It’s November. You’ll have to wait another 11 months to implement one of the most effective loyalty programs I’ve ever seen at a car wash:

            Every October, this operator went out and bought a few thousand dollars’ worth of pumpkins. In bulk, per pound, they’re relatively cheap. A huge, bright, cheerful, orange pumpkin patch is an eye-catcher for passing traffic. Add a large sign saying, “Free Pumpkins!” Kids in the cars driving by would point and ask their parents to stop for a car wash. Every customer that bought the top package picked a free pumpkin. Cheap, simple, and effective. His sales and average ticket skyrocketed, and people remembered it year after year. Even the most infrequent customer planned a trip to the car wash every Halloween. This wash was known for this.

What Is Your Wash Known For?

            Mention the term loyalty program and many think of setting up some “system.” Point systems, license plate recognition retargeting, a monthly wash plan, or even a simple punch card with the 10th wash free. I’ll touch on some of those tactics, but it’s not the foundation of customer loyalty.

            I expect many of you answered the question “what is your wash known for?” with some variation of “we’re known for delivering a high-quality, fast, and friendly service at a reasonable price.” Without that as a baseline response, it’s unlikely any service business would survive. But here’s the kicker: that alone is often enough to support one or more locations in a market in the absence of a superior competitor.

            Which leads to the next question: “What makes a car wash a superior competitor?”

People Are Loyal to Businesses They Love

            Admittedly, being liked is a prerequisite to cultivate customer loyalty. But being loved by fanatical customers is a guaranteed path to success. Sadly, love can be fickle. It’s doing hundreds of small things you believe are important and sticking to those principles. Being loved requires actively looking for new and exciting ways to delight your lover … I mean, your target customer.

            Think about brands you love or feel that many people you know also love. Search “what is (that company name) known for.” Maybe you’re in line with one of my guilty pleasures and learned that a certain Chicken-sandwich shop, that’s closed on Sundays, is also famous for its healthy employee relationships. It’s just one of many qualities that makes up the “secret sauce” of this brand’s cult-like following. My point is that most reading this know exactly what company I’m referring to. And even if you don’t, the fact that I, as a customer of theirs, assume you do, proves my point.

            Delivering a consistently clean, dry, shiny car alone may not develop a cult-like following for your wash, but without it, customers won’t be loyal.  A bad wash is a bad wash; a free pumpkin can’t overcome it.

            “Love is not a business. It’s not a transaction. It’s not an exchange or something you get for doing something. It’s not a trade. It’s a gift.” Forgive me if you feel I’m hijacking the intent of this quote from Tony Robbins; I see the world through car wash owner glasses. Through those glasses, “it’s a gift” jumps out at me most. Bear with me, I don’t think Mr. Robbins would mind.

            There are a thousand ways we can show customers “the gift” of how much we love and appreciate them. Thoughtful conveniences like free towels and compressed air guns at our self-serve vacuum stations; re-wash guarantees and other appreciated

policies; environmental initiatives ranging from reclaiming water to some of the new solar vacuum canopies being tested in some markets. Whatever you do, be proud of the gift you’re giving. Tell customers about it. Put it on signs, receipts, social media anywhere customers can see.

            Why wait to say thank you to your best customers?  Why make them jump through hoops? Train yourself and your staff to walk up to customers and say, “thank you for visiting our car wash, we’ve seen you wash here before and want you to know how much we appreciate your business.” Giving a sincere thank you is powerful, and arguably the best investment you can make to earn repeat business.

And My Favorite Loyalty Program Is…

            Hands down, my favorite loyalty program is the monthly unlimited car wash plan. It rewards my best customers by giving them a huge discount on what they already love. And while it may be a discounted program, I treat it as a loyalty program not a wash discount. Vacuum stations are lovingly crafted and maintained with every convenience to make it easier. Bug prep stations are abundant for those who care about their car as much as I do. There is ample space and lanes to use so my customers don’t feel rushed. The workspace is shaded during the day with bright lighting at night to make it a comfortable experience. I’m now looking to install signage with a QR code on my vacuum posts to market the monthly wash club with a direct sign-up link. 

            This new QR code could have a promotion: Scan the code to join the monthly wash club and get the first month free (with three-month commitment). This is an absolute surefire way to insult the thousands of paying club members that never got a free month. Once started, loyalty programs demand care and commitment. If you discontinue a program, you want to roll existing members into the better reward system. As example, I may offer a family plan: $5 discount per month for additional cars. And if I do, it will be available to all club members, new and old.

            If for example, you heavily promote a “Whacky Wednesday” or “Early Bird” special and see huge volume spikes week after week, you are successfully rewarding your loyal repeat customers by default. Be careful with sudden program changes. Taking away perks that your customers expect can have a greater negative business impact than if you never offered a discount in the first place.

            Love every repeat customer regardless of whether they join your monthly wash club or not. Points programs work wonders for this. Very simply, the customer drives up, a license plate camera recognizes the customer. That recognized car earns points. After so many points their next wash is free, or some other promotion you define. And you need to tell them about it. Show it to them on the pay station or print it on the receipt.  It’s a nice way to recognize their loyalty and to say thank you. That’s the kind of love that builds loyalty.

The Whole Is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

            There are so many touch points where you can create a positive and memorable experience for your customers — infinite opportunities to demonstrate your love for them. The experience in your tunnel; the friendliness of your team; financial benefits for repeat business. Dig deep on your research of “what is (famous brand with cult-like following) known for.” Their loyal patrons recognize the details. From specifically positioned palm trees to secret menu items, the retail chains that reap the reward of raving fans do more than one thing and they consistently apply it to every location. Do it right and your customers will be hopelessly devoted to your wash.

            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.