Let me start by writing: If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. Your tunnel should produce a clean, dry, and shiny vehicle every time…without manual prep.

            Yet here I am writing about the steps I take to prep every car that goes through the wash. And I’m not talking about a quick high-pressure spray down. Every windshield gets foamed bug juice applied. Any area of concern is carefully brushed with synthetic hog hair. Let me explain.

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            Can you name which year and on which trim levels Toyota began offering rain-sensing windshield wipers on a RAV 4? What about a Kia Sportage? The fact is that automatic rain-sensing windshield wipers are no longer the domain of premium brands. They are fast becoming as common as power windows. If not turned off, wipers will activate in the tunnel, creating the potential for damage.

            Do not rely on customers or staff to know what to do. Sure, mitigate liability by posting a sign instructing customers to turn off automatic wipers. But guess what. Now that they’re becoming commonplace, customers barely remember having automatic wipers, let alone know how to turn them off. Even if you’re not liable for the damage to the vehicle, it creates the potential for a bad customer experience, which, in turn, will damage your reputation and business.

            I recommend installing an air-operated foaming sprayer for your guide-on attendant at the tunnel entrance. Work with your chemical supplier to select a slightly alkaline or neutral detergent formulated to loosen bugs or other seasonal grime at your wash that complements your other chemical applications. Instruct your attendant to spray every front and rear windshield regardless of how clean it is. Ensure they hit right at the back of the rearview mirror, where automatic wiper sensors are often positioned. Whenever wipers automatically activate, train them to stop the wash, politely help the customer deactivate, and spray again to confirm they are off before sending them through the tunnel. Here ends the practical step to mitigate liability. Now the fun part; elevating the experience to increase customer retention and average ticket.

Blow Them Away With Attentive Customer Service

            Post COVID, I find myself commiserating with people from every walk of life on the decline of customer service experiences everywhere. Complaints about longer wait times, automated interactions that don’t resolve issues, and staff incapable of solving problems seem to top the list. During the pandemic, it made sense. Staffing shortages, supply chain issues, and other challenges were met with sympathetic customers patient with disruption.

Post-pandemic, customers are frustrated with the slow return to excellent service, and therein lies the opportunity.

            One survey I read of more than 25,000 consumers estimated that 50 percent had changed their values, expectations, and buying habits due to the pandemic. They indicated that they are more inclined to abandon brands that don’t support their new values — and pay more for those that do. As a simple car wash owner/ operator, here’s what I’m witnessing in layman’s terms.

Customers Crave Pleasant Interactions with Actual People

            Hand-prepping vehicles to increase customer loyalty certainly isn’t new. What’s new is how valuable that interaction has exponentially become. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy for a car wash to take advantage of this trend without negatively impacting your bottom line.

            Before changing your loading procedure, first ensure your staff lives, breathes, and acts within a clearly stated customer service creed that includes your flavor of:

            •           Respect. A smiling attendant who treats a customer and their car with care.

            •           Appreciation. An exit thank you sign or a customer service text after a visit.

            •           Quality. A clean, dry, shiny vehicle every visit.

            Hand-prepping vehicles is a means to that end. It’s easy to implement and does the job nicely. I’ll detail the steps below to maximize its impact while minimizing labor. But ask yourself, if every car wash hand-preps every vehicle, what other opportunities can you create for your staff to interact positively with customers that are unique to your business? How can you leverage fundraisers? Community involvement? Social media campaigns? That’s the entrepreneurial question that separates the wheat from the chaff. 

Enhance What You Are Already Doing

            You’re halfway there if you agree with my logic to spray bug juice on every windshield to test for automatic wipers. Next, install a tank with a proportioner and pump to maintain proper detergent type and concentration on each side of the tunnel entrance.

            Provide staff with a synthetic or natural hog-hair brush on a long handle to quickly brush across the front and rear bumpers and any areas of concentrated bugs or bird droppings before brushing the windshield. Train to prep any areas that might be missed if you’ve activated any retracts for the vehicle. Remember, this is for customer interaction and experience, not to compensate for an insufficient tunnel system, so focus on speed and efficiency. Also, different states have varying rules related to tax calculations. Avoid surprises by reviewing the change with your advisor before implementing it.

Do It Safely, or Don’t Do It At All

            Whatever you do, don’t allow attendants to cross in front of the vehicle.  Even with long-handled brushes, there is a very strong temptation for attendants to step in front of the car. The faster they work, the stronger this temptation becomes. Train, and retrain against this temptation. Untrained attendants racing around a wet and slippery tunnel entrance with a distracted customer behind the wheel is a disaster waiting to happen. You must ensure that any attendant you have is physically capable of prepping the car (from one side if single-staffed).

            Don’t do it if you’re not prepared to invest in the additional labor, management, and training to perform hand-prep safely. Consider installing those same tanks with a hand-held brush in your free vacuum area with a sign promoting free self-serve bug prep instead.

Charging for Bug-Prep Is Always an Option

            Usually promoted as $X for a “bug-prep” add-on and included in the top wash package. If you go this route, remember that when a customer pays for a service, the expectation increases. A customer with etched bug damage that needs high-speed buffing to resolve will be disappointed.

            Customers that misunderstand the need to pay for prep will be disappointed when they don’t receive it. I happen to be an under-promise and over-deliver kind of guy. With that in mind, I personally like the unpaid model of prepping every car better.

Have Your Cake and Eat It Too

            Great businesses genuinely care about creating positive experiences for their customers, and they use their products and services to do so. When competing for your unfair share of your customer’s disposable income, you’re competing with every service business able to deliver a rewarding experience for a few dollars, not just the wash down the street.

            Think about the perks that interest customers in your region and put a plan into action. Bug prep or not — every business can excel with customer service in different ways; the secret is approaching it with a happy customer as the end goal.

            Good luck and good washing.

Joining the company in 2000, Anthony Analetto serves as the president of Sonny’s CarWash Equipment Division. In this role, Anthony leads the innovation of new products to drive client success and oversees all operations, engineering, and supply chain management. Washing cars for more than 30 years, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain prior to joining the company.