Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Are they being served?

October 11, 2010
It seems there are only two ways to be noticed for your customer service in America: you’re either really lousy (think AOL or any media provider, really), or you’re way over-the-top (Ritz-Carlton staff once brought lounge chairs, blankets and hot cocoa to a guest waiting in line at a bookstore for the latest Harry Potter installment).

The little touches that used to work so well for Mom and Pop — like eye contact and saying “thank you” — are coming under scrutiny as larger corporations and franchises use these small niceties to masquerade larger inadequacies. So what’s a carwash owner to do? How can you strike that delicate balance of gratitude towards your customer without seeming insincere — or worse, breaking the bank?

Professional Carwashing & Detailing tracked down industry leaders in several car care segments in order to answer this customer service riddle. From quick lubes to detail shops to attendant-less self-serves and express exteriors, we’ve got you covered.

Start with honesty
According to several of the operators that PC&D spoke to, credibility and customer service are practically synonymous. In the quick lube and detail industries especially, customers need to be able to trust their service providers to accurately educate and provide services to their vehicles.

“Good customer service begins with honesty,” explains Sue Ackley, owner of four Xpress Lube locations in St. Louis, MO, and a former president of the Automotive Oil Change Association. “Always give the customer what they want and what they expect.”

David J. Mazzarella, president and CEO of Mazzarella Car Care Systems, LLC, a manufacturer of cleaning solutions and supplies for the detail industry, agreed. “The key to creating and keeping customers is to build and maintain high levels of trust and credibility,” he says. “This must be built into everything your company does from your first word of advertising to your last effort of service.”

Mazzarella and Ackley suggest you look over your entire operation, from signage to marketing and sales pitches, to ensure it is done with truthfulness. If you are honest about the services you are able to provide, customers will be satisfied with the end results. Remember, too, that the customer is depending on you to educate him on the services he needs. Do not mislead him in an attempt to up-sell the ticket.

“The only way you can truly differentiate yourself from your competition is by selling your customers on your levels of competence and credibility,” Mazzarella states. “You should show the customer you are very good at what you do and a totally reliable company to deal with in every respect.”

As Ackley affirms, “price isn’t the most important aspect of your service — honesty is!”

Remember appearances
It is a cliché in our industry that nearly any problem can be solved by ensuring your site is clean and well-lit. Industry experts will tell you cleanliness and good lighting will cut back on crime, increase your repeat customers and even inspire employees to be more productive. But the reality is no cliché: customers will start judging your business before an employee even has a chance to greet them properly. Your first impression isn’t wearing a uniform and a name tag – it’s wearing pavement and brick.

“Customer service begins before a customer even steps foot in the shop,” explains Ackley, who in 2004 was named PC&D’s Lube Person of the Year. “They must first view an extremely clean shop from the street; grass is cut, flowers planted, cigarette butts picked up, and so on.”

Once your customer steps inside, he should see clean windows and floors, and a neat and organized facility in every way, Ackley says. Make sure your employees are regularly cleaning the bathrooms, and routinely walk through your facility to check for areas that may have been forgotten or are not properly lit.

“This sets you above the others and customers appreciate cleanliness,” Ackley says, especially in the business of cleaning cars. “If you take care of your shop, then they know you will take care of their car.”

Be understanding
Every operator or manager knows that customer: the complainer, the whiner, the one who thinks he is entitled to your first born child and your mortgage just because the triple foam wasn’t extra foamy today. But more often than not, the complaint is legitimate and taking your frustrations out on the customer (yes, even on that customer) is not the answer.

“We can get worn out cleaning up after some of our messy customers. It can grate on you,” explains David DuGoff, owner of College Park Car Wash, a self-serve and in-bay automatic facility in College Park, MD. “You have to keep it in perspective. If there was no mess to clean up, there would be no job here.”

DuGoff, a PC&D Self-serve Industry Leader in 2002 and 2006, is generous when a customer encounters a problem and takes their word on the issue. If a customer has a bad experience, such as losing a wash, he offers a cash refund or double the amount of the service in tokens. Typically, he mails the tokens with a handwritten note.

“We have the margin to re-wash a car if the customer is not satisfied. We can afford to replace a couple of tokens if a new customer let the time run out without pressing the buttons,” DuGoff explains. “I have found that most of the time, over 99 percent, when a customer tells us that a function isn’t right, it turns out to be true. The instance where a customer wants to trick me out of a token is so rare that it’s not a consideration.”

DuGoff’s policy is to take care of the customer’s concern. “If it means restarting the vacuum or adding time on the bay meter, that’s what we do,” he says. “When we discover a problem on our end, we try our best to fix it quickly.”

