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The revolving carwash door

October 11, 2010
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Here’s the strongest (and perhaps most well-known) argument for keeping the customers you already have: It costs a business six to ten times more money to attract a new customer than to retain an existing one, according to a white paper study by Vendor Guru.

Never has this point been more important than today. Across the country, carwash operators are experiencing devastating drops in volume and crippling increases in basic expenses like water and chemicals. Consumers who once thought nothing of a weekly trip to the carwash are now dropping out of line and pinching pennies for their trip to the grocery store or gas station later in the week.

Coy Lindblom, owner of The Carwasher, Inc., in Mesa, AZ, is just one example of a frustrated operator. “Over the years we have experimented with many different ways to retain our customer [base] and over time have become discouraged with all of them,” Lindblom told Professional Carwashing & Detailing®. “Right now [our situation] is more demanding than retention programs. Just getting anything in the door is the current challenge.”

Just how important is customer loyalty?

The last decade has seen tremendous strides in public education about the necessity and environmental benefits of professional carwashing. Unfortunately, as the economic realities of today loom over the average car owner, many of those lessons will be forgotten. Already, newspapers are touting the advantages of washing a vehicle at home as a way to save money and — raise your hand if you saw this coming — even to lose weight.

Indeed, carwash operators who wish to succeed in 2009 must be ready to attack on several fronts. They must:

  • Retain their existing customer base;
  • Convince those customers to visit more regularly; and
  • Tempt them with new and more profitable services.
Your path to success includes five rules for customer retention. They are:

Rule #1: Get to know the customer

Frank Canna, owner of Mirror Finish Detailing in Williamstown, NJ, knows it is important to understand your clientele. He urged carwash and detail operators to constantly look at their businesses from the customer’s perspective and to learn what truly pleases them.

For starters, Canna suggested you smile and talk to your customers. “Get to know them. Find out and keep track of the names of their spouse, children and pets. Remember these names, write them down and use them often,” Canna urged.

Other operators take a more business-like approach, and depending on the volume of your carwash or detail business, this might be more feasible. Distribute a survey among your customers to learn how often they are visiting, their buying habits and their satisfaction with your wash. Sample questions include:

  • Is this your first visit?
  • How often do you patronize this carwash?
  • What was the level of your satisfaction with today’s visit?
  • Considering past visits, what is your typical level of satisfaction after visiting our carwash?
  • What are some services that you wish were included at our carwash?
If you are considering adding a new service, now would be a good time to use the survey to fish out the customer acceptance level. For instance, if you were about to add an express detail option, explain the service and ask customers if this is something they would consider purchasing at their next visit. Also, ask if they would modify the service in any way.

One word of caution: Be wary of surveying your customers too often. Start with random selections of about 10 percent of your carwash customers and try to time the surveys before improvements to the carwash so that customers can correlate their participation with positive change.

Rule #2: Offer better service

There are several misconceptions in the carwash industry that bother Steve Sause, but chief among them is that you can beat your competition through great customer service.

The director of technical services for vehicle care at Simoniz USA, Inc., admitted that having good customer service is vital to a successful carwash operation. But he was quick to point out that good customer service means nothing if you can’t clean a car.

There were a lot of “newbies” to the carwash industry who thought they could revolutionize the business with great customer service, Sause explained, but “[they] forgot that getting the vehicle clean was the main reason for the customer to visit.”

In order to achieve true customer satisfaction, you have to offer a balanced product of great service with a great wash, Sause said. He suggested every operator have an inexpensive express wash, as well as several add-on services that can complement the smaller packages. Usually, additional services (like total car protectant and wheel cleaning) are very profitable.

As for customer service, Sause said it starts with an employee greeting or properly placed signage. It ends with a “clean vehicle that meets and slightly exceeds the customer’s expectations.”

Rule #3: Say “Thank You”

If you want to go above and beyond and really please a customer, you can follow Frank Canna’s example. Canna writes a personalized “Thank You” note to every detail customer. As he is quick to point out, this is a unique opportunity for detailers (and even some of the more luxurious full-service carwashes) as they have a limited clientele list and more time to devote to each customer.

Some detailers might argue they’re not worth the trouble, but Canna insisted these notes leave “a lasting impression and assure your customers that you truly appreciate their continued loyalty,” Canna explained. In other words, it’s a guaranteed method to ensure customer retention.

Carwash operators who don’t have the luxury of time should at least consider holiday greeting cards for their regular customers. Canna also stays in touch with customers between visits by giving them free promotional gifts. (Check out “Three steps to cost-effective marketing” on page 26 for further instructions on using your logo and brand.)

Items that are easy to produce and also give you the opportunity to put your logo in front of the customer 24/7:

  • Calendars;
  • Calculators; and
  • Pens.
As Canna stated, “Customers always like being handed something for free when the job is complete. So why not make them feel good and do a little advertising at the same time?”

Rule #4: Give them an offer they can’t refuse

According to Lindblom, many carwash operators are discouraged because the old techniques for customer retention — like handing out the traditional coupon — are no longer effective. “Competing washes will accept your coupon,” Lindblom explained. So while a coupon might make the customer a more regular washer, it certainly won’t ensure that he/she returns to your carwash.

But gaining customer loyalty isn’t impossible, according to Sause. “Frequency discounts,” he explained. Not only will customers rush to get to that tenth free wash, but as Sause pointed out, “it’s easier and cheaper to clean a clean car.”

For his part, Lindblom sells pre-paid carwash tickets at a discounted price as a means to “lock the customer into our facility.” Although he reports only lackluster success, loyalty rewards programs come in all shapes and sizes and can be molded to fit your carwash and your marketplace.

Consider your customers when creating a program. Perhaps they would enjoy an upgraded wash after purchasing three express services? Would an unlimited monthly wash program lock them in for a year? You could even offer a contest open to customers who come at least once a month. The ultimate prize could be a trip for two or a booklet of gift certificates to local restaurants.

The idea is to be creative and branch out beyond what your competition might be offering. Talk to your customers to better understand their needs and expectations. It doesn’t hurt to try a new rewards program every few months, so long as you take the time to invest in its success and track its progress.

Rule #5: Stay in touch

To truly make a retention program work you must be willing to stay in touch no matter how long it’s been since the last visit. You must also be willing to harvest and use your customer contact information.

“It’s never a good idea to allow old customers to feel like they have been forgotten,” Canna emphasized. “Who knows? Maybe they recently purchased a new car and they’re just waiting a bit before getting it detailed. Or in the worst case, their financial situation has changed and they just can’t afford to get their car detailed right now.”

Detailers, as well as full and flex-serve carwashes, can ask customers for contact information at the end of the sales transaction. Oftentimes a free offer (such as a coupon or upgraded service) can encourage participation.

Self-serve and in-bay automatic operators can keep contact forms and submission boxes in the bay. Use signage to direct customers to complete the forms for free coupon offers and other promotional literature. Operators can also use their websites to reach out to customers and keep in touch.

As a final note, use this information wisely. Too many e-mails from your carwash (or passing along customer information without their express content) would be a surefire way to lose customers, not to keep them.

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