The most important step in the detailing process happens before the customer’s vehicle is touched. That step is the customer interview, which has three components. The first is a dialogue with the customer about what is to be done to the vehicle. The second is a visual inspection of the vehicle itself to determine its condition and to note any damage. The third component of the customer interview is the establishment of an agreement with the customer as to exactly what services are to be performed.

THE CUSTOMER INTERVIEW

The customer interview is your chance to establish the customer’s expectations and to ensure that those expectations match the initial detailing package that the customer may have chosen. For example, a common situation that I have experienced is the customer who expresses interest in an “interior detail” but in reality, the reason that the interior detail is desired is because of an odor problem. In that case, the proper service order would include the “interior detail” as well as an “odor neutralization treatment.”

Also, make sure the customer expectations fall within your service capabilities. For example, your customer may be concerned about “cleaning” the leather seats that are in fact scuffed and in need of re-dyeing. It would be important to explain this discrepancy to avoid customer disappointment.

During the customer interview, you also have the opportunity to educate your customer on other offered services of which the vehicle may be in need or for which the customer may have an interest.

Gathering Information

Start with the year, make, and model. When the customer brings in the vehicle, this information is immediately apparent, but when speaking on the phone, make sure you ask for the specifics.

Then determine the basic starting service that the customer desires. I do this by simply asking, “Did you want the inside, the outside, or both done?”

Also, ask the customer when the vehicle was detailed the last time. A 10-year-old sedan that has never been detailed obviously presents a different challenge than a year-old car. By the same token, a late model SUV that shuttles three kids and a dog is quite different than a real estate agent’s luxury sedan. So, you need to know what you are dealing with up front.

Listen for clues like “yeah, I usually get it done about every six months to a year.” But don’t be fooled over the phone by the classic “oh, it’s in pretty good condition” or “it’s getting a bit too messy for my taste.” I have found that when the customer makes comments like these, the actual condition of the vehicle is often the opposite of that described in the comment.

Find out what level of result the customer is expecting. Something like “are you looking for showroom-new or just basic clean and protection?” This will help you to distinguish between the customer who is fanatical about keeping the car looking new and the customer who is simply fed up with the “dump” inside the car.

A very important question to pose: “Is there anything special — anything that bugs you about the appearance of your car — that we can take care of for you?” Then, as the customer responds, be sure to take notes, write it on the work order, so that you can be sure to handle the special request.

Educating the Customer

Start by explaining what is included in your detail package. For example, a full-service retail interior detail should include cleaning and conditioning of all the vinyl and plastic panels (e.g., dash, center console, door panels), the seats, the floor mats and exposed carpeting, windows and mirrors, and spot cleaning of the headliner.

Help the customer understand the importance of cleaning and conditioning all of the interior and exterior surfaces. Offer extras like paint sealant application or the application of liquid repellant to the fabric and carpet. In fact, another thing to find out up front is whether the customer had liquid repellant applied upon purchase of the vehicle. If so, explain that the cleaning with a hot water extractor will remove this protection and that it should be re-applied. Also, let the customer know that you can handle any nagging odors through systematic deodorization techniques.

Explain how long the process will take and make sure that you can have the car done by the time the customer needs it. Another important educational tidbit is the recommended frequency of service, which will usually be discussed upon delivery of the serviced car. I like to leave it up to the customer: “The exterior should be waxed at least every six months. How often the interior is cleaned is really your preference.” Then, follow with some recommendations: “If you want the car to look as new as possible all the time, you might consider a six-month schedule, but certainly once a year is the minimum.”

The customer interview allows you to build a rapport with your customers by determining their needs and requirements and sharing with them what you can accomplish. It is an opportunity also for you to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise, as well as your desire to please the customer.

THE VEHICLE INSPECTION

After speaking with the customer, it’s time to take a look at the car. If you are talking on the phone, you can give the customer an idea of the starting cost or a range of possible charges, and then tell them that this figure may be adjusted according to the actual condition of the vehicle, upon visual inspection. For example, you could say, “Well, based upon what we have discussed, it sounds like your car needs a standard interior detail, which starts at X dollars, but may go up should we find any special needs upon looking at your car when you bring it in.”

When you inspect the vehicle, especially for new customers, take your time, and check everything. On the outside, look for excessive fallout, heavy wash scratches, deep scratches, tar and other kick-up on the sides, and caked-on brake dust.

On the inside, look at the headliner, seats, and carpeting for stains or damage. For example, coffee or red stains require a special technique and chemicals for removal, which should require an extra charge. Check other panels for damage. Look for pet hair — if there’s a lot, you will have to spend extra time vacuuming, which may require an extra charge.

Check also the rear compartments of SUVs and wagons or the trunks of sedans. If the trunk is full of stuff, ask the customer if he or she expects you to clean that area. Often, they will say, “oh, don’t worry about it — I didn’t have time to clean out the stuff.” But don’t assume. Find out for sure.

There are some common forms of damage for which to be on the lookout. For example, sagging or torn headliners, scuffed leather seats, drivers mat worn through, cracked dashboard, failing window tint, cracked plastic door pockets, and broken cup holders and storage doors. Make sure that the customer sees these items so that you are not held responsible and make sure that the customer understands that repairing these items is not part of a standard interior detail. Of course, if you offer interior repair services, try to upsell the customer.

Speaking of upselling, you should ask every interior detail customer if he or she needs liquid repellant sprayed on the fabric and carpeting, special deodorization, and unusual stain removal. Likewise, every exterior detail customer should be offered, at additional cost, the superior protection provided by an application of paint sealant instead of your standard wax.

Note any valuable items like purses, wallets, or cash stashes that the customer may want to take before leaving the car for service. Also, before the customer leaves, ask the customer if he or she has everything needed from the car — cell phone accessories, parking passes, sunglasses, and the like.

THE CUSTOMER AGREEMENT

After you have interviewed the customer, determined his or her expectations, inspected the vehicle, and determined the special needs of the vehicle, you are ready to come up with a price and estimated time of service. Ultimately, the goal is to come to an agreement with the customer as to exactly what services are to be performed on the vehicle and at what price. When you have done this, it is far less likely to have any surprises when the customer picks up the completed job. In fact, you have a better chance of delighting the customer with your excellent service skills when the customer knows exactly what is to be done.

SUMMARY

You will find that taking the time to perform a customer interview and vehicle inspection reduces the number of disagreements you have with customers. It also will help to increase the revenue per vehicle by providing you the opportunity to sell extra needed services that might not be normally included in your standard interior detail packaging.

Customers who bring their cars in for regular service may not require as thorough of an initial assessment, but it is always wise to “catch up,” even with the customer who comes in often. Take a moment to look at the car and ask if there is anything special to be done other than “the usual.”

Both new and regular customers like to feel as though they are leaving their vehicles in capable hands. Your “attention to detail” even before beginning the detail process will go a long way toward achieving that feeling.

 

Prentice St. Clair is an International Detailing Association Recognized Trainer and Certified Detailer. As the president of Detail in Progress Inc., he has been providing training and consulting to car washes and detail shops since 1999.
He is available at (619) 701-1100 or prentice@detailinprogress.com.