Having an Internet-based credit card approval system also gives you a way to instantly refund the transaction and send the customer an email receipt, DuGoff suggests. “Many credit card customers find this very satisfying, and you can hear a change in attitude as you assure them that you are going to take care of them and not get into an argument,” he explains. “This is also in your interest because if the customer doesn’t call you, and just disputes the item through their credit card company, you will pay a fee in addition to the chargeback.”

Interact with the customer
It’s taken for granted that at full-serve carwashes, detail shops and even some express and in-bay automatic operations, an employee will greet and converse with your customer. These conversations might be strictly business; “What service can I offer you today? May I make a recommendation?” Or they might be more congenial to build rapport and establish relationships to create loyalty; “How are you today, Mr. Peterson? I see the golf clubs are in the trunk, have you played much this year?”

But what about self-serve and unattended carwashes, where the opportunity to catch a maintenance man is about 10 in every 168 operations hours?

“[Customer service] is one of the most fundamental elements of a successful business that is easy to overlook, especially in the self-serve and in-bay automatic environment where we typically have less direct customer contact,” DuGoff explains.

For self-serve operations, customer service has a different definition. It means the equipment functions as it is supposed to and if the customer has a question or a problem, you can provide answers and solutions.

How can you provide a solution when you are off-site? Simple, DuGoff, says: put up a box. DuGoff offers customers an easy to fill out form that allows them to vent frustrations immediately. (See the sidebar on p. 58 for more information.) Giving your customer a chance to write down his problem immediately will also give him a moment to cool down. It opens up the door for you to correct the problem, as well – very important for an unattended operation.

Secret shoppers
Many in the industry know the benefits of using a third party to rate and judge their customer service, but how many operators are regularly checking up on their employees?

“[A lot of operators] don’t envision themselves as the customer,” says Ackley. “You want the customer to tell everyone they know about their experience. This is your best source of advertising.”

Ackley’s shop uses a secret shopper service to routinely grade its staff, and she makes sure to regularly stop by her locations in person without giving them prior notice to keep employees on their toes.

Even if it means just asking a friend who is not familiar to your staff to stop by, this outside opinion is invaluable. If you can’t depend on your friend to be completely up-front, ask a family member. And even then, the trick will do wonders on your staff. Let them know that they are being routinely watched and judged on their performance. Ackley suggest you reward employees for a job well done. She uses Employee of the Month contests to put customer service in the spotlight and recognize good service.

Also, remember your experiences as a consumer in the outside world, as well. Were you frustrated by the cashier at Target? Why? How can you make sure it won’t happen at your business? Were you impressed by the salesperson at your local car dealership? How can you implement similar policies at your own carwash?

Go the extra mile
To really “wow” customers in today’s market you need to be prepared to go over-the-top. But over-the-top doesn’t necessarily mean shelling out the big bucks, according to our experts. The secret to this game is to under promise and over deliver, according to Ackley.

“People like a one stop shop,” explains Ackley. So if you are an oil change facility, do more than just change the oil – try cleaning the car before they return. Ackley’s staff wipes down the windows and door jams for an extra touch. At a carwash, employees can hand out small items – like a towel or a car freshener – as a bonus incentive.

Going the extra mile also means making up for sub-par service. “We use a loyalty card and if a customer has to wait too long, we pull out a loyalty card that we usually sell to the customer and put points on it which equal dollars,” Ackley says. “This keeps them coming back to us.”

If you’re really interested in going over-the-top, you can take a page from DuGoff. He used a special baseball ticket promotion to surprise vending machine customers at his wash. In an envelope that was released along with a regularly vended towel, DuGoff included three tickets and a parking pass to the Washington Nationals new baseball park nearby his carwash. “It is an $80 value that really builds customer loyalty,” DuGoff states.

Lead by example
When it comes to training your employees, nothing works better than monkey see-monkey do. “Your employees will always model their behavior on the boss,” explains DuGoff.

Teaching by example means giving yourself plenty of opportunity to interact with the customer and show the staff how you would like these interactions to go. Start with eye contact and the tone of your voice, and use easily remembered phrases that staff can repeat when they’re on their own.

Mike Berger, owner of Pastime Auto Wash in Oroville, CA, trains his staff verbally and visually, using the basic “Do as I do” policy. “I am lucky to operate my facility along with my sister,” Berger says. Together the two teach the staff by actually going through the motions and leading by example.

Say “thank you”
Finally, the one policy all of our experts agree is the most important: “Always thank your customer several times when they frequent your shop,” says Ackley. It goes without saying that without your customers, you wouldn’t have your business. Regardless of how their visit was (good, bad, average), customers appreciate being recognized for just stopping by and a little politeness can go a long way.

Kate Carr is the editor in chief of Professional Carwashing & Detailing® Magazine. Carr can be reached at