Last year, the professional carwashing industry continued to ride a wave of success from a growing portion of the U.S. that is both back to work with more discretionary funds to spend on such services as carwashing and that is more educated on the negative impacts of driveway washing. For many people, it was likely their first visit to the local carwash in years, maybe decades. However, how people find a carwash today is vastly different than in past decades.

It was actually quite cumbersome and less intuitive to find businesses, including carwashes, several decades ago. You either knew where the hometown carwash was located or you relied on the trusty Yellow Pages to show you the way. And, if you had more questions about the business, such as hours of operation, you picked up the phone and dialed, literally.

Your potential customers back then were limited not only by a phone cord, but also by the amount of information they could find, if any, about your business.

It was a clunky, time-consuming and often ineffective process, and in many cases for new potential customers, carwash owners and operators were summed up based on their Yellow Pages or black and white hometown newspaper ads.

Today, fortunately, with the internet we know everything has changed and a marketing shift has occurred. While it is easier for prospects and customers to find out more about your business — for better or worse — the internet presents an interesting crossroads for carwash owners and operators.

There are two general paths that carwash owners and operators can take in 2017 to market and advertise their businesses. First, you could always ignore the statistics and consumer trends by not participating in social media, building a website, implementing search engine optimization (SEO) techniques, updating map listings and mining review sites for a competitive advantage. Or, successful businesses in 2017 will most likely find a solid balance of traditional and digital marketing in order to effectively prospect for new customers and retain existing ones.

The new word-of-mouth

While it might seem like a new app or popular website that affects your business is emerging on a daily basis, carwash owners should not get bogged down and try to be everywhere, all the time. Know your audience when it comes to social media and augment a plan that balances respecting their free time and periodically reminding them of your business. Most people today use social media to stay connected with friends and family and not necessarily as an extension of their shopping research.

Using Facebook for your business is still considered a best practice because consumers do business with companies they feel comfortable with and can trust. Carwashes can build that trust on Facebook’s social platform. 

Related article: 4 emerging concepts and trends in social media marketing

This year, however, customer review sites should be a major focus. Why? According to a study by ShareThis and Paley Center for Media, strong positive reviews can result in a consumer paying approximately nine percent more for a product or service. In contrast, four out of five potential customers to your site will reverse their purchase decision after reading a negative review.

“Any type of marketing needs to be catered to the audience because people are being bombarded with advertising messages today and they will eventually tune it out,” notes Jenna Gross, chief marketing officer for Moving Targets, adding that marketing is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach. “However, people trust online reviews just as much as getting a recommendation from a friend or family member; this is the new word-of-mouth.”

According to Gross, all reviews, including bad ones, should be addressed when appropriate and only after calmly crafting a response — and when possible, carwash owners and operators should do it publicly.

“Take time to thank customers for writing something nice about your business, or if there is an issue, address it,” explains Gross. “This way, other people see that you are on top of things, aware of what is happening at your business and doing your best to create positive experiences for all customers.”

Handling poor customer reviews

Many carwash owners and operators who have decades of experience dealing with customer complaints in person could struggle with this new form of customer problem-solving. Above all, the most critical step is to not overreact and write something that you will later regret. It is bad enough that the customer’s negative review will likely be on the review site for maybe the life of your business, but how you respond could have a decade’s worth of positive or negative impacts; you can control that outcome.

“If your business struggles with poor customer ratings or reviews, it is important to do two things,” adds Katie Harris, a founding partner of Spot On Solutions. “First, try to respond quickly to customer complaints. Most people just want to be heard, so hear them. State how committed you are to providing a good experience for all your customers and say you are disappointed to hear their experience wasn’t stellar. Offer them an opportunity to talk to an owner or manager to help resolve the situation. At the very least, this shows other customers that you are fair and kind.”

The second step is to focus on getting good reviews to bury and dilute the poor ones, says Harris. “If you continue to struggle with poor reviews, then it is time to dig in and figure out what needs to be fixed internally to provide a better experience for your customers.”

Related article: Wash Wisdom: How to handle negative reviews on Yelp

Megan Loch, vice president of marketing for Zep Vehicle Care, concurs. She notes that one of the best ways to overcome a poor review is by encouraging positive reviews.

“On-site window stickers or signs placed just after the customer leaves your wash that encourage customers to leave a review can be helpful in getting more positive reviews,” educates Loch, adding that responding to a negative online review does not always have to be made publicly.

“There may be situations where it may be better to respond privately via direct message and then provide a public comment later,” Loch continues. “A negative review may reveal an area of your carwash that could benefit from improvement. Going the extra mile to make improvements as a result of a review can create long-lasting loyalty by showing your customers that you are listening to their feedback.”

Test drive new marketing strategies

In many ways, while the options continue to grow, formulating your marketing plan for 2017 does not have to be an arduous task. With social media, content marketing, videos and the many other forms of new — often free — advertising your carwash can take advantage of today, your business has a unique opportunity to reach customers on a personal level and educate them about the importance of your business like never before.

“Don’t be afraid of trying some of these newer marketing tactics with a simple strategy and determine later if you want to incorporate it long term,” notes Loch. “Engage others in the industry to help with ideas and share best practices, including the International Carwash Association (ICA), other operators and suppliers with strong marketing knowledge — they can all help you navigate marketing best practices and the changing landscape.”

According to our recent Professional Carwashing Industry Benchmark survey, which was published in the June 2016 issue, the majority (55 percent) of conveyor carwash respondents noted that their companies do have active websites. Assuming your business has a fully functioning website or successful social profile, one online marketing tactic to test is search visibility.

“Carwashes need to be easy to find online,” says Harris. “The first four results that show up on Google are paid ads. A smart pay per click (PPC) campaign can put you above your competition. The next three results are map listings, so be sure your listing is verified and optimized. You can go to www.google.com/business to learn more about verifying your listing.”

Additionally, adds Harris, it’s even easier today to track your return on investments in time, money and effort with free and inexpensive resources like Google Analytics, Facebook Insights and call tracking numbers.    

Keep it simple for dynamic returns

As mentioned, customers are inundated with marketing messages throughout the day. In fact, some digital marketing experts note that most Americans are exposed to about 4,000 to 10,000 advertisements each day. Billboard, television, radio, print and digital advertisements keep going and going and going, and eventually many consumers attempt to tune all the noise out with a smartphone and apps, which have more subtle advertising. Outside of sleep, customers are exposed to advertising all day and all night.

In 2017, the key is to keep it simple in the cluttered space of marketing.

“Simple, quick-hitting, value add messaging works well in a today’s world where you need to break through the clutter,” states Loch. “Today’s consumer doesn’t have time or want to think long and hard about their purchase decision. Your marketing and advertising needs to be focused on what is being delivered to the consumer, and it should be clear, concise and speak in a language that the consumer understands.”

For example, continues Loch, if your carwash has a new product in its top package and you want people to try it, tell them. “Let them know what’s unique or different about it and how they can try it today. Captivating your customer’s attention also requires keeping your carwash on-site merchandising updated and fresh. Replacing old, worn-out signs, especially when adding new products or services, can really go a long way in keeping your customers interested in seeing what’s new at your carwash,” she explains.

In many areas of the U.S., customers have more choices for a carwash these days, and complacent owners who ignore internet-based marketing are at risk. Digital ignorance can be blissfully painful in the end.

“The bottom line is that conversations are happening about your business whether you’re involved or not,” warns Gross.

As part of your marketing plan for 2017, dedicate the resources to ensure positive public conversations about your business that will result in powerful and profitable online customer reviews.