A huge amount of pride goes into detailing. With so many people’s hands touching a car and spending long hours to clean it and make it shine, it’s a very personal industry. Detailers spend time getting to know both the car and the customer. In addition, every detailing business is unique precisely because of the many and varied people who make up that business.
Often, the best chemistry in a company comes from people who have different skill sets and interests but work together for a shared vision. Greg Natonson and Jason Otterness, co-owners of Chicago Auto Pros Detailing, which has two locations in Chicagoland, Illinois, are just two such people. They were brought together not only by a shared passion for the industry but also a vision of what it could be.
The dream clean team
Natonson and Otterness met while both were working in the carwash industry. Natonson worked for a chemical supplier and Otterness managed a carwash. After realizing they both wanted to pursue a vision of “detailing done right,” they decided to go into business together. Neither had all of the resources and skills to go it alone, but they found that they had a special dynamic in combining their skills, allowing them to work towards their vision together. So, in 2012, Chicago Auto Pros Detailing was born.
According to the duo, Otterness is the “driving force behind the business” while Natonson handles the business side and the customer end. With his resourcefulness and hard-working nature, Otterness spurs the team ahead and does not back down from any challenge presented by the detailing shop. Natonson, on the other hand, thrives when face-to-face with the customers. And, when it comes to ideas, Otterness dreams big and forges ahead to see them through, while Natonson comes up with detailed solutions to fill in all the gaps.
Early on, most of Chicago Auto Pros’ business consisted of wholesale work. Like most startups, Chicago Auto Pros had to find its footing. As with many businesses, the company found it hard to straddle the line between providing quality and earning enough for the completed work.
“We wanted to do great work, but the dealers want everything so cheap,” Natonson explains. “We didn’t want the car dealers to dictate our quality, because we thought it would be hard for the employees to change gears when excellence is required. So, we decided that there’s one level of quality at Chicago Auto Pros, which everyone will receive. Instead of cutting corners, we insisted that every car be done properly and to the best of our abilities. Our dealer accounts benefitted from our thorough work, and we didn’t make any money on those jobs, but we created an ethos for our employees to ‘do it right,’ and that’s a big part of what’s driving our success today.”
But, while Chicago Auto Pros may have put quality ahead of cost early on, it was precisely because of their quality that they were able to turn out a successful business as time passed.
Detailing done right
Promoting the best quality in all of its work is only one aspect of “detailing done right” for Chicago Auto Pros. There are several other factors in the equation as well, such as maintaining a positive customer experience and creating a community among its customers.
To Natonson and Otterness, most of a positive customer experience comes in managing expectations. Their policy is to be honest with their customers and not oversell the products they install. Additionally, the business has to be firing on all cylinders at every step of the way to meet those expectations.
For Otterness, what is also critical to selling the business is the first impression — but not just the first impression from the street. “The look of the website, the customer reviews, the person answering the phone, the landscaping and the waiting area all have to look as good as the quality of our detailing so as not to raise doubts in the customer’s mind,” Otterness asserts. “If we’ve done everything else right, the customer expects that the quality of the work will be there. If we mess any of those things up, then they are a lot more critical of our work, because we’ve raised their suspicions or have not met their expectations at some other point.”
But, creating a good first impression and customer experience is only half the mission. As Natonson points out, a key measure of having solid customer relationships is what happens when things don’t go according to plan.
“I think the measure of a good, customer-focused business is how they behave when things don’t go right. We have problems like any other automotive business: We damage cars, we fall behind schedule, we skip services that should have been performed, etc.,” Natonson admits. “When something goes wrong, we own it. We’re honest with our customers, and we do what is right to fix the situation. When there are situations where we have to pay $1,000 to fix a $200 job, we do it. The financial loss is part of the price we pay to maintain our excellent reviews and retain customers.”
Furthermore, Natonson realizes the importance of having facetime with the customer for a detailing business. “We can take time to meet and greet each customer,” he says. “In a carwash, you might have a few seconds with each customer. At our detail shop, the volume of customers is [lower], so we have time to talk and socialize.”
