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Managing a conveyor carwash: Advanced skills

October 11, 2010
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As in every industry, the number of general managers (GMs) that are considered above-average is far less than those who can perform the routine tasks of their position. With the inherent challenge in this job and the lack of training available in the industry, it can also be argued that the percentage of GMs with advanced skills is far less in the carwash industry than in other businesses.

This second article builds on the first one published last month and outlines what it takes to be considered an above-average performer as a conveyor carwash manager.

Technical knowledge
Advanced skills are grouped into two primary areas. The first is repair. Knowing how to make small repairs on site, knowing what parts to order and from where, and being able to quickly and correctly get a carwash operating again is definitely a set of skills that should be considered advanced.

The second area is trouble-shooting. Being able to diagnose problems correctly is every bit as important, because managers need to know they are fixing the right problem. Trouble-shooting skills for equipment, chemicals, and computer systems are all slightly different.

Equipment malfunctions are easily observed in terms of symptoms. Chemicals are even simpler in terms of diagnosis, but can often take longer to solve because of issues like water quality, water pressure, chemical consistency, and the fragility of the chemical application system. And, as far as computers go, anybody who has ever sat on the phone for hours with their software provider can tell you that it is another body of knowledge entirely to resolve these issues.

If you visit a site with an above-average manager, depending upon whether the wash is slow or busy, you often see evidence of different skills.

If it is a slow day employees are still performing their tasks at a normal rate of speed. Why? Because a smart manager knows that production workers need to deliver the service to the customer at the same standard of time. Managers with advanced skills don’t let a slow day change the habits of their people. The reason that this is important is that when you are busy, making the line disappear at the entrance attracts more customers. This is called “making cars” by industry veterans.

When you really see an advanced manager’s skills at work is when the location is exceptionally busy and the staff size is appropriate; i.e., not over-staffed. To manage on a busy day and maintain a low labor percentage requires that the staff has been highly cross-trained so that people can be shifted around where needed, the focus on quality does not slip, and everyone is moving at a slightly higher rate of speed.

When a situation that is described above appears to be smooth and not chaotic, it can truly be perceived as operating on the level of a well-performed ballet. If you have ever managed, for example, a full-service carwash on a 1,000-car day, you know the truth of the skills required to deliver customer vehicles efficiently and effectively.

Managing customers
Basic competency with customers means being able to handle complaints and damage claims according to a process that at least satisfies the customer and shows they are being treated professionally.

Above-average conveyor carwash managers exhibit two additional skills. First, in the area of complaints or damage claims, these managers are able to resolve these issues entirely at the location level. The customer is satisfied with the manager’s resolution and leaves the carwash happy.

In the area of a damage claim the issue is at least resolved, if not totally taken care of. In other words, the customer leaves knowing that the carwash is or is not going to pay for damages that were alleged to have occurred at the wash. The issue is not kicked upstairs by the manager, because they have dealt with it at the store level.

The second area has to do with interacting positively with the customers. At a full-serve wash this occurs primarily at the exit end where customers are sent off by a manager with quality checks, smiles, and thank yous. This behavior is value-added to the customer. At a flex serve, where a manager will spend some time service advising, the customer interaction can take place in the greeting. And, an exterior express manager interfaces with customers much less often but makes a difference by getting attendants to smile and be friendly in all of their customer interactions.

Customer satisfaction is obtained not only by delivering a good product, but also by making every interaction with the customer as positive as possible. Customers come back more often as a direct result of how they were treated by everyone on the property.

Managing employees
Like any business, to run a carwash effectively a manager needs to know how to staff, train, monitor, and control the behavior of staff, as well as keeping the labor costs in line.

Advance level skills represent themselves in the following ways. First, the employees are positive in every way in every area that matters to the customer. Their personal appearance is neat and clean, they smile at the customers and appear to want to be at their jobs, and most importantly, there is an absence of “attitude.”

Second, the labor percentage is better than industry standards. This result is accomplished because the managers have developed a staff that has flexibility in their hours that allows the manager to juggle the times to match staffing to hourly volume requirements. For example, employees call in automatically on a bad weather day before coming in at their scheduled time, so a manager can make adjustments to the schedule.

Third, the manager is good at not only controlling and disciplining employees, but also knows how to motivate people in a positive manner. To do that takes a knowledge of what each employee needs to be motivated to do their best. Every individual is different, and a manager with advanced skills knows this and gets better at figuring out what their people need.

For a carwash to even operate and for employees to even get paid, basic paperwork needs to get done.

A manager doing a better-than-average job does more than just the basics. They keep their office neat and clean, their files are in order and complete with all the necessary paperwork that can become critical on any given day. For example, a visit from your local, friendly INS agent will quickly bring to attention the importance of having all the I-9 forms filled out correctly and be easily obtainable.

Another sign of a very well-managed location is that whatever paperwork is required by the owner or home office is completed accurately and on time on a consistent basis. And, most importantly, the payroll has no mistakes because, again, the attention to detail on hours, commissions, etc., is present.

Service advisors and cashiers
Advanced skills in this area are immediately noticeable with service advisors. First, there is an absence of customer complaints about how they were greeted. Managers are able to convey that how customers are treated is as important as the results obtained. Moreover, there are compliments expressed to the cashier and management about how pleasant the experience is in dealing with the service advisor.

Second, the revenue per car is not only above industry averages, but is also consistent with the absence of wild swings in performance week to week and month to month.

Cashiers in a carwash managed by a highly skilled manager are positive, enhance the customer’s visit with their friendliness, are good at selling gift cards and monthly passes, and most importantly, can handle customer questions and mild complaints effectively.

A conveyor carwash general manager with advanced skills is not a cost to a business. These managers make money for their owners, and a strong incentive program to reward their performance is recommended.

Believe it or not, there is even another level of performance possible than the one just described. The next article will define exceptional performance for a conveyor carwash general manager.

Steve Gaudreau has worked as a consultant and trainer with more than half of the top 100 conveyor carwash companies in the industry over the last 20 years. He can be reached at