What new detailers should know

Detailing for newbies 

What should new detailers focus on and, as important, not focus on?

Starting a new detail business as a “newbie,” so to speak, is both exciting and scary, right? When many of you took the step to own your own business and “be your own boss,” you were filled with optimism and hope, quitting your job and going out on your own. But, there was also the “fear of failing.”

Did you cover all the bases during the due diligence period? No. Did you miss something that could hurt your chances of success? Maybe you were like most who start a detail business from scratch … you “didn’t know what you didn’t know.”

So, you were unable to cover all the bases. Or, if you did get some help and attempted to do everything necessary to ensure success, there is still the unexpected challenges that come up when starting a new business. 

After all, what did you know about starting and operating a new business and for that matter, what did you know about professional detailing? 

Sure, you detailed your own car, your parents’ and friends’ cars, and a neighbor now and then; but, did you really know about paints and paint finish problems and corrections? What about interior leathers? Equipment? All you could afford was a cheap orbital waxer and shop vacuum from the local big-box store. Who could afford a high-quality shop vacuum ($200-plus) or a European-made dual action polisher or a heat soil extractor ($1,000 minimum)?

For many of you, your fear was a greater motivator than your optimism. As a result, you worked very hard not to win, but not to fail.

As a newbie to detailing, you’d be wise to learn from those who have traveled the road before you. I started in the detailing business in 1969 and have seen a few things. This article covers some of the common newbie mistakes, which you can avoid if you are receptive to learning from others. 

Fixed location versus mobile

One common mistake I notice among many new entrants is the failure to ask other successful detailers why they decided to go mobile or fixed location. Maybe a local detailer might not share anything with you — not wanting to help the competition. But, that is one good reason to joining and being active in the International Detailing Association (IDA). Joining the IDA gives you access to the top detailers around country … actually, around the world.

Mobile detailing
If you’re interested in mobile, find out why others did this and the pros and cons. It should not be, “I couldn’t afford a fixed location.” It must be that there is a great market opportunity to cater to wealthy people who have limited time. That means you want to operate in a market area where wealthy people live or work. The downsides of mobile detailing include:

• Weather: It’s hard to detail when it is raining, freezing, snowing, etc.
• Time: You waste valuable detail time driving from one location to another and wasted detail time setting up and tearing down.
• Labor: If you have employees, you are paying them for not working when you drive from one location to another, during setup and for tear down.
• Unique equipment needs: You should really have your own water tank. Also, according to the federal Clean Water Act, you must contain and remove all wastewater, requiring at least a water containment mat ($1,000-plus). You should have your own generator for electricity. You will need a van or trailer to carry all your equipment. 
• Energy costs: Factor in the increased costs of fuel, gasoline or diesel.
• Insurance: Special liability insurance for a mobile automotive business.

Fixed location 

There are many advantages to operating a fixed location. Many newbies simply ignore fixed locations because they feel they cannot afford the rent. If you really analyze the costs, I think you will find the out-of-pocket expenses are close to the same and, if not, the fact you can work on more than one car at a time and you are not wasting time driving from one location to another results in more revenue per hour per day.

If you do choose to go fixed, then you need to locate in an area where your target market customer might be working or living. Where there are auto dealers and fleets, for instance, there is an opportunity for wholesale business. Too many detailers find the cheapest rent, regardless of if the location is in a low-income area or an industrial area where there are few target customers.

You need to know the ins and outs of signing a lease, so things are in your favor. If it is in an auto mall, speak with other tenants to see how the landlord is to work with. And, make sure the location has a drain that is connected to the sanitary sewer so you can wash cars and clean engines.

Experience matters

Even the basic detail equipment, including electric buffer, wet/dry vacuum and soil extractor, requires regular maintenance and service. When equipment fails or malfunctions, you are out of business until it is repaired so you must have the knowledge of how to fix it.

Today, you can watch how-to videos online. Many are offered by the manufacturers of your equipment. You should familiarize yourself with these “how-to” videos so that when the time comes for a repair you know where to go and what to do. 

