Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Four easy steps to creating loyal customers

January 5, 2011

In a rather unsurprising finding, Professional Carwashing & Detailing’s 2010 Reader Survey revealed that maintaining the existing customer base was the number one concern for carwash and detail operators last year. It’s an important goal for any small business operator -- not just those in the car care industry -- and especially crucial now that consumers are holding on to their dollars harder than ever.

So how can carwashes and detail shops reach this niche group and foster loyalty among their current customers? The answer is simple, according to the marketing experts PC&D spoke to, and in this article we’ll break it down into four easy steps.

Step 1: Identify the customer type

Steve Gaudreau is a carwash consultant with 20 years of experience and founder of Steve Gaudreau & Associates, LLC. In addition to his consultant experience, Gaudreau has authored two books for the carwash industry, the most recent of which is “Creating Exceptional Managers in the Car Wash Industry,” now available through Professional Carwashing & Detailing’s online bookstore at www.cminstitute.net.

Gaudreau said customers come in two distinctive groups:

1. Frequent customers. These are both loyal patrons (those who use your carwash and yours alone) and regulars who come often, but may also seek carwash or detail services at another business.

2. Infrequent customers. This group is composed of clients who use your business one once or twice a year, and as such should be treated “just like any other customer,” Gaudreau said.

It is imperative that you and your staff are able to identify customers who fall into the first group, Gaudreau said, and to give these patrons the recognition and service they deserve.

Step 2: Give them the royal treatment

Once your cashier or greeter has established that the customer is a frequent visitor, it is imperative to treat the customer in a manner that reflects his/her status as a loyal patron.

“It can be as simple as the service advisor or cashier saying, ‘Welcome back,’ or ‘Good to see you again,’” Gaudreau explained. “It can also be more elaborate if a customer is a member of a loyalty club of some type. In this case something might be said like, ‘As a member of our frequent customer club, how can I assist you today?’”

As for service, Gaudreau suggested operators consider special treatment. For example, some full-serve carwash businesses have set up a special lane just for monthly pass customers, Gaudreau said, and this service gets these customers through the wash more quickly.

He continued, “I know some exterior washes that give their loyalty club members an air freshener for free that another customer would have to pull over to the vending area, get out of their vehicle, and purchase.”

Step 3: Reward them for their loyalty

Recognizing a customer is a return visitor and treating them as such is important, but it’s not the only way to foster loyalty. Gaudreau said the biggest and the most obvious method to retain customers is to offer special pricing to frequent existing customers.

For example, Gaudreau suggested operators consider offering their customers a variety of programs which encourage repeat visits. These include:

• Unlimited monthly passes;

• Loyalty clubs with special discounts;

• Bounce-back incentives for visits within a short period of time; and

• Five-day guarantees that motivates a high percentage of customers to wash their vehicle twice in a week, etc.

“Customers of all businesses are more and more reluctant today to provide their information because of the fear of this information being stolen,” Gaudrea explained. “The best way I believe right now to do this is to set up a monthly charge program with unlimited usage of the wash per month and have the credit card automatically recharge every month for a set fee.”

He elaborated, “Frequent customers will be interested in taking the time to provide their information for something like this because it is a real service and really makes the whole experience of visiting the car wash much more convenient and less costly.”

Step 4: Avoid these costly mistakes.

The final step in maintaining your current customer base and increasing the frequency of their visits is to avoid giving them any reason to stop coming to your wash or detail shop. Gaudreau said the most common reasons for losing loyalty are price increases and poor service.

“A huge one-time price increase will almost always chase off some of your most frequent customers and reduce car counts,” Gaudreau said. “If a price increase is necessary, making it as gradual as possible is recommended.”

In addition to slowing down the pace of the increase, Gaudreau also suggested that operators make an effort to explain the price increase to customers. “To do this, employees need to be prepared with an explanation and the most frequent questions they may be asked as well as answers to these questions,” Gaudreau said.

Finally, Gaudreau stressed that operators should avoid bad service at all costs. For example, watch out for long waiting times, and if there is one – offer a sincere apology. Poor customer service also includes unfriendly attitudes from your staff and poor handling of service complaints, Gaudreau said.

“Operators can avoid these mistakes with training, motivation, and ongoing management of the people that provide the service to the customers,” he continued. “This is the hardest area to control because it involves people management; however, customers are people (even though sometimes you may not feel that way), and at the end of the day, it is how your people are treated that influences how your customers will be treated.”

Create a direct marketing campaign for your loyal customers

Perhaps the most effective way to market to your loyal customers is to e-mail them directly. Here are some recommendations for creating an effective direct mail piece aimed at current customers, courtesy of Jay Siff, founder and CEO of Moving Targets, a company which specializes in direct marketing campaigns, including those to regular customers through their Loyalty Rewards customer e-mailing service:

Tip 1: Look them in the eye. Siff recommended that operators collect e-mail addresses at the point of transaction (usually the cashier or greeter). When you approach the customer, it’s important to make eye contact and greet them confidently.

Tip 2: Phrase the offer so they understand ‘what’s in it for them.’ Siff suggested asking in this manner: “Hi Mrs. Johnson, thanks for visiting us today. Would you like a discount on a future purchase?” The customer should understand what they’ll be getting in return for giving out their e-mail address.

Tip 3: Don’t ask for too much. All you need is a first name and an e-mail address, according to Siff. Anything more than that, and you risk losing them completely. “In all the testing we’ve done, we’ve found that once you start asking for their last name or their phone number or the make of the car, the more it depresses the response of the people who are willing to sign up,” Siff explained.

Tip 4: Follow-up with an offer. The first e-mail message should confirm that they are now included in our e-mail list and give them some sort of offer – perhaps $2 off the top wash – to make a connection with the customer.

Tip 5: Stay on top of their mind. To create top-of-mind awareness, Siff suggested that operators contact their e-mail list once every two or three weeks. “You like to think your customers think about you all the time, but the reality is they probably don’t,” he said. “Even if they don’t redeem the coupon, you want to remind the customer that you are there.”

Tip 6: But not too often. Don’t annoy or pester your customers with too many e-mails, though. If you’re e-mailing more than once a week, you’re probably just flooding their inbox and risk them unsubscribing from your list.

Tip 7: Drive business where you want it. The biggest advantage of an e-mail marketing campaign over a loyalty rewards program is that you control the customer’s behavior, Siff explained. “With a loyalty program, it’s really up to the customer when they want to take advantage,” he said. “But with an e-mail message, you can shift business from a busy weekend to a slow weekday or improve sales on your top package.”