Want to make money in the detail business? Then remember that customer service means more today than ever before. Detail customers really do not expect that much except that you are open and honest about the work that needs to be completed and that it be done correctly and with care.

It is amazing how many people in the business world still do not understand the concept of customer service and how it applies to their business.


Many detail business owners understand that what their customers really want is for them simply to take care of their second largest investment. There are ways for detail business owners to set themselves apart from their competition, and offering good customer service is a crucial part of it.

In fact, lack of attention to customer service may be one of the main reasons many operators are still struggling with the profitability of their business. Why? Typically, they hire personnel who have no experience in dealing with retail customers.

Whether you are an existing detail-business owner with little experience in retailing, or a first-time operator, the bottom line is the same — you must provide Grade A customer service. In today’s tight economy, competitive environment, and high consumer expectations, customer service can mean the difference between keeping a customer and losing one.

Customer service is not a new concept; however, many businesses place customer service on the back burner.

For example, a detail business owner may focus on doing a great job on a vehicle, assuming this is what the customer wants. Of course, this is true, but it is only part of the process. The most successful businesses are those that are clear about who their customers are and what they expect.


If you think that losing a customer or two is just part of the cost of doing business, and that you are better off without them, think again. The American Management Association estimates that an average business may lose as many as 35 percent of its customers every year, which in turn adds up to thousands of dollars lost in annual revenues.

Why do customers stop coming to a business? In short, they receive poor service. Customers perceive poor service in one of two ways: not getting what they need or want, or getting a sense that a business really does not care about them.

It is important to remember that very few customers will complain. Studies show that only 20 percent, or one in five, customers with a problem will bring it to your attention. Therefore, you will never know how 80 percent of your customers really feel. This silent majority just goes away and never returns, many times spreading the bad news about your business to family and friends.

How can you keep your customers? These are just a few steps that can help get you started:

• Provide an automated and personalized follow-up with all customers.

• Don’t oversell or pressure your customers to purchase more than they want.

• Offer incentives such as “preferred accounts.”

• Offer personal relationships to all your customers. Let them know you care.

Remember, to keep customers happy requires that all your employees buy into your customer service philosophy. However, you also have to let your employees know what it is they are expected to provide the customer.

For example, an employee whose uniform and shoes are clean and who has a clean-shaven face and professional haircut can be a critically important element in your customer service program.

That is why it is important to invest in your customer service staff. The moment of truth, as it can be called, lasts approximately 15 seconds. That is how long you have to establish a rapport with customers before they start to feel you do not care about them. How long does it take to answer the telephone? Do you immediately put them on hold? How long do they wait in the office before you attend to them or even acknowledge their presence? These all are aspects that need to be considered when thinking about providing good customer service.


How can you be sure that you are providing your customers with good customer service? To begin with, you can assure better customer service by hiring only those people who have a caring attitude and are eager to learn. Make sure they are articulate and have high self-esteem. The human-resource discipline of today says to hire people with good values and teach them the skills that they need to be successful.

In addition, you have to pay a competitive wage — no excuses. Paying minimum wage does not mean you cannot get a qualified person; just look at all the businesses in your area that pay this starting wage. However, you have to find the right employee by knowing what you want, the standards that are important to you, and not deviating from this standard.

Detail-business owners also have to spend time training and reviewing their procedures. Every successful car care facility that I know has a standard for the type of employees they will hire, an initial training program, and a constant review process with rewards and recognition for good performance.

How can you measure just where your customer service is today? The first step is to keep track of your customer service performance. This will ensure that your goals are being met and will let you know what aspects of your customer service need to be upgraded.

Another way to make sure you are offering good customer service is to ask, listen, and respond to what your customers are saying. Understanding customers’ or potential customers’ needs is the top priority of any business owner. Make sure to give them an avenue to make their needs known. Ask what you can do to improve your level of success. Knowing and fulfilling a customer’s expectations is what customer service is all about.

It is important to keep in tune and listen to what your customers are saying both verbally and nonverbally. In addition, encourage your employees to be aware of these signs and how to act on them.