Or, if you are lucky, you might know or can find a “handyman” you can call in a pinch to help you out with repairs. I was lucky enough to meet such a person who could repair anything. He has helped me many times.

Additionally, if you’ve never managed people before, you need to learn in a hurry or it will cost you. You might be thinking you will not have employees so this is not necessary. If you expect to grow your detail business, at some point you will need employees. You not only need to know how to manage them, but also how to hire; you must learn how to interview to get the best candidates, and how to train them.

As a newbie, my hiring and managing of employees was awful. I had never hired anyone before, so I learned on the job, and made a great many bad hires and ended up with too many bad actors in the beginning. 

To make matters worse, I didn’t really know how to train or manage the employees to make sure they were happy and productive. I could have simply read a book about hiring and managing people. You will find all the information you need online on managing people.

Looking at complaints as opportunities

When I was new, I took complaints personally instead of trying to learn from the complaint and resolve it. I thought too much about keeping my machines and employees working and spent too little time thinking about what my customers needed or wanted. I made my own assumptions. Who was I to assume I knew it all?

Customer complaints are usually pure. If a customer is angry, there’s a good reason, and the probability is high that there may be others with the same complaint. As I grew older, I learned to look at complaints as opportunities to improve.

Instead of reacting defensively, I realized that all I had to do was listen to the customer to gather information, let him or her blow off some steam, offer a “thank you” for giving me the heads up, correct the issue and give the customer a little more than expected.

This approach turned angry customers into sales reps for my business. Not only did they get satisfaction, which is hard to find nowadays, but also giving them a little more than they expected really made a difference. And, what did it cost to keep the customer and have him or her tell friends how great my detailing service was? A lot less than sending them away angry and primed to bad-mouth me. Keeping the customer who spends $150 to $200 a detail twice a year is $300 to $400 of annual revenue, but it’s also positive word-of-mouth. Most detailers tell me their best source of business is word-of-mouth and you can’t get that if the customer is unhappy. 

You also don’t want to cut corners. I cut too many corners when I started. I should have raised more money first. I opened my first detail center in the winter of 1984, and the building had no heat. If I would have been smart, I probably could have gotten the landlord to install a heater in the shop. Since I was running out of capital and didn’t realize how important having a heated shop was, it slipped by. That is, until it got really cold that winter, but it was too late. That was a bad choice on my part. If the winter temperatures dip below 40 degrees, it is really hard to buff, polish or wax a vehicle, not to mention the effect cold temperatures have on employees. 

Other newbie mistakes 

I didn’t make any of the following errors, but do take care to avoid making them yourself. 

Not using a lawyer 
Landlords look out for themselves and most know leases very well. There are all kinds of traps for tenants in a commercial lease, more than a residential lease. Your lease is extremely important for many reasons. Always consult a lawyer so he or she can point out the risks of your lease … before signing.

I know some people who built a beautiful rooftop restaurant overlooking the ocean. About a year after opening and the
restaurant becoming clearly profitable, the landlord used a loophole in the lease to kick them out and take over the restaurant. This can happen to your business as well. 

You want to make sure your lease protects you in case the landlord has a son or relatives who always wanted their own business. Pay the money for a good lawyer who specializes in commercial real estate. They can also protect you with a sales contract if you ever want to sell.

Not using fear of failure to motivate
To be successful, you can’t be lazy. It’s not just your dreams of building a better detail business that can motivate you. Your positive energy is extremely important and can help you think up new ideas. It’s a great motivator, but fear of failure can be, too. Nobody wants to lose all their work and investment. If you’re a little scared, that’s a good thing. Use that fear to get your butt in gear.

You need to learn real fast what customers want and need. When you first open, many customers will be judging your detail service and quality. Float a survey early on to find out what customers like and dislike about your service. Repeat the survey every now and then since things can change. I always made a call to the customer a few days after the detail to ensure
satisfaction. 

