Ifinally decided to fire all of my friends and family. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all, and I think they love me, but they just weren’t holding up their end of the bargain. I’ll admit, when I stopped handing out free car washes, I was met with some confused stares.The fact is they weren’t doing an effective job in return for the free wash I gave them. You’re probably asking yourself, “What does Anthony expect in return for a free car wash?” How about some honesty? I would naively ask my friends and family members to go through my washes and give me an honest report back. I provided them with codes so they could wash for free, of course. What did I get? “Perfect!” “Couldn’t have been any nicer!” “My car’s never looked better!” Anyone who’s ever owned a car wash knows that’s absolutely not possible. No wash is always as perfect as my friends and family made mine out to be so I had to hire an outside company.

Before you search online for a secret shopper and pick one of the dozens of services that pop up, there’s a job you must do first. Any one of them will be happy to take your money to drive on your site and tell you whether everything looks right, but trust me, it’s unlikely they’ll understand car washing, and less likely you’ll get the actionable information you need. To get that actionable information take a few minutes to design an effective “Wash Visit Report” and you’ll have a comprehensive management tool that will pinpoint issues ranging from site appearance to wash quality and alert you to potential problems that need to be addressed. This type of information can be priceless, especially if you need to maintain a consistent customer experience across multiple locations. Creating the report only takes a few minutes and I’ve organized the sections I normally include below to help get you started, so let’s take a look.

Section 1: Exterior Appearance

The majority of your questions will likely be rated on a scale with 0 being unacceptable and 5 being excellent. Whenever possible avoid that ambiguity. Remember that the secret shopper service will never appreciate the subtle nuances of your business. For example, don’t put the word “Weather” with a scale or a blank line to fill in. Instead, list several specific weather conditions you want to track, each with a check box, and a line for “other.” As a side note, you can search online for “weather app icon meanings” to get a nice list to pick and choose from that are familiar to younger employees often hired by secret shopper services. As a rule, do everything in your power to make it easy for the secret shopper to accurately report the information you need.

For the rest of this section, include obvious questions such as the condition and cleanliness of vacuum areas, landscaping, driveways, lighting, and signage, but also go deeper. Include a rating scale on items like, “Were the vacuums clean and polished?” Words such as “polished” create a clearer image in the mind of the reviewer of what constitutes a top rating than a more subjective term like “clean.”

Also, don’t forget that you can learn other valuable information about your site from a few careful questions regarding its exterior appearance. Want to know about safety? Although it’s unlikely a secret shopper can comment directly on that, a question such as, “Were any tools or ladders visible?” can alert you to unsafe practices. Want to be certain that your manager is actively promoting your monthly unlimited wash program? Just give every employee a large button saying “Ask Me for a FREE Car Wash” with an instruction that it must be worn at all times, and then ask the secret shopper on the survey if every employee was wearing the button. After the list of check-a-box type of questions, always include a “comments” area with ample room to write for this and every other section of the survey. By being forced to come up with something to write down that’s not covered already, your secret shopper just may reveal some secret insight as to how your wash is truly perceived by your average customer.

Section 2: Attendant Performance

These days, I run express-exteriors with pay stations and free vacuums. For me, besides an evaluation of the guide-on attendant, the questions in this section of the survey are related to the proper functioning and ease of use of the video greeter. For those of you using living breathing greeters, there are numerous ways to accurately gauge the effectiveness of employee interaction. Back when I ran full-serve washes, I was a huge fan of the phrase “Would you like fries with that?” made famous by McDonald’s. Depending on what we were promoting at the wash, greeters may have been trained to ask anything from “Are you already receiving discounts as a wash club member?” to “Have you applied our Triple Foam paint protectant within the last 30 days?” The options are endless, and fun, but the reason isn’t only to increase the average ticket. Putting a yes/no check box on your wash visit report for a secret shopper to answer if they were asked a specific question gives you a much better idea of attendant performance than something like “Was the staff friendly?”

Section 3: Tunnel Appearance

So much can be learned from a survey of your tunnel appearance. Have your secret shopper rank cleanliness of the walls, equipment, and other areas. Then get specific. For example, include questions related to the condition of the wash material. Have them confirm each extra service light is working and clean. As both equipment and wash formats push toward total automation, the best value of a secret shopper is often to ensure that your employees are on top of preventive maintenance as well as opening and closing procedures to confirm that everything is working properly.

Section 4: Wash Performance

Be specific here. Have questions for the secret shopper to evaluate the cleaning performance of each surface including wheels. Don’t forget drying and, if you offer interior services, have them rated as well.

Section 5: Employee Appearance

I still remember when we would send anyone with facial hair home and didn’t hire employees with a visible tattoo. Although today’s standards have become more relaxed, every wash must maintain and enforce a detailed employee appearance policy. A secret shopper ranking on whether shirts were tucked in can help highlight management and training issues that exist when you’re not at the wash.

Section 6: Restroom Appearance

Customers hate dirty restrooms and staff hates to keep them clean. A dirty restroom is often the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” of other management issues and warrants close monitoring.

That’s it! Six simple lists of questions to supercharge your secret shopper survey and give you the knowledge to ensure a consistent customer experience. Surveys can be done sporadically or consistently and incorporated into your bonus structure. I’ll admit that I do still give out free washes, and do still ask for their rating of my sites. I also ask professional colleagues that own washes to review my sites from time to time and ask that they also evaluate safety conditions and equipment condition in addition to the other survey areas. With both however, I let them know in advance of my expectation that true friends tell the truth. If you ever find yourself being asked by another operator to survey their wash, be sure to tell them the truth, the success of their business depends on it.

Washing cars for over 30 years, Anthony Analetto serves as president of SONNY’S The CarWash Factory, creator of the Original Xtreme-Xpress Mini-Tunnel, and the largest manufacturer of conveyorized car wash equipment, parts, and supplies in the world. He can be reached at Aanaletto@SonnysDirect.com or at (800) 327-8723 ext. 104.