Also, always ask questions about your detail service when customers pick up their vehicle. Follow-up a day or two later with a postage-paid customer-comment card that you can leave on the seat in the vehicle or send through the mail. Maybe even take the time to make a personal call a day or two after. These things let even a dissatisfied customer know that you care.

How do you handle an unhappy customer? The first step is not to justify the mistake by getting defensive or offering excuses. Remember, an angry customer offers you an opportunity to build customer loyalty.

When a complaint is handled satisfactorily and quickly the customer will continue to do business with you and probably become a repeat customer. In addition, they might even go out and tell friends and family what superior service they received from your business.

The following are suggestions on how to handle an angry customer offered by Fred Pryer Seminars:

• Don’t return aggression with aggression — one angry party is enough.

• Empathize with customers by acknowledging their feelings. Only respond to comments relevant to the problem and ignore false statements.

• Listen and agree with the customer when possible and quickly apologize if you made a mistake. One key: let customers tell their side of the story completely.

• Stay in control by asking open-ended questions, and make sure they are questions that the customer cannot answer with a yes or no answer. Let them know you are writing down the information you are being told so you can investigate the complaint.

• When you have all the facts from the customer and those involved from your company, discuss a resolution with the customer. Suggest what you will do and get the customer’s agreement that this will satisfy them. Whatever you commit to, follow through. Nothing is worse than a broken commitment.


If you are not directly involved in the operation of your detail business you should be directly involved in the solving of the complaints. Even if your manager has the authority and the capability to solve customer complaints, you should at least let the customer know you care by writing them a personal letter of apology. If a refund is involved, I suggest that it be written on a personal, not a company, check.

However, it is important to remember that a mistake does not have to be made in order to let your customers know you care. The ultimate sign of caring is to do something when they least expect it.

For example, send a thank you note with a free-car-wash coupon to a good customer. Design a car care newsletter with helpful tips on how to care for your customers’ vehicles between visiting your shop.

The telephone is another area where many business people tend to make mistakes. There is an old axiom: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” This is especially true with the telephone and applies not only to how you answer the phone, but also to what you say and how long it takes to answer the phone.

With many people going online to find a detail business, what happens when the telephone rings is your chance to make a good first impression. If it is favorable, you will tend to get the business. If it is not, then you will lose it forever because it is a proven fact that customers will not patronize a business with rude employees.

Here are some helpful telephone-answering tips:

• Answer in a friendly tone, giving the name of the business, your name, and an offer to help.

• Give the caller your undivided attention and try to answer all of their questions.

• If the caller is upset, do not interrupt. Let them say all they have to say.

• If a call back is necessary, make sure it is done in a timely manner.

• Always ask if it is okay to put the caller on hold.

• No matter what happens, be polite at all times.


What the customer thinks of your company’s service will make or break you. The best advertising cannot offset unfavorable word-of-mouth comments. Consider this: If a huge portion of your detail business is referral and word-of-mouth driven, how much is your business hurt by those customers who never complain openly?

The following questionnaire is taken from the Customer Service Institute’s checklist for an easy-to-do business evaluation. It will also provide a quick look at how the customer sees your business, how they feel about doing business with you, and their decision to continue patronizing your business:

• Do customers know who we are and how we are listed in the Yellow Pages?

• Is the person answering the phone knowledgeable in all aspects of our services and pricing?

• Can customers get through on the telephone 95 percent of the time?

• When customers call to complain are they treated with empathy?

• Is our service level at least 90 percent compared to other detail shops in the area/country?

• Do we survey customers regularly to see if we are meeting their needs?

• Do we follow-up with customers after they have complained or had problems to make sure they were satisfied with the way we handled the situation?

• Are you really providing the kind of customer service that you as a customer expect?

Remember, there is no excuse for not paying enough attention to customer service. Get out of your office or out of the detail bays and take a look at what your operation has become. Ask yourself if you are giving your customers the attention they deserve.

Sharie Sipowicz is aftermarket sales manager with Detail Plus Car Appearance Systems Inc. She has been involved in the detail industry for over 20 years, both as a vendor of products and equipment and as a hands-on operator in a retail detail environment. You can contact Sharie at sharie@detailplus.com.