or six employees and only one soil extractor. Workers are going to be standing around waiting for the other person so finish using the extractor. Many detail business owners say, “I just can’t afford the investment in equipment.” Yet they are paying personnel to stand around doing nothing.

Suggest process times in a properly equipped operation. These times are based on doing a quality job on a retail customer’s car:

· Prep process: . . . .30 to 45 minutes max

· Trunk: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30 minutes max

· Interior: . . . . 90 minutes (passenger car)

· Paint Finish (for a passenger car)

· 3 Step: 90 minute

· 2 Step: 60 minutes

· 1 Step: 30 minutes

· Wax: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30 minutes

· Final Detail: . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30 minutes

Training the right way

Finally, one of the best ways to control labor costs is to ensure that each and every person on your payroll is trained properly and efficiently. Training of each new employee is important for several reasons.

Each employee must:

· Understand the philosophy of the company;

· Know what you expect in terms of attitude and work quality; and

· Have complete knowledge about what they are working on.

Your staff must understand each and every tool of the trade and what it can and cannot do. They must understand all of the chemicals they are using and where they can be used and not used and you must teach them to be diagnosticians.

Sounds easy and it is — if you have the right attitude and commitment. It comes down to this: The better the training, the more efficient the employee. If you train them properly the first time, you won’t have to waste precious time correcting mistakes.

There are no short cuts to controlling labor costs in a detail business and you instead have to have to have a balance between equipment technology; the right employees; established and enforced procedures; and training and monitoring.

R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40–year member of the car care industry. He is also a member of the Western Carwash Association Board of Directors.

Abraham can be contacted at

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