Many carwashes across the country are seeing more customers more often these days compared to previous years. With the emergence of loyalty club programs as well as a spike in interest regarding our industry’s services, which is occurring for a variety of reasons, including more people opting for professional carwashing over driveway washing, most carwash owners and operators are in a unique position today to create customer loyalty for the years ahead. But, what matters most to customers today?

While each customer is unique, recent studies and research suggest that there are now common themes that matter most to retail customers today. For example, according to a recent Customer Experience and Impact survey, sponsored by Synchrony Financial, there are several ways to create positive customer experiences that can be easily implemented in your business.

As noted in this survey report, 53 percent of consumers would pay a higher price for the experience they value most. In other words, if you are able to figure out what factors play an important role in elevating the customer experience, it will not only drive customer satisfaction, but it will also influence customer behavior and purchasing decisions.    

By being aware of these trends as well as knowing what your peers — other carwash owners and operators — are doing to be successful, it can help your business thrive in an industry where competition continues to challenge your ability to maintain customers.    

Sweet emotions  

Shopping, for many customers, is a process that is filled with emotions. From purchasing coffee to getting the car washed, customers are looking for that experience that makes them feel special or part of something that is unique. There’s a reason why people pay $2 or more for a cup of coffee. While consistency and quality of the product is likely high on the list, there’s more to it than that.

And, although it is not the same as purchasing a cup of coffee or new clothes, carwashing is definitely an opportunity to tap into the customer’s emotions. “A carwash is an experience,” adds Gil Castro, director of operations for Zips Car Wash. “Any time a customer goes somewhere for an experience, they’re looking for that little extra something that makes them feel special.”     

As noted by Cliff Reed III of Hydro-Spray, in general, customers gain a sense of satisfaction and pride when visiting a professional carwash. “They feel good about themselves having a clean vehicle,” he explains. “The carwash owner can leverage that good feeling of the consumer and make their experience even better by offering promotions.”

Examples of those promotions to enhance the customer experience can be a lottery for free time in the wash bay or customers earning a free wash or upgraded package after a specified number of purchases. Customers feel a sense of excitement and euphoria when saving money, especially when it is unexpected.

John Roush, founder and managing partner of Moo Moo Express Car Wash, also understands the importance of tapping into customers’ emotions while visiting the carwash. “It’s a 50/50 ratio for us,” he says. “Obviously, you need to provide customers with a quality wash. The other half is what touches the other five senses.”

Carwashes today, regardless of format or location, can win customer loyalty by paying meticulous attention to several areas of the wash that many owners and operators might minimize, including:

  • Attractive landscaping
  • Colorful, appropriate signage
  • Properly functioning equipment
  • Music and entertainment
  • Maintaining a visually tight, smooth operation
  • Having friendly, smiling employees.

“These are all extremely important in a retail environment,” Roush asserts. “Any of the carwash models can hit a lot of these visual and audio cues. In fact, in retail, it doesn’t even really matter what type of business you’re in. These strategies are effective across the board.”

In addition, customers will more often frequent businesses that they feel they have a connection with. Aligning customers’ special interests with yours is a good way to tap into customer emotions and drive loyalty. Simply put, some customers want to purchase services from a brand and company they can trust.

“In our opinion, delivering a positive customer experience has two principles,” notes AJ Zappitelli, owner of Zappy’s Auto Washes. “First, the customer must receive high quality service and believe our carwash has performed at an optimal level. Secondly, they must feel good supporting our business. If both of these are achieved, we believe the customer has had a positive experience. When someone sees Zappy’s logo, we want them to feel good.”

Price versus value

While the incorporation of LEDs and triple foam, as examples, are easier to implement to meet customer satisfaction demands, price is a little more elusive. If you own or operate a new carwash or if your customers are telling you that your prices are too high, it is smart to visit other carwashes in your area to get an initial idea of what prices and packages their customer bases are most comfortable with. 

As part of your growth strategy and in order to sell the value of your business, you should have a good understanding of the local demographics as well. Looking at the types of businesses in town can also help inform you of the makeup of shoppers in the area.

Related: Starting a carwash: Pricing your services

“[It’s] very critical to understand your market area,” insists Reed. “I have seen a less-than-average location become super successful because the necessary homework was done and the right equipment and services were installed. You have to think practical and decide what will bring value to your market/customer.”

