Life is complicated. Don’t overcomplicate it. Most car wash owners hold their managers accountable for results like cost per car, labor percentage of gross, average per car, and damage claims as a percentage of sales. It all boils down to the same thing: increase profits and eliminate losses. Many of us also add employee retention as a mark for manager evaluation. Combined, striking the right balance between results and retention can guide an owner to push themselves and their staff as hard as possible for results, but not so hard that the owner (or the employee) quits.

            Results such as cost per car are incremental achievements. Meaning persistent continuous improvement is useful in evaluating improvements over time. Results such as damage claims as a percentage of sales, however, can be wildly misconstrued. That’s what I’d like to look at today, before it comes up to bite you in the proverbial fanny.

The Cost of a Damage Claim Compounds

            Although you can’t guarantee that every car enters your wash intact, you can absolutely ensure that your wash doesn’t damage a vehicle. Proper equipment and wash materials, correctly maintained, as well as staff training and coaching, can go a long way towards minimizing the risk of damage claims.

            Except humans make mistakes. Mistakes lead to accidents. Accidents lead to damage, and you get my point.

            It is a mistake to look at damage claims as a percentage of sales. Especially if you see a reasonably low number and decide the “damage claim drama” doesn’t apply to you. Armed with social media, the ability for one angry customer to spread their discontent far and wide, can turn one small accidental mishap into one monumental problem for your business.

Turn Good Managers into Good Diplomats

            The real trick is diplomacy to lead customers to rational behavior when their adrenaline is pumping. No matter how great a wash is, sometimes customers do get upset and it’s usually when customer service isn’t dealt with properly. Managers must be trained to listen patiently and attentively; apologize and disarm customers even when the wash isn’t at fault; solve problems quickly and equitably to everyone’s satisfaction; and thank customers for caring enough to bring the problem to their attention.

            Implement and train processes and procedures to handle each damage claim in a clear, consistent way, every time. Diplomacy requires self-discipline. Managing front-line employees, whether in the military or a car wash, means having rigid procedures, rules, and training to help employees understand the expectations and standards of behavior required.

            Most washes have a form with the phrase “Damage Claim Report” in big bold letters at the top. Think about it. Right from the beginning, the title of the form has said that the customer has been damaged, has a claim against your business, and is reporting that fact for compensation. Change it and change it fast. Call it a “Customer Experience Report.” Here are a couple of bullets you can put right at the top to refresh your staff’s memory:
•          We promise to listen to your experience completely, never interrupting you until you have told us everything that occurred, and we will determine a resolution in 72 hours or less.
•          We will write an accurate report of the experience and provide you with a copy.
•          We will photograph your vehicle before leaving the property.
•          We will review your experience and if the damage is shown to have been caused by improper action of either our equipment or staff, we will resolve the claim quickly and professionally.
•          We will provide you a list of certified third-party shops that can perform an honest and free-of-charge estimate to repair any damage.

            The report will be completed with VIN#, contact information, the precise time of day, and license plate number so you can find it easily on the camera recording. Make sure that the name and signature of both the person that took the report, and the customer, are captured right after the summary of the experience they recorded. Also, if you pay a claim, have the customer sign a document that you have fulfilled your responsibility and that by accepting payment the customer holds you harmless for any future problems as a result of the damage.

Train Staff to Work with Your Surveillance Cameras

            I can’t imagine any wash operating without high-definition cameras to visually record every vehicle before it enters the wash. What is often overlooked is training guide-on attendants to point to scratches, blemishes, or aftermarket accessories they see as the vehicle passes the camera. This recognition, on camera, before a vehicle enters the wash, makes a powerful statement to a customer later watching the video who may not have noticed the damage before.

            Often, you’ll need to go frame by frame on your surveillance video to see pre-existing damage. You’ll want to explain this to the customer, so they know you aren’t wasting time but that you truly are trying to find a solution to the issue. My suggestion is to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of bringing the customer to the office and watching the camera together. Things will be missed, and you’ll find yourself paying for damage you didn’t cause. Once you find the frames needed, capture that evidence, save it, attach it to the fully documented report, and invite the customer back in.

            If your research concludes that you are responsible for the damage claimed, fix it fast with the best solution and a sincere apology. If it turns out you clearly are not liable, diplomatically inform the customer, in-person when possible. Keep the conversation factual. Show the customer the videos, reports, or other information supporting why you’re unable to pay for their claim, and sincerely apologize. In either case, you’ll want to provide them with a free wash on the spot. If they’re already a club member, upgrade them for a month or give them a wash card they can give to a friend. Shower them with love to dissuade them from speaking negatively about your business in the community you serve, even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

Keep up with the Times

            Maybe someday camera technology will max out in terms of clarity, megapixels, and whatnot. My guess is AI software will assist greatly in learning to identify the pre-existing scratch for us. It can already identify potential accidents inside the tunnel and automatically shut down the conveyor, so what’s another bell or whistle?

            Basically, it seems doubtful a year will go by anytime soon without some new technology that is worth investing in. Keep up with the advancements so you don’t get left behind with any unnecessary liabilities.

            By taking a proactive approach to preventing and handling damage claims, you can demonstrate your commitment to customer service and minimize the impact that these incidents have on your wash’s reputation and bottom line.

            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.