Chicago Auto Pros is actively working on new ways to create community in its business. One way the company tries to promote local car culture is through its popular car meets, which happen twice a year. It also features customers’ cars on social media and has begun adding customer testimonials to its video logs (vlogs) — a unique but integral part of its marketing technique.
Using vlog power
Recently, Professional Carwashing & Detailing highlighted the power that video has in marketing nowadays. Chicago Auto Pros jumped on this trend early. In April 2013, the company published its first detailing vlog on YouTube. Today, the company has over 8,000 subscribers to its channel, and the vlogs are the most important aspect of its marketing.
Otterness has long harbored a passion for video and photography, and he not only realized the potential of this media platform, but he also had a vision for how Chicago Auto Pros could improve upon the quality of the other detailing offerings online. After trying several different formats, he found his voice and a style that seemed to resonate with the audience.
But, it’s not enough to simply have a video presence. Like detailing, video has to be done right. “There has to be quality. The audio, video and editing all have to be top-notch to get people’s attention,” Otterness explains. “Then there’s the content. We try to make it fun and informative without wasting a lot of time.”
As with everything, it took Otterness time to get comfortable in front of the camera, but it was a challenge he enjoyed overcoming. As an added bonus, the vlogs turned out to be a great motivator for the employees, because they liked to see themselves on video.
But, the best part about the vlogs has been the audience’s response to them.
“The response has been amazing,” Otterness reveals. “People are surprisingly interested in what goes on at our shop. I think they like seeing the cars — we do get some pretty cool stuff. I’m also surprised at the number of people who know me when they come to the shop. I hear all the time, ‘Hey, you’re the guy in the videos.’”
Natonson also sees this response from customers as well. “It’s the single biggest driver of new business we have,” he explains. “Every day, someone tells me, ‘I saw your video with the Camaro, and I want to do that to my car,’ or ‘You guys have great videos.’ The videos work like a 15-minute advertisement. They show people our passion and commitment to quality. We can demonstrate the care we use when working on customers’ cars, and that helps them decide that we ‘get it’ and they want to work with us.”
Creating master detailers
Chicago Auto Pros’ vlogs showcase firsthand the skill and attention to detail its employees use when working on cars. Otterness and Natonson know that their employees are the core of the company, and so they work hard to take care of them. While the company gives them perks, like free drinks at the shop, group lunches on Saturdays, holiday pay and plenty of parties, the owners also strive to train and motivate them to become better detailers, which is much easier said than done.
However, one way in which they have recently been trying to help their employees is by creating highly detailed training manuals. “We try to anticipate and document all of the tasks and potential situations in which an employee might find himself,” Otterness says. “While we will never cover everything, we try to keep adding to our documentation. For the situations that are not covered with specific processes, we fall back on our ‘core values.’ By thinking of our core values when faced with a difficult decision, we hope that an employee can come up with a satisfactory result.”
In addition, Chicago Auto Pros tends to promote from within, which not only creates opportunities for employees but also results in a quality, cross-trained workforce that’s more flexible.
“We always wanted to make detailing into a well-paying career,” Natonson asserts. “When we started, it seemed like you were either an owner or a detailer. There was nothing in between and not a lot of money for payroll. As we grew and found more profitable work, we started to specialize. We needed a foreman for the detailers, we added window tinters and paint protection film installers. Within each discipline, we created tiers with incentives for becoming a ‘master’ in the discipline. Our goal now is to continue to add locations and create opportunities for the entire team.”
Given its strict adherence to a quality-first policy, there’s little doubt that this company will continue to succeed.
“We always try to be authentic,” Natonson concludes. “When we set our prices, we don’t look at our competition for guidance. We look at our costs and time that it takes to do a job right and go from there. Not everyone needs what we do, and there are other detail shops for them; but, for the customers who are looking for our level of care, we feel like we provide excellent value.”