And, the same thought process should be applied when marketing your carwash. Carwash owners find success in marketing when they know who the target customers are and which marketing messages resonate the most.

“We do our best to track which services are being used at each wash,” asserts Zappitelli. “This helps us determine what we need to do from a marketing and service standpoint. For instance, if self-serve washes are being used at a higher rate at one location, this gives us an indication of the demographics, what the customers want and what they are using; and then, we adjust accordingly. Being located in northeast Ohio, weather plays a large role for us. Depending on the time of year, our demographic using the washes changes, along with the specific types of services being used. We have been able to identify certain trends throughout the year which helps our marketing efforts and guides different promotions. It is important to know and study your market.”   

Manufacturers, suppliers, consultants and other carwash owners and operators can also be invaluable resources to help you structure the right packages and prices for your area as well as to sell the value of your services.

Selling value in your services is commonly achieved through bundle or bulk discounts, discounted club memberships, rewards, etc. However, when selling the value of your carwash’s experience, it requires some outside-the-box strategic thinking.

Customers value clean sites that add subtle touches of elevated ambience. “Look at some of the most popular [fast-food and relaxed casual] restaurants today,” says Roush. “They’re not selling the Wi-Fi or the fireplace … they’re simply enhancing the experience. People value businesses that have a clean brand and facilities that are updated, modern and cool. That’s why our company’s mantra is, ‘Sweat the details.’”     

Value of feedback

Whether on-site or off-site, customer feedback will help you enhance the customer experience and sell the value of your services in many ways. The carwash owners we interviewed for this article all noted the importance of surveys and customer communication.

According to Zappitelli, it’s important to speak with and engage with your customers as often as possible. “Keeping an open line of communication, while giving your customers a voice, is another way to achieve customer satisfaction and gain trust. Using social media to acknowledge and recognize customers is another way to elevate the customer experience,” he adds.

Correcting issues in a timely manner based on this feedback cannot be understated. However, this feedback should also be used as a level of quality control. Especially when trying to gauge whether or not you’re effective at delivering a quality customer experience, this feedback is critical.

“We only have three, maybe four, minutes with the customer during the actual wash process. I think the industry has done one heck of a job to pack in as much entertainment as possible within such a short period of time to enhance that customer experience,” proclaims Roush. “From my time in the industry, I have seen it go from being a few flashing LED lights on the side to foam shows and more. It’s exciting to be a part of — we have a cool machine with a nice captive audience.”

And, as Roush continues, customer feedback is important for two reasons: it helps validate the experience you’re trying to deliver, and it gives carwashes an opportunity to correct issues and show they care. In order to attract more feedback, carwashes can hold monthly raffles, for instance, for submitting customer feedback.      

The element 

Attracting, training and ultimately retaining quality employees are very important aspects of running a successful carwash today. A negative experience with an employee will cause a customer to bring his or her money and loyalty to another business. With more and more carwashes staffing fewer and fewer employees, customer-employee contact points must be positive at all times.

Although Castro notes that what matters first and foremost to customers is the operation and performance of the equipment and making sure they get what they pay for, having employees on-site can help educate customers or resolve any issues with equipment.

“In self-serve, for instance, if an employee is not on-site and an issue with the equipment arises, the customer just leaves frustrated, and you miss an opportunity to resolve the issue. On the other hand, the window for customer contact at express washes is very limited, so your employees have to make that time count in a positive way. Team members in the field are the ones who have the biggest impact on our customers, and we realize that these interactions are what is most important to our company,” explains Castro. 

Business transparency is also a key factor in gaining customer trust and ultimately enhancing the customer experience. Posting photos of the site and its employees online and throughout the carwash is a good way for customers to get to know your team. An “Employee of the Month” program recognizes employees who go above and beyond, and it shows customers who your top performers are.

There is a formula to winning customers, attracting new business and growing loyalty. However, in addition to the general best practices outlined in this article, you must do your own research to understand your area’s demographics and invest in employees who have a positive impact on your carwash.

“People today have pretty high standards and expectations; not only carwashes, but small businesses in general really have to step up their game to maintain market share and even more to gain market share. You’ll be left behind if you are not being creative with your business because reliability and cleanliness are expected today,” concludes Reed.