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Detailing

Roundtable discussion: the detailing industry

October 11, 2010
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Last year, the professional carwash industry got a lot of attention as it faced some of its biggest issues in years: a topsy turvy weather pattern, rising gas prices and market over-saturation. What about carwashing’s sister industry: Detailing? What hurdles did that industry face in 2006 and how is it handling them?

Professional Carwashing & Detaiilng® turned to three detailing experts to evaluate the industry’s great challenges, and its most viable solutions.

Professional Carwashing & Detailing: What is the biggest challenge facing the detailing industry today?

Gina Budhai: I believe the biggest problem facing the detailing industry is a lack of professionalism and information in many sectors which include product manufacturers, industry experts, automotive dealers, product distributors/jobbers, and detailers. This lack of professionalism ultimately affects and will continue to affect how consumers make choices about car care services and service providers.

R. L. “Bud” Abraham: The detail industry has such a low-cost entry that anyone can get into the business for a few dollars. All you need is a shop vacuum, some brushes, a cheap polisher and a few chemicals and you can call yourself a detailer.

As long as that is the case, the industry will always have an identity problem being filled with “shoe-shine boys” hawking their service outside the door to the hotel, so to speak.

Another major problem the industry faces is the technology used by detailers. Most use the same technology that has been used for the past 60 years: heavy electric buffers, cheap shop vacuums, a pressure washer and if a business is really “high-tech,” a soil extractor. In many cases, most detailers do not really know how to properly use an extractor.

Gina: Often, manufacturers develop products for the detailing industry with very little collaboration from the end user (detailer) and provide minimal technical training on the use of their products and minimal support to help the end user (detailers) develop and market their businesses successfully.

There is also no universal standardization in the development of these products: some manufacturers utilizing old technology for today’s new finish and components. They sometimes create products providing limited protection and are harmful to both the end user (detailer) and automotive components.

Many manufacturers do not join or support professional auto detailing organizations through mentoring, memberships or educational grants to promote car care awareness. Manufacturers without a large investment could play a huge role in promoting public education by providing end users with educational brochures on the benefits of detailing and use of professional products.

Bud: Which leads to the next problem - education. There is literally no formal or standardized educational system where a detailer can be trained in proper detailing skills. Even if there were, few could afford to pay for such training which would require them taking time away from their business and pay the fees.

As a result, most detailers have learned their trade by “trial and error.” In many cases they are doing things incorrectly because they do not have the proper knowledge of today’s paint systems, leathers, custom wheels, plastics, etc. As a result, this does more harm than good to the vehicles.

Gina: Automotive dealers have not kept abreast with technology; they often disseminate erroneous information about car care to consumers.

Some of the more prevalent misinformation that exists today are: instructions to not wash vehicles with soap and to never wax the car because there is a clear coat on it. This has come about with the advent of new car protection packages and from a lack of education on the use and benefit of these products.

As a result, the public falsely believes they do not need to take care of their automobiles any more because the dealer has already taken preventive measures to protect the vehicle.

Dealers have not invested money or resources to educate their sales staff and new car/detailing and reconditioning departments on the benefits of car care. Their attitude towards the segment of the industry is reflected in the type of employees they have hired for these jobs.

Oftentimes, employees who work in car care departments have no formal training. Additionally, their positions do not garner any respect when the designations for these jobs still continue to be named titles such as: lot boy, porter, driver and recon guy.

Dealers do not typically lend support to professional auto detailing associations through membership and do not provide the public with any educational literature on maintaining their newly purchased product.

Bruce Bejsovec: Frankly, the biggest problem facing our industry is the industry itself. There haven’t been any major progressions in this industry, for the most part, in well over 20 years.

You can acknowledge the introduction of the carpet extractor and micro fiber towels to be somewhat of a revelation. The foam pad wasn’t really a true progression in systems, techniques or procedures either. We need something better than that to keep the excitement up.

I recently spoke with a detailing professional who said that the majority of people in the detailing field are in it not by choice, but by necessity. For most of the detailers in this group, detailing is just a job until something better comes along. You’ll see them in the Yellow Pages one month, and then in an unemployment line the next.

The stagnant progression doesn’t offer a long, lucrative or stable career path in detailing. Period. End of story. And it doesn’t do much to improve the reputation of the detailing industry in the consumer’s mind, either.

Bud: Another problem is the detailer’s lack of business savvy. Like most small technical businesses, the detailer believes if you know the technical work of detailing, you can operate a business that does technical work.

As author Michael Gerber points out in his popular book, “The E Myth,” it is a fatal mistake because it is not true.

If you have only the technical skills of a business, you are not equipped to handle the business challenges of operatingit.

