I’ve always loved the Jack Welch quote: “Change before you have to.” Lately the economy is on an upswing, unemployment is at an all-time low, and, well, it’s easy to get lulled into a belief that the good times will continue to roll on — at least until next week. If you haven’t already, open your eyes: Everywhere we look everything is changing at an accelerating pace.

Technology is changing how we communicate, how we earn a living, and what we value. How our customers perceive, engage with, and buy our services is changing. What we must do to attract and retain talent is changing. So, what are you doing at your wash to prepare for the inevitable change — before you have to?

Many of us continue to chat about difficulties keeping our car washes relevant for Millennials, both as customers and employees. Well, guess what? Time marches on, and Generation Z cohort members, defined as those aged seven to 22 in 2019, are already driving through your tunnel and applying to you for their first job. If you’re still stuck on what your plans are for Millennials — you have some catching up to do.

Every car wash owner is an entrepreneur first. Your plans to adapt to a changing labor pool and customer base are part of your competitive advantage. That said, here’s some food for thought to make sure your secret sauce remains relevant over the next decade and beyond.

Clean, Dry, and Shiny Won’t Cut It

Let’s start with customers. Everything I’ve ever written about delivering an exceptional service with absolute consistency might keep wash volumes chugging along today, but I sincerely doubt it will be enough to keep your business profitable over time.

Every statistic shows that Millennials and Generation Z have different values and that traditional behavior and consumption patterns are vanishing, but what does that exactly mean to you as a car wash owner/operator? I’m no economics wiz, but I certainly know how to search for information online.

If you haven’t already, try searching “Changing Millennial Lifestyle.” You don’t have to dig deep to discover Millennials want unique shareable experiences. As the largest generation with a purchasing power approaching $2 trillion, from what I’ve read, catering to their preferences warrants some consideration. What are you doing to create a memorable experience at your wash that’s shareable? What are you doing to make it an experience they want to share with a path to make it easy to do so?

Look first at your branding and signage. Whether you’re branding is corporate, luxurious, or playful with cartoon characters popping out of everywhere, it must be clear, present, and abundant. It must be so memorable that it creates an experience you feel a customer would photograph and share online. Inside the tunnel are you using the latest signage and LED lighting to make an impact and confirm the purchase of extra service? What’s the experience of your foam applications? Is it complete, varied, colored, and scented? In other words, is it a shareable experience?

If your mind is buzzing with ideas after that, give the search, “how Generation Z differs from Millennials,” a shot. Supposedly 67 percent of Millennials — in one survey I saw — said they would go to a website to get a coupon whereas only 46 percent of Gen Z polled said they’d do the same. Is that accurate? I have no clue. What I do know is that putting up a website alone won’t cut it over time. I either must learn how to, which is unlikely, or hire someone to help me engage customers on my social media channels. I’ve seen other washes holding contests, sharing funny videos, and more. I assure you that this is at the top of my mind while I’m planning my next wash.

Oh, and at what frequency have you established to completely remake the exterior appearance of your locations from the street? Completely changing the paint, landscaping, and building enhancements on a continuous basis is a tactic that certainly works for the fast-food franchises and one I intend to leverage as well.

Cash Won’t Be King

Millennials may have come home to dial-up Internet connection, not so with Generation Z. It makes sense that they turn to technology to manage their interactions with the world. This is the generation where paying your friend back $5 is handled through an app. For them, purchasing a burger is done by waving their watch or phone over a terminal.

Needless to say, they expect to manage payments electronically. At minimum they expect to visit a website to update a credit card on your wash’s monthly unlimited plan. More than likely that extra step would confuse them — wondering why they couldn’t just update their payment information at a pay station on their next visit. If those aren’t capabilities you currently offer, get with your POS supplier to explore options.

From advanced license plate recognition to the video pay stations themselves, our industry already has the technology available to satisfy every customer’s buying preference. Losing business because your customers felt it too challenging to give you their money is one change I’d address sooner rather than later.

You Won’t Be Thanked for Providing a Job.

Every day will offer your emerging labor pool new and more convenient methods of earning money on their terms. How do you intend to compete with that? By offering an hourly job prepping cars or drying them down in the hot sun or freezing cold? Quite simply — you’re not. If you’re still using labor to produce a clean, dry, and shiny vehicle then consider this your wake-up call. Equipment and chemistry have been available to deliver total automation of the wash process for many years now. Hourly wages are going up as are employees’ expectations. I can’t envision a future where you can wash cars profitably with labor.

That said, a dedicated team focused on delivering an exceptional customer experience will continue to set you apart. It’s your job to plan to use staff where the value justifies the expense and develop training programs to get them there.

Basically, you need to plan how you’ll provide a career with a path for growth rather than a job leading to nowhere.

The good news is that, from what I’m reading, a higher percentage of the next generation is expected to enter straight into the workforce between the ages of 16 and 18. It appears they’re less likely to saddle themselves with huge amounts of debt for an education that may be obsolete. Talk about an opportunity!

What other industry provides the opportunity to cross train customer service, equipment repair and maintenance, chemical distribution, and POS management? You will not only cultivate an employee that’s an invaluable asset, you will provide them a career path they may thank you for.

So last week, I found myself at a classic car show. As I shared a video of an impeccably restored 1956 Oldsmobile with my daughter on Instagram and bought a lemonade from a food truck with my smartphone, I questioned if the generations are so different. Working to provide memorable experiences, convenient ways to engage with our businesses, and rewarding career paths for our staff aren’t some future requirements we should plan for — they’re changes we should make today before we have to.

Good luck, and good washing.

Anthony Analetto has over 35 years