Last month I wrote about a Midwest dealership’s detail shop for which I was asked to provide training and consultation. They were struggling in many of the areas that are typical for such an operation. It’s interesting to examine these issues, regardless of what type of operation you might have, because the recommended solutions to the issues can help most anyone running a detail shop.

Let’s start with a quick overview of last month’s observations. First, it is important to realize that the service that a dealership detail shop provides is crucial because it will help sell cars faster and for more money. With that in mind, everything that follows is geared toward creating a detail shop that can provide this service with the greatest efficiency and effectiveness.

To do so, the detail shop must have adequate facilities to allow for efficient operation. This includes provision of enough space for technicians to work (with the car doors open), the available electrical outlets must have enough amperage to run several high-demand machines (like hot-water extractors) at once, and lighting must be such that the technicians can truly see what they are doing both outside and inside the car.

Once the facilities are in order, the technicians need the right chemicals and equipment to do the job. A common mistake is using a chemical that is too strong or not properly diluted, which can cause damage to the vehicle and the technician. Consultation with an independent detailing expert is recommended here, as local chemical distributors do not always provide the best advice.

Make sure each detail bay has its own set of high-quality, industrial-strength equipment so the technicians don’t have to spend time waiting for and moving equipment from other bays. The right equipment helps get the job done faster and with better results. For example, wax should be applied with a random-orbit polisher, not by hand, so each bay should have a dedicated polisher available.

The buffers and polishers being used need to be in good working condition. And don’t skimp on pads — replace worn or torn pads with new ones, and then treat them and store them correctly. Use long, crush-proof hoses on your vacuums so technicians don’t have to move the vacuums during the detail. And, please, get your guys a bunch of high-quality detail brushes to help them do the detail work that you expect.

Finally, ensure the supply of towels is indicative of a professional operation. Get rid of the towels that have been stretched years past their service life. And make sure there are plenty of towels, with different colors for different purposes.


Upon arrival at this particular detail operation, the manager had two tell-tale questions for me: “How do we avoid having to wash cars between buffing steps,” and “The cars look great when we’re done but why do swirl marks show up after they’ve been lot-washed a few times?” These two questions point up a myriad of problems with the buffing techniques being used.

The first problem was that the standard operating procedure was to start with a wool buffing pad and compound for virtually every vehicle, regardless of the condition of the paint. This means that each vehicle was subject, many times unnecessarily, to deep wool compounding scratches and swirl marks. Also, someone had taught them to run the buffer on edge across every flat surface, which guarantees that swirls will be left behind.

The next mistake is that technicians were putting generous lines of compound all over every panel on the car before starting to buff. Needless to say, each time they hit one of these lines while making their way around the vehicle with the buffer, compound was slung everywhere—windows, trim, inside door jambs, et cetera. At least they knew to follow the compounding step with one or two polishing steps to try to remove some of the compounding scratches, but they were using so much product that the car needed to be pressure washed between each step.

So my job as “the expert” was to completely re-set their buffing routine. First, I helped them to learn to evaluate the paint condition of each vehicle; and what we discovered is that most of the vehicles being detailed did not need wool compounding. Next, I told them to throw away the old, beat-up foam pads that were lying around the shop and to start with fresh new ones, then store them in their original bag when not in use to help reduce scratch-causing contamination.

Then we learned how to use just enough chemical to get the job done, typically a half-dollar-sized blob on each panel. This, in conjunction with proper pad-loading technique, virtually eliminated sling, thus eliminating the need to wash vehicles between polishing steps. Not to mention the great reduction in chemical use.

Then it was time to talk about buffer technique. I taught them how to keep the pad flat or parallel to the panel whenever possible, and also to slow down the buffing speed. Also, we discussed the concept of restricting the heavier polishing step to just those panels that really need it.


At this particular dealership detail center, detailing was also being provided to service customers. That is, retail detailing was available to those folks coming in for oil changes and other mechanical maintenance needs. Unfortunately, the price being charged for this service was far below its fair market value.

In light of the relatively high level of service provided, the retail charge was less than half of what it should be, considering three factors:

• The average number of labor hours spent on the vehicle

• The nationally-observed, per-hour rates that a trained, well-equipped detail technician can generate

• The fact that the service manager indicated that they were routinely turning away one or two service (retail) detail jobs per day.

It gets worse: they were actively attracting retail customers with discount coupons.

My response: “If you’re turning away work, it’s time to raise the prices. If you are going to use coupons, at least start with a fair market price.” The service manager expressed concern that he did not want to be priced more than the other large detail operation in the area. The truth of the matter was, his pricing was actually less than the competition.

Here’s the argument I posited: “If you are regularly turning away work, then you don’t need to worry about the competition. The competition is what you make it. Just make yourself the best and you won’t have to worry about the competition. You already have too much work — why not make a good profit on your current capability instead of squeaking by? Yes, some people will say “no” to your price, but those folks are not your customers. Your customers are those that are seeking a high level of service and trust your operation.

“People come to you because of your overall service reputation in the community, not because you have the lowest prices. You have the opportunity to fund improvements in your detail department. Start collecting more for the service you provide so that you can invest in the needed equipment and chemicals to provide an even better level of service, which will increase the satisfaction of your detail customers, which will bring in more work. This cycle works”

Further, I asked the service manager to consider the direct analogy of the mechanical auto repair portion of the service department. The competition for them is chain auto repair outlets, as well as the mom-and-pop operations. Those operations offer discounted service that appeals to a certain percentage of potential service customers.

It is impossible to capture all of those potential customers away from the “competition.” So what do you do to combat this? Certainly you don’t offer factory-trained service at a lower price than the competition. Actually, the dealership service prices are typically higher than the non-dealer competition. Instead, you attract service customers with the promise of high-quality service that uses factory-trained and certified mechanics who have all of the latest equipment designed to maintain your vehicle in the best fashion possible.

Use this model in the detail department as well. First, provide the detail department with the proper space, electrical, and lighting needs. Then make sure they have the latest equipment and chemicals needed to efficiently and effectively provide high-quality service. Finally, provide them with training that will teach them techniques that allow the most effective use of the equipment and chemicals, yielding the best result possible for each vehicle in the shortest amount of time.

With these conditions in place, itis possible to market the detail shop as a state-of-the-art operation that provides superior results. It is then possible to charge a fair market value for those results, leading to a productive detail operation that becomesa tremendous profit center for the dealership.


Wow! Someone needs to knock me off the soapbox that I’ve been on the last couple of months. Sorry for the preachy tone. It’s frustrating to see a detail operation’s potential stifled by old habits and lack of facilities and equipment basics. Hopefully, these last two columns will encourage you to take a serious look at your operation to find the areas that need improvement.

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm.

To contact him, e-mail Prentice@DetailinProgress.comor call (619) 701-1100.