Sometimes, I’d ask an existing customer, “Mr. Brown, can you do me a quick favor? Could you name three things you like about our detail service and three things you did not like?” Not everyone will tell you to your face what they really think, so I later decided to send an email or letter and asked customers to absolutely call me personally if they were dissatisfied with anything about our service.

Thinking that running a detail business is easy
Many times, when you walk into a business, you may not see the owner. Some people incorrectly assume that a small business is easy to operate. This is a dangerous attitude that can lead you into complacency right from the beginning. Yes, many people must have their vehicles detailed for a number of reasons, but remember, they don’t have to use your detail shop. 

Always remember that you have competitors, business owners who already know the market and have more experience than you. These people will not be happy that you showed up to operate a detail business that competes with them and pulls customers away. Be advised some can respond aggressively.

Not keeping your shop or detail trailer immaculate
Remember you are “selling clean.” Keeping a clean and immaculate shop or detail rig is a no-brainer and it should be for every detail business operator, too. After all, why would people want to go to a dirty shop or do business with a mobile detail operation that is dirty? It doesn’t compute. Yet many detail shops, detail rigs and the detailers themselves are extremely dirty. A dirty detail operation is sure to turn off customers.

Not exploring the situation when you get a bad vibe
Make sure all your questions are satisfactorily answered before you commit to anything related to your business. If you get a bad vibe about something, explore it.

The No. 1 newbie mistake is …

The biggest mistake committed over and over again is a new detail business owner not doing their serious due diligence. Many want-to-be detail business owners are very weak in this area. Why? Because they are technicians and not businessmen/businesswomen.

It is amazing that there are people willing to risk thousands of dollars in a detail business yet take a lackadaisical approach to checking out whether the numbers work or whether they are personally capable of successfully operating a detail business.

Due diligence has many definitions, but in the detail business, it is to be simply confirming as much information about the business as you can.

This means doing some market research in the local area by visiting competitors to see what they are doing. Talking to other businesses in the area, especially auto service businesses. Driving around the area to determine if there will be a sufficient customer base for your business. How much parking is available? Are there other detail businesses in the area? Do other mobile detailers operate in this area? Ask yourself why some detail operations are busy and some are not.

Due diligence also means learning about any government requirements or prohibitions that can affect your business. For instance, the Clean Water Act applies to every state and every city, whether the local authorities enforce the federal law about water discharge or not. Some detail business owners have signed leases in buildings where there is not a grease trap connected to the sanitary sewer or mobile detail operations that do not contain their wastewater and then what happens? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) comes into the area, gets after the local authorities for not enforcing the Clean Water Act and the local agencies come down on you hard. It happens.

And, in metropolitan areas, dealing with local building and consumer affairs departments can be daunting. You may not even be allowed to open your business in certain areas for any number of reasons or you may find out there’s a high hookup fee to use the sanitary sewer.

You need to develop an operating proforma to see if the business’ numbers will work. In short, you must know what it is going to cost you to set up the business and how much it will cost you monthly to operate. Then, determine how much business you will have to do every day, week, and month to ensure profit and a salary, and that the business can pay health insurance, vacation, sick leave, and retirement. All things you would get if you were working for someone else.

Remember, operating a detail business can look easy on the surface but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes.

There you have it. And while this list of potential newbie mistakes is comprehensive, I’m sure there are other things I have left out.

We’re human, after all, and in our youth and inexperience, we’re prone to slip up. The important thing is to recognize an error and learn from it so it doesn’t happen again. And don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re just getting started.

To help you out, I suggest you buy on Amazon or some other online book company, Michael Gerber’s book “The E Myth,” or “The E Myth Revisited.” The cost for a new book is less than $10 (less if used). It is written for anyone in an auto service business. Best investment you will ever make. 


RL “Bud” Abraham has been in the carwash and detailing industries since 1969 and is considered one of the foremost experts in the field. He worked for several carwash manufacturers and started his own company, DETAIL PLUS, in 1986. He was the founder and first executive secretary of the International Detailing Association. Today, he offers consulting services on carwashing and/or detailing to operators and manufacturers. Contact Bud at [email protected].

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