Faced with management challenges, financial challenges, and marketing challenges, the technician tries to solve them with technical solutions. It does not work. As a result, two out of three small businesses fail in the first year.

Bruce: Isn’t it true that any Tom, Dick, Harry or Jane can start a mobile detailing business for $500 or less? With this minimal set-up fee, they can be classified with the same professionals who have been working in this industry for countless years, with a fixed location, and are licensed and insured and continually create good job opportunities for select individuals.

The true professional business owner has to tolerate fly-by-night, weekend “detailers”, trunk (mobile) detailers, true “detailing” hacks and carwash owners who are just adding a little “icing” on their already extremely profitable cake. Yes, there are some quality carwashing detailers, mobile operations, and weekend detailers.

What is lacking in our industry, however, is a unity among these different kinds of detailers, and a unity to insist upon quality among them all.

Detailers need to put out the best product possible and have the ability and right to charge a fee that is a true monetary ratio to the time and effort needed to accomplish the task, cover overhead and exceed the expectations of clients.

While mobile detailers have caused some of the non-appreciating pricing for detail services because of their lack of overhead, they will have more issues regarding environmental responsibility issues sooner, rather than later. This will force them to increase pricing to combat environmental issues, find a fixed site location or fade away like most detail companies.

The most important part of the solution is for current professional detailers to distance themselves away from the part of the car care industry that has a strangle hold of us and only care for the now and not the future.

It is time that we turn our backs on the carwashes of the world, educate the general public and set forth the burgeoning of the newest concept in car care.

We are reconditioning experts, we must commit to a standardized reconditioning process that is fully documented and encompassing of all services including odor eradication, flood recovery, mildew and mold remediation, overspray removal and bio-hazard conditions resulting from human or animal decay as well as the ability to produce results that are vastly and noticeably better than previous thoughts of car care services.

This list of necessary components would include rotary and reciprocating polishing wheels, heated pressure washer, hot water extractor, four-post and/or portable auto lift, air compressor, ozone machine, steam machine, air mover, paint thickness gauge, thermal fogger, micro-misting enzyme machine, retractable air hose reels, fully stocked tool box (hand and air tools), ceiling mounted sodium halide fixtures and fluorescent/halogen lighting.

Gina: To follow Bruce’s points, the internet has created a new breed of industry experts and automotive car care gurus. It has become an extremely lucrative field which has sparked fierce competition to sell boutique and professional products.

Many are vying for these positions and are so busy establishing and carving out a name for themselves and their respective businesses that they focus more on propaganda, disseminating misinformation, destroying each other’s reputation and publishing self-serving articles. This creates a chasm between detailers who somehow feel that they must side with one expert against the each other, or one product over another.

Some of these experts are involved in undermining the very industry they are involved in. It appears that if they cannot dominate and embed or push forth their own agendas within an association for personal benefit they will actually rather see an association representing the detailing industry fail.

Most distributors/jobbers have limited knowledge of the products they distribute and quite frankly, often do not care. They provide minimal technical training/advice to the end user (detailer), limited access to accurate and current information and give no business help or assistance to help the detailer educate the public and grow successful businesses.

Oftentimes, distributors, right alongside their professional grade products, are selling a cheaper version of products commonly known as “bath tub” (home made) products that often do not meet VOC compliance and have no testing protocols. They seldom support or join membership to professional association or promote public car care awareness through educational literature.

Many detailers operate fixed location and mobile businesses without legitimate licenses, are not properly or adequately insured, do not invest in proper equipment and training or comply with federal or state laws.

Bruce: We need to satisfy all OSHA and EPA related mandates to achieve complete environmental responsible practices. Completely documented chemical instructions including MSDS sheets are essential.

The necessary equipment that is needed to meet workplace safety issues includes, but is not limited to, an eye wash station, hearing protection plugs, nitrile work gloves, first aid kit, eye protection and respirator/dust masks.

We need to ensure of the safe and legal discharge of any waste water produced as a result of the standardized reconditioning processes.

A standardized book time needs to be developed for these processes similar to what body shops and mechanics use for estimating time to accomplish a required task.

We need to set forth an industry wide labor rate guideline and hourly rate. It should be vehicle specific and have an allotment for extra time needed to complete even the most poorly kept vehicle.

A documented condition report needs to be created, including pictures, paint thickness readings, before and after the process, with a certified certificate.

Documentation would also include any body or paint work that was discovered while servicing the vehicle.

Gina: Many do not operate their business in an ethical manner, do not treat customers with respect and operate business which are disreputable in appearance and not conducive to attracting female consumers.

Many have very limited our outdated information about the automotive finish or components they work with. They lack diagnostic skills or even comprehend the science behind the process of detailing.

There are some who do not have even a basic understanding of what professional auto detailing means and as a result they provide inferior services misleading the public as to what they should expect from true professional detailing services.

Consumers have limited information about professional detailing services and often confuse it with maintenance services offered by the carwash. Automobile dealers, detailers and product manufacturers done very little to educate the public as to the benefit of utilizing professional detailing services and how their products could help maintain the value and the appearance of their automobiles.

PC&D: How can these problems be repaired? How will these goals be achieved?

Gina: The problem can only be repaired through education and consumer awareness.

The detailing industry must demand from product vendors/suppliers support to help market and promote their businesses. This support must come from educational seminars, technical training clinics, educational literature and manufacturers getting involved in public awareness campaigns on car care.

Bud: Well, the industry has to grow up. The standard of a first class detail operation has to develop just like the standard for a professional carwash, quick lube and oil change facility is.

When a standard is established and the consumer can say to themselves, “this is a detail operation.” Then you will see all of the problems I have mentioned begin to fade away.

Why? Simple; the consumer will no longer patronize the back alley operation, they will understand what constitutes a professional detail operation and that is who they will give their business to.

For the detail business to reach such a standard will naturally eliminate the other problems mentioned.

Technology will improve because when a professional business person enters the business they will buy the latest technology that will increase productivity and reduce labor, while improving quality and speed. This is the only way a business can make a profit.

Most detailers today do not make a profit and they barely make a living.

Following that, a professional business must have educated technicians. Such businesses will develop their own training courses or hire industry consultants to assist them in developing training programs.

These detail businesses will be, just that, businesses, not detail operations.

To achieve these goals, a company with a lot of money who decides they want to capture the detail business in this country has to establish a standard for the detail business. Setting this standard will be much like Ray Kroc did with the hamburger and french fry business; like Jiffy Lube, Minit Lube, Grease Monkey International did with the fast lube business and like Starbucks did with coffee shops.

Until that happens, the industry will stay about where it has been for the past 25 years.

That said, I must point out that there are several well-operated detail businesses all over the country in various cities and towns that are true “businesses” and setting the standard for detailing in their areas, but that is the extent of it, “their areas.”

Bruce: The only way for this transition to be successful is through the concentrated effort, across the board, of true professional reconditioners fully understanding, cooperating and having a commitment to each other. Expand your thinking and ingenuity. Excel in your profession to progress and evolve into reconditioning experts or do us all a favor and get out.

There have been a lot of positive developments in the resurrection of an acclaimed and accredited association for the industry which is the key for these ideas to come to fruition and success.

PC&D: How do you feel the National Association of Professional Detailing and Reconditioning (NAPDR), formerly known as the Professional Detailing Technicians Association (PDTA), should address these problems?

Gina: As the public becomes more aware of professional auto detailing or car care needs they will begin to demand better service and information from the automobile dealer and detailers. Perhaps in the future, the NAPDR will be able to build alliances with the NADA National Automobile Dealers Association and manufacturers where we can create a nationally recognized certified detailing program and a national standard for consumers.

This is going to have to be a collective effort from all sectors with a mission to create consumer awareness through education.

Bud: First, the NAPDR must prove it is capable of representing the detail industry. The PDTA had many problems and was on the verge of total collapse until a few courageous detailers under the leadership of a Northern California detail business owner took what was left of the PDTA and worked to resurrect the association.

When they can show that the NAPDR is legitimate and stable organization, it can work to educate the detailer in hopes that they will become better business people. and as a result, upgrade their businesses and the industry. This is really something that could take years, if ever, to achieve.

What is needed is for a company with money to establish a chain of detail operations across the country that becomes the standard for the detail industry.

The detail industry is full of a great deal of rhetoric, because no one in the business has enough money, vision or passion to establish the national or international standard.

Bruce: Whereas there was a recent attempt to bring together detailers into an organization called the Professional Detailers Technicians Association (PDTA), it failed to live up to its promises and was a failing entity, but it did help to spurn another set of forward thinkers who, in turn, have founded an association.

Let’s hope that this is the integral step that we need to succeed with the latest revelation in car care theory. We deserve it. Good luck, NAPDR.


Gina Budhai has been working with cars since 1990. She’s managing partner of Car Pool Detail LLC, Richmond, VA, president of the National Association of Professional Detailing and Reconditioning (NAPDR), and was Voted “The Queen of Detailing” in Professional Carwashing & Detailing® magazine 2006. She can be reached at: 804-288-1515, gbudhai@aol.com.

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 a member of the International Carwash Association (ICA) and Western Carwash Association (WCA) Board of Directors and can be contacted at: buda@detailplus.com.

Bruce J. Bejsovec is the president of Recondition USA, Inc. and a veteran and innovator of the car care industry for over 25 years. He can be reached by email at: detailingbybruce@aol.com or reconditionusa@aol.com.

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