I had a manager trainee ask me when their training would be over. My answer: “Your training is never complete. It only advances when customers insist that you must be the owner of the wash.” Clearly defining success is just one aspect of actively cultivating employee passion I’ll touch upon. Bringing select staff to industry events is another, and, coincidentally, The Car Wash Show 2023 opens in Las Vegas next month.

            It’s a fact. The smiles and attitudes of your car wash staff earn the trust and loyalty of your customers. This correlates to higher average tickets and repeat business. When done right, positive attitudes raise the performance of everyone and elevates customer service standards. And if your managers can carry the positive attitude torch, it reduces the demand on an owner or operator to constantly be at the wash. Powerful stuff. If you’re to expand your business and you want to be successful, you must find, train, develop, and retain people that reflect your values and treat your business like it’s theirs.

Define Your Vision of the Perfect Team Member

            My vision is to find people that consistently demonstrate pride of ownership in the business. Someone that works as long as it takes to make an emergency repair. A person that works independently to learn the business inside and out. Someone you can trust to do the right things when you’re not there. In other words, a team member who feels pride of ownership in the success of the business. I like to call them “all-stars.”

            Not everyone on your team is, or will become, an all-star. That’s okay. A rising tide raises all ships. Even a single all-star employee on your team will elevate the standard of everyone else. Often, your potential all-star is right under your nose. Look around. See who’s smiling. Who’s engaging with, or even joking with, customers. Who’s picking up trash without being told. Who’s saying hello to you and other staff members without having someone say hello to them first. Employees that thank you at the end of a day. Get to know these people; they may likely be your next all-star employee.

            “Hire for attitude, train for skills.” This quote, attributed to Herb Kelleher, one of the co-founders of Southwest Airlines, doesn’t mean anything goes. What it means is that in a service-based industry, you must hire people you believe enjoy serving other people. In other words, servant leadership. Skills and experience, especially with managers, are criteria to consider but not at the expense of a smiling “serve-the-customer-first” attitude.

Don’t Steal Their Joy

            I was once told I needed to shave my beard after accepting a position at a car wash. No better way to steal the spirit from an enthusiastic employee that may be your next all-star. If you like the person in their interview as they are — hair, jewelry, whatever — don’t coerce them to change it after you hire them. My son recently had a team member start wearing a hat supporting their favorite sports team. He didn’t ask him to remove it. Suddenly more staff were wearing hats supporting various teams. Now, customers engage in friendly banter with our staff about their favorite teams, and who’s beating who — memorable and genuine customer interaction that drives loyalty. Certainly, establish boundaries to support your brand such as wearing a uniform shirt. Just be careful to not steal the spirit that may facilitate a rewarding customer experience.

            And no, I never shaved my beard.

Empowering Employees

            I used to tell my kids that if they ever found themselves in a situation and unsure of what to do, to ask themselves, “What would Dad do?” and do that. And there’s the simple truth. If your employees are making decisions that are based on improving the customer’s experience, they probably won’t make a decision too far off the one you would want them to make. Empowering employees to make the right decisions to grow your business starts with leading by example. Your manager will do what they feel their boss would do. No matter how big or small your chain of command is, customer service standards should be universal at your wash. If you’re at the top of that chain, don’t let people guess what you’d do, beat them over the head with it.

            Make a show of the behaviors you want to see. When you get on site, immediately check the trash, and empty it. Check that each vacuum is working, and, if it isn’t, put on gloves and clear the separator. If you have an employee that you want to catch up with, ask them to come along and see if they start helping or if they stand there watching you do the task. Ask customers if they’re satisfied with their wash and correct it if they aren’t. I had a manager tell me once that they watched a customer tell an attendant they were unhappy their wheels were dirty after a wash. That attendant apologized, offered the customer a $10 bill from their own pocket to more than cover the price of the basic wash, then asked what they could do to make it right. The customer declined the refund and accepted the attendants offer to re-wash the car with the next higher package that included wheels. The customer signed up for a monthly wash program for the wheel deal. When asked, the attendant told the manager, “It’s what I figured you’d do.” The manager told me they thought the attendant was a future all-star we wanted to pay attention to.

Identify and Incentivize All-Stars

            Best hour. Best day. Best week. Best month. Publish the previous record. Give a cash reward to the entire team each time a record is beat. You may want to track and post employees that received customer commendations. Most will put in some extra effort for extra cash in their pocket. You’re looking for the members of the team that rise to the top. You want to find the employees that challenge others to do better to beat the next record. That demonstrates pride in each achievement. You might just find the next all-star to manage your next location at the same time you’re driving revenue.

            Salary and bonuses are a vital incentive but they’re not everything, especially for employees who demonstrate pride of ownership in their work. Sending top performers to offsite training improves their knowledge and skills and it elevates their status within your team. Car-wash-specific training is most valuable, but it’s not the only option. Consider courses in customer service, staff management, time management, and computer skills if they are compiling reports.

            Sending your top performers to an industry tradeshow cultivates knowledge, enthusiasm, prestige, and pride of ownership better and faster. Send them with a plan and specific goals. Generate a list of booths and seminars you want them to attend, people they should meet with, and information to bring back. Your goal is to make them feel ownership of the process and your business. I like to keep it simple. Whenever I send one of my team to a tradeshow, I instruct them to bring back no less than five ideas they found on the tradeshow floor to improve our business. They then must identify “the one thing” that they feel would have the biggest impact and write a plan to implement it.

Employee Passion Drives Revenue

            Thomas Jefferson is quoted as having said, “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” Making a visible show to lead by example day in and day out is hard work. Creating moments to identify rising stars and cultivate their enthusiasm is hard work. Building programs that turn that enthusiasm into a shared sense of purpose and ownership in your business’s growth is hard work. Creating a path for your top performers to grow within your organization demands work. Work, that with a little luck, will pay off with sustainable growth in revenue for as many locations as you want to build.

            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.