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In addition to being a carwash operator, I've also been accused of being somewhat of a foodie. So I beg forgiveness in advance for bringing this analogy to start my argument for not jumping on the low-cost high-volume bandwagon.
To me, a low-cost high-volume operation can be compared to eating food from a vending machine. Service from a high-cost lower-volume operator is like having a high-quality meal at a top-notch restaurant that I'll remember for a long time to come. And in my book, the four-star restaurant will win every time.
Quality is job one
High-volume low-cost operators, no matter how hard they try, just can't ensure the quality of service they are providing. To me, high-volume low-cost operations mean poor quality at a low price. And I just can't believe any customer would be happy with poor quality at any price.
At our shop, quality is a huge priority, and it's what we feel keeps customers coming back. We have therefore implemented fairly extensive quality control mechanisms so that cars aren't released to customers unless they meet our standards. If we don't do this very basic thing, what's to keep them from visiting one of the 10 other shops in the neighborhood that are perfectly capable of doing a "just okay" job?
Our crew makes our business
Labor is the most common reason many operators will tell you it's better to offer exterior-only services. Full-service requires a bigger labor force, which means more time managing them, more paperwork, more drama. I wouldn't be honest if I told you this has never been an issue in our shop, but we seem to have found a very solid balance at this point and have maintained a stable crew with very low turnover.
We spend a lot of time training our team members and conducting team-building activities. We can honestly say that our workforce has become very skilled with a high level of integrity. They take great pride in their work and are encouraged to talk to the customers.
For example, if the customer notices something wasn't performed quite up to snuff when his or her car is returned, the crew member who brings the car to the customer has the authority to make a decision about how to handle a complaint right then and there. That way, the problem is handled quickly and efficiently, and the customer leaves happy.
By empowering our employees, we can offer our customers a quick and high-level of customer service. As a result, the number of complaints that get escalated to management is negligible, and our return customer rate remains high. And even more importantly, our workers feel (and they are) important to our business and make decisions that are good for the company.
Relationship building is key
By keeping our volume to a manageable level, it allows us to educate our customers about our services and techniques so they can make informed decisions about caring for their cars. Then when the time comes for them to have those services, our shop is the first place they come.
We spend a lot more time than most shops do in dealing with our customers. They are initially greeted by our service writer, who asks the customer what service he/she is interested in having that day.
Our service writer will then take the time to look at the car to make sure the service is appropriate and to determine if he thinks the customer will be ultimately happy with the result of that particular service.
If the service writer feels that the customer would be happier with a more (or less) extensive service, he'll make that suggestion. This extra time spent with customers is the perfect opportunity for our service writer to recommend additional services that the customer may not be aware would be appropriate for his/her car.
For instance, if the service writer notices that the car could benefit from a wax, they'll ask the customer when the last time the car was waxed and suggest that it might be time to consider it again.
We have found that most of our customers aren't aware of general guidelines about how often washes, waxing, detailing, etc. should be performed on their vehicles, and by taking the extra time to educate them, we are increasing our bottom line. Again, this kind of personalized attention just isn't feasible in a low-cost high-volume shop.
They're in there anyway
Most operators know that the biggest challenge is getting people to come to their shop in the first place. Everybody knows that it costs more to get new customers than it does to retain the ones you already have. So once you get someone in the door, it's up to you to make sure they come back.
And once they're in the door, we can educate these folks about services they need. Often this will result in a higher margin service.
Our high level of customer service has done wonders for our return customer rate. As a result, we are operating at capacity several days per week, and our average ticket price is well above the national norm. Our basic interior/exterior wash starts at $17.99, but our best-sellers are actually our higher-end washes, which range from $27.99 to $59.99, leading to a very high profit margin per car.
Word of mouth marketing is number one
At least to us it is!
We pride ourselves on our customer service and really focus on building relationships with our clients, something that cannot as easily be done at a low-cost high-volume shop. In the two and a half years our shop has been open, we have truly become a referral-based business, with more than 50 percent of all new customers coming to us because someone else told them to try us out. We have been able to cut our advertising budget in its entirety.
Honesty is good policy
Because we spent a great deal of time with our clients, they have really gotten to know myself and our crew on a personal level. With this familiarity comes a great deal of trust. Our customers really trust us. They come to us for advice on their cars and we give them honest opinions.
We take the time to take a very close look at their cars, do research for them, and make honest recommendations for services. This means that they now come to us first for all their car care needs — window replacement, body work, tinting, paintless dent repair, etc. These are services that we currently outsource, which means they don't cost us a lot of time, but have very high profit margins. I can't tell you how many customers have told us, "You just take care of it, okay? I didn't shop it around because I trust you and I know you guys will do it right." But it happens all the time.
The customer is always right
Well, almost always. In the case of telling us what they want, it's usually true!
We make it a priority to regularly poll our customers, both verbally and through written surveys, to see what is important to them when visiting our shop.
We've asked them to make suggestions about what other kinds of services they would like to see us offer. From these surveys our customers have actually been able to create two new washes, our pet lover's wash and our kiddie clean-up, which happen to be two of our highest profit-margin services.
The bottom line
The bottom line for Simon's is getting better and better each year as we continue to concentrate on our quality and building relationships with our customers as a full-service hand wash.
At Simon's, our focus is not on the quantity of cars we service, rather it's on the quality of services we provide. By doing so, we intend to have lifetime clients for whom we will fulfill all their car appearance needs. Making friends with our customers has definitely resulted in an increase in our bottom line.
Nicole Kloiber is the president and owner of Simon's Shine Shop, a full-service hand wash and detailing shop in Chicago, IL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.