Fitness clubs started to pop up in the 1800s. The first warehouse clubs were introduced in the early 1970s. Today, from shaving supplies to fruit, and everything in between, customers and business owners alike delight in the benefits of the subscription-based business model. Americans carry an average of 12 subscription services. Millennials top that chart with 17. As a business owner, there’s a lot to love about this predictable revenue stream.

            So how is it I know (1) some car wash operators with more than 5,000 subscribers that are moving towards a 100 percent member-only business model and (2) others that are struggling to grow their subscriber base and considering abandoning the monthly club plan model entirely? 

            From a distance they look the same. Express-exterior tunnels with free vacuums putting out a clean, dry, shiny car. What’s different is the customer experience. The hundreds of touch points that craft a memorable reason to have loyalty to a particular business.

            The devil is in the details. Make your club members feel like valued family members, not revenue, and you’ll have a much better chance of meeting your membership goals. Make it personal. Show them you care. Craft vacuum suction and nozzle selection at every station to make it easier for customers to use. Offer free towels, matt cleaners, compressed air, and other amenities thoughtfully positioned for convenient access. Hire and train staff to cultivate a positive customer experience with a smile. Wow customers inside the tunnel with welcoming signage, a satisfying show of foamed chemistry, and cheerful lighting. Ensure equipment sparkles. Craft a menu with wash packages that show clear incremental value with a visibly superior shine for your top wash. And most importantly, craft branding to cultivate trust that each additional dollar spent delivers more value than it costs.

Has the Monthly Club Plan Killed the Basic Wash?

            It’s challenging to try to have it both ways. Your wash menu will either lean towards impulse buyers, or to monthly members — but seldom both equally. If you operate as an impulse buy, you’ll have a cheap option, typically less than $10, to wash and dry only — no tire dressing, no frills, often hidden at the bottom. Some operators go so far as to present the basic wash as a bad choice. The low price is designed to drive traffic. Get them on site and upsell. It’s worked wonders for the express-exterior model for many years.

            This has been hard for me to embrace. Logically it seems I should be able to offer a no-frills basic wash to drive traffic and exclude it from the monthly membership program to drive subscribers. But when you look at washes driving huge membership bases with stable profits, many have moved away from offering a “no-frills” wash. Their base package is prominently promoted, often above $10, includes tire dressing, and can be joined as a monthly club plan just like every other package they offer. When I look at the numbers they’re posting, I’m slowly becoming a believer too.

Driving Memberships

            There are many flavors to drive memberships. All share a common theme: make signing up a no brainer. Here are some examples that have achieved stellar success. “Get the top unlimited package at a dramatic discount per month for the first three months.” I’ve seen newly opened or re-branded washes offer some variation of a “founder’s club” promotion. The first customers to join may get the top package for the price of the basic membership or some other incentive. Another I’ve seen produce results is $1/month for the top package the first month; simple and potentially effective provided you have established procedures to control membership churn. The catch is you must deliver a great wash and customer experience no matter the price. This is how you will keep people as members regardless of price.

            Conventional wisdom says that you give the top package for a promotional period at a discount. Once the promotion ends, the cost is bumped up to full price. Customer sticker shock will depend on how big that jump on the credit card statement is. Going from $1 to $49, for example, will likely be noticed. Be prepared to get over that hurdle. You could consider dropping subscribers to the base package after the promotion with the hope they elevate it themselves for the top package experience they previously enjoyed. You could give them a wash code to gift to someone else. This not only shows your care for their pocket, but it also helps to introduce new customers to your wash by way of an existing customer. Everything is a balancing act between the packages you offer, pricing, promotional discounts, wash quality, site amenities, and customer experience. 

Monitor Customer Churn

            At its most basic level, customer churn refers to the proportion of your total subscribers who leave during a given period. That means if you start month one with 1,000 subscribers and 50 cancel during the month, you have a churn of 5 percent (50/1,000). Chances are that if your POS system manages monthly memberships, it has a churn report available. Find it and make it one of the top KPIs you manage at the wash.

            You must understand the flow of customers in and out of your program by monitoring customer churn. When customer churn goes up in a month, assume something is wrong with the wash, your staff, your pay station, vacuum stations, or site experience. Audit your customers’ experience at every touchpoint. Ask employees why they feel that churn has risen. It’s a good way to tackle the issue as a team.

            Craft an experience and deliver it consistently. That means predictable amenities, predictable wait time, predictable staff interaction, predictable everything. When something breaks, repairs must be done immediately — certainly within 24 hours. Your ability to provide a good, valuable, consistent experience every time is the foundation for customer retention.

Make it Easy for Customers to Love You

            Using a license plate recognition system for your wash’s entrance can help you improve your business and make your members feel like VIPs. It’s not just about locking the subscriber to a single vehicle for the small percentage of customers looking to abuse the membership. It removes the need for members or staff to think about managing RFID tags or scanning codes.

            You also want to configure your POS system to ask customers to update their credit card while at the pay station, where it’s easiest for them, to remain members of your wash club. If that isn’t an option, make sure customers can self-manage their membership online.

            It’s a matter of fact: some customers will leave. So, survey members that cancel. Understand why they left. Your monthly club plan can add tremendous value to your business, but it demands persistent continuous effort. Constantly evolve every touchpoint a member encounters. Focus on elevating the quality of every customer experience. If you do these two things, chances are good that you might find yourself amongst a growing number of operators looking to grow a scalable, profitable, recurring revenue business based on a 100 percent membership model.

            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.