Professional Carwashing & Detailing

Success is in the details

September 7, 2012

As a successful detail business owner you know that the key to a successful detail lies in “attention to the details.” Part of this process includes proper prepping, careful cleaning and shampooing of the interior, correct evaluation of the paint finish problem and the choice of the right tools, pads and chemicals. Skip one of the steps, or give it a half-hearted effort, and there will be problems; swirls in the paint, streaks in the windows and wax residue on the trim. It is the attention to detail that matters.

The same is true when it comes to the operation of your detail business. Just as a perfect detail depends on the process, a successful business depends on dozens of factors, other than your ability to produce an eye-popping detail.

The books! Who keeps them?
Do you like bookkeeping? Probably as much as a car with vomit in the interior. You know it has to be done, but you’d prefer not do it yourself.

There are many detail business owners who believe keeping the books is simply throwing all of their receipts, invoices and bank statements into a big box, and when tax time rolls around, they give the box to their accountant and wait for the bad news. This is about as effective as spraying the engine with water and calling it good.

As troublesome as bookkeeping may seem, an accurate set of books will help you operate your business with much higher profit margin and, in fact, keep you in business if you look at the books monthly to see where you are. A lot of detailers sell themselves into bankruptcy because they do not know their costs of doing business.

Accurate and timely bookkeeping will help you spot profit leaks before they become gushers.

If you review the books in detail, you can see the costs of materials or labor over and see if there are negative trends developing. While you have a good sense of what’s happening in the business, it’s never a bad idea to have the specifics in front of you in writing, before you make any decisions.

You can also spot cash flow problems and accounts-receivable issues. This allows you to take the appropriate steps after considering all the alternatives. It’s always better to talk to your banker about a loan before you’re in crisis mode.

There are also surprises at tax time. If your accountant doesn’t have to wade through your box of crumpled and disorganized documents, they will charge you a lot less to prepare your tax return.

Bookkeeping diligence throughout the year can actually help you to lower your taxes by shifting expenses or revenues-quite legitimately- from one year to the next by making a timely retirement plan contribution, or by using other time-sensitive strategies of the tax-wise.

Employee records
Keeping detailed employee records is another detail that, for many detail business owners, is about as much fun as cleaning brake dust from wheels. Not keeping accurate personnel records is asking for trouble as well as missing an opportunity to keep your staff motivated at the same time.

And there is a positive side to employee records. When was the last time you gave your employees a raise? Did you hand out any Christmas bonuses last year? How close is the new hire to finishing his probationary period?

You try to keep all of these details in your steel-trap of a mind, but you’re better off if you write them down and keep them organized in the employee’s file, just in case.

Of course, maintaining accurate employment records is an essential detail from the government’s standpoint, too. Wage and hour records, payroll taxes and immigration documents may not be at the top of your list, but government’s bureaucrats live and breathe them. If they want to see yours, the files better be in good order or it could cost you.

Even if you have someone else handle this paperwork, you or the corporation is legally responsible for it, so at least check it over periodically to see that everything is accurate.

There are several ways to use these employee records. For example, if you’ve warned an employee about unsatisfactory work habits, tardiness, missing work, etc., keep a record in their file. This documentation can be used to dismiss the employee “for cause” and can help to prevent them from filing for unemployment.

On a more proactive note, if you get all of your employees together and hand out holiday bonuses, you can remind them that this year's bonus is 10 percent higher than last (or the appropriate percentage). You'll get a bigger bang for your bonus buck.

Detail is critical for customer service
It’s great that you completed the detail perfectly in record time, but did someone bother to call the customer to let them know their car is ready? Did you walk around the vehicle with the customer to determine their satisfaction before presenting the bill?

Many small things affect a detail business’ reputation for good work-and not all of them are related to your detail technical detail skills.

How good are your estimates, your invoices? The more detail you provide on your work order, the greater the confidence your customer has in your professionalism and the fewer disputes you will have with them when the work is done.

Another benefit of having a detailed work order signed by the customer the less likely your staff or you will overlook something when it’s in writing. Mistakes are expensive and upset customers.

Checkout your handwriting. Can you read it? Mine gets worse with each passing year, and to think I was the only boy in my 4th grade class that did not have to take penmanship lessons.

If you provide customers with hand-written estimates, be sure they can be read them. If they can’t, you’re asking for trouble. Use block print instead of cursive script if you have to. Better yet, check out some of the shop management software packages that will let you print out neatly typed and readable-document for your customers and employees.

These are details and you are in the detail business. Details are a pain, but they’re also key to running a successful detail business where the bottom line is as slick as the customers’ car.


R.L. “Bud” Abraham is president of DETAIL PLUS Car Appearance Systems, Portland, OR, and a nearly 40-year veteran of the car-care industry. He is also a member of the International Carwash Association and Western Carwash Association Board of Directors and can be contacted at: buda@detailplus.com.