I’m writing this on April 1, 2020, at a time when historic government actions are underway to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. By the time this publishes, my hope is we are all healthy and back to washing cars. We each have families to care for, employees to pay, and businesses to run.
Unfortunately, there is never a crystal ball that can accurately foretell everything that will come next in any situation. Equally, there doesn’t seem to be a universally correct line-of-action for every community. And that’s the word that matters most to us during any business disruption: Community. More specifically, how we support the communities we serve during a crisis.
I’m fielding a lot of calls from operators looking for advice on what to do these last couple of days. My answer is the same; “Do what you feel are the best actions for your community and your business. Think about things that your community and business will thank you for when this is over.”
For some, it’s offering free washes to first responders. For others, it’s keeping their doors open but removing services like vacuums and having an attendant at the pay station. For others, it’s closing all their locations.
In the words of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld there are always “unknown unknowns” in any situation. Each of us will have to work within the framework provided by our state and local governments. The one thing I do know with absolute certainty, though, is that customers will favor the companies they admire through this event once it’s over.
You won’t be reading this for another month yet. By that time, I hope you will have already carried through on ways your business could help contain the spread of the virus; implemented programs to wash cars; maximized government programs; and started to engage on maintenance that you’ve been putting off. As I’m working through this at my own wash, I can’t help but also consider ways to improve my value proposition. So, I share with you my shortlist of considerations, COVID-19 or not.
Get Your Plan Up to Date
Advances in technology, equipment, chemistry, and controls have made it easier to deliver excellent customer experiences at an increasingly lower cost. There are some incredibly successful operators out there building locations that just seem to do everything right. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.
Success is like an iceberg — people only see the part that’s visible. What they don’t see is the immense amount of effort, sacrifice, and persistence it took to achieve that success — the months of testing different marketing plans; the months of getting permits to build; the months of planning this, that, and everything else.
Whether you are looking to update your existing wash or build a new wash, you must start from the beginning. You must nail the fundamentals. Take this time to research everything that’s new and develop a plan to wow your customers with it once it’s over.
Promote Customer Loyalty
Your customers’ loyalty depends on two things: the wash you provide and the experience they receive. When I ask owners how they keep customers, they invariably tell me about all kinds of “things” they employ: VIP cards, points-based savings programs, and wash books.
Don’t get me wrong. These value enhancements are beneficial. But if you want loyal customers, you need to focus on both delivered value and the experience.
Improving the experience does not have to cost a lot of money either. Slap on a fresh layer of paint. Do some pressure washing. Or how about the landscaping out front that looks a little overgrown? Clean it up. You may also want to order new staff uniforms and update your preventive maintenance program to ensure your equipment is functional and clean. Maybe add a light show or scent to the tunnel to make detergent application more exciting.
Deliver a Consistent Experience
How can you provide a better car wash more consistently?
Fine tuning your car wash to achieve consistency means spending hours tracking process times, keeping tabs on how much detergent you use per wash, and noting any problems that occur.
Educate yourself on industry best practices that help stabilize your process times. Utilize resources like trade shows, and, in their absence, leverage the incredible growth of online training that has become available.
Audit Your Operating Costs
Controlling costs means auditing your operating expenses. How much are you paying for water and electricity? What about your detergent consumption? Do you have frequent maintenance issues?
To reduce the direct cost per wash, you must identify and remove waste without forfeiting wash quality. Find creative ways to reduce consumption of energy and water. For example, talk to your detergent rep about the best way to apply solutions to reduce waste. Until your operation is running with the precision of a Swiss watch, technology advancements will not help you achieve efficiency. Or you may find yourself thinking, if I spend a little more on a stronger manager, will I have happier customers and more cars to wash?
Schedule All Repairs
Short of a natural disaster, there is no reason that unscheduled repairs should occur.
When creating your PM program, make sure you include periodic inspections and train your staff accordingly. These inspections regulate equipment monitoring and help you find potential issues before they manifest into full-fledged breakdowns. Your PM program must promote maximum efficiency, productivity, and consistency for you to sufficiently grow your business.
Labor shouldn’t be involved in the wash process — plain and simple. Your car wash should be headed towards automation to help reduce (and maybe eliminate) labor costs. Even if you think you’re doing well on this, think again. Go back to step 1 and get your plan up to date. New innovations, whether it be license plate recognition or a new blower design, continue to push what’s possible without labor.
Increase Your Average Ticket
How are you exciting customers about your innovative service options? Menus, signage, lighting, and digital marketing; people will buy if they know why it’s valuable. Aim for your top package to represent 20 percent of your total washes sold, or more. If you aren’t reaching that number, put some thought into how you can reach that number. Better yet, research what other operators are doing to build up their wash value.
Examine Your Marketing Program
If you aren’t communicating to your customers, you won’t get much business. Blogs, social media, and e-mail are all tools. Prior to COVID-19 interrupting your business, were you using the tools to their best potential?
I wish I could say I had a solid strategy in place to engage and captivate my current customers in place when the Coronavirus started making headlines. I’d be lying if I said I was completely in control of my customers’ online sentiment for my car wash and actively targeting new customers to try my wash at that time.
Fortunately, I do have the basics in place. My website is connected to my social platforms and everything is set up. And that’s today. For anyone curious about what I’m doing later today, immediately after I send this article to the magazine, I’ll be on a call with my digital marketing agency. It’s inevitable that we will beat COVID-19 and I for one am going to make sure that I’ll be in a position to rebound fast.
Good luck and good washing.
Anthony Analetto has over 35 years’ experience in the car wash business and is a partner at SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.