Ho, Ho, Ho, and Merry Christmas. That’s right, I’m writing about Christmas in February. Why? Because last December, right before the holidays, I was on the phone with multiple operators, each talking about holiday marketing plans, asking what I thought was most effective for promoting gift-card sales. I hate to be blunt, but the time to plan your holiday marketing isn’t three weeks before the big day, actually, it’s now, in February, months before. Like most things in life, there’s more to it than meets the eye. Effective holiday marketing is about much more than throwing on a Santa hat and selling gift cards.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Pretend you’ve decided to give a gift card to a loved one. Picture yourself in front of the gift-card display rack at your favorite grocery store. There are a lot of safe bets from national franchises to choose from. If you’re still in doubt, you can simply opt for a cash card. What in the world would inspire you to risk going to a local store, especially one selling a service rather than a durable good, and buy a holiday gift card to give to a friend or loved one? The answer is, and here’s what I hope is the “ah-ha” moment in this article, that any customer so bold as to buy a gift card for your car wash is a raving fan of your business. They love you so much, that they want to use the holidays to tell their friends and family how great your wash is. They trust the consistency of your product. They anticipate the recipient of the card loving your service as much as they do and being appreciative of the gift.

I’m sorry, but if your holiday gift card sales are lagging, it’s unlikely that a different incentive, sign, or e-mail blast alone will fix the problem. Your opportunity is to evaluate what you’re doing to cultivate customer loyalty over the next 10 months. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that delivering a clean, dry, shiny car is enough to develop repeat business. Like most worthwhile endeavors, creating loyal customers takes hard work. Let’s take a look.

Get Your Staff on the Same Page

Step one in creating brand loyalty is putting your customer’s satisfaction first. So, for example, when a regular customer who washes every week with your base package comes in with an exceptionally dirty car, and after the wash, complains that the wheels are still dirty, you can’t afford to have your staff tell them that next time he should pick the higher package with extra wheel cleaning. You and I know that there won’t be a

next time and that you’ve just lost a repeat customer, and potentially their friends, for life. Imagine if, instead, your staff thanked the customer for their repeat business, explained how, in addition to providing a better shine and protecting their vehicle, the top wash package also included additional wheel cleaning, and then gave the customer a free top wash so that they could try it and see the difference. That single gesture would likely commit that weekly customer to your wash, for years to come, with a higher average ticket, and possibly a holiday gift-card sale to boot.

Getting staff to recognize repeat customers and make the right decisions demands training. Even more important, it demands that you make known your expectation to put your customer’s satisfaction first and lead by example. Unless you plan to live at the wash, you must empower staff to handle situations in a way that builds repeat business with processes and procedures in place to avoid abuse. Sound like hard work? It absolutely is, but the payoff is huge.

Be Consistent Above All Else

Developing a base of loyal customers who may eventually buy holiday gift cards demands delivering an absolutely consistent experience. Notice I didn’t say a consistent quality wash, but experience. That means a predictable wait time, predictable amenities, and predictable staff interaction, in addition to a consistent wash quality. True excellence cannot be a hit or miss thing. It may not happen overnight, but your ability to execute this step will form the foundation of your customer retention program.

Identify Your Loyal Customers

It’s hard to build repeat business if you don’t know who your regular customers are and what they value most. Some of your best managers and employees will know some of your best customers, but that isn’t reliable enough for our purposes. That leads us to automation in some form, and the options are endless. I don’t have space in this column to review the pros and cons of RFID tags, license plate tracking, VIP cards, club member decals, or any of the other tools readily available. Any of them can do the job, that isn’t the problem. Many locations even have some form of a tracking system already available, but underutilized or forgotten about. The problem is that tracking customers and collecting data requires relentless training and management. Make the decision to get this done and you’ll have a foundation from which to build customer loyalty while increasing the revenue and value of your business.

Keep it Personal

The very definition of a repeat customer is someone whom you get to know. If you’ve ever gone up to a service counter, and an employee greets you by name, you know how powerful that can be. If they remember a personal detail about you, whether it’s a favorite beverage you frequently order, or the type of car you’re bringing in for service, you have a powerful competitive advantage that’s very difficult to beat. I hear many owner/operators of express-exterior locations with pay stations comment that it’s difficult to make a personal connection with customers with this wash format. In answer to this dilemma, I’d like to take the opportunity to repeat one of my favorite phrases: “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” I’ve seen some express operators keep everything from slushies to dog biscuits next to the guide-on attendant who hands them out while thanking customers for their business. Others hand out cards that prompt customers to take an online survey. Basically, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Stay in Contact

Like the tools available to track customers, the options to stay in contact are plentiful, and cheap. We often tend to think about staying in contact with customers in terms of sending things to them with an incentive to visit our wash. A coupon for example, whether sent via e-mail, mail, or social media, is still a coupon. Don’t limit yourself. Remember the fourth step — to keep it personal. Today’s technology may make it easy to send out thousands of coupons at the push of button, but it also gives you ways to stay in contact indirectly that are equally valuable. Let followers on social media know about the latest equipment or chemical changes you’ve made and how excited you are at the results. Write blog posts about your latest charity activities. Basically, find a way to get personal with your customers, deliver a consistent overall experience, and stay in contact over the next 10 months. Don’t be surprised if both customer loyalty and, as a consequence, your holiday gift-card sales skyrocket this year.

Good luck, and good washing.

Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or at (800) 327-8723 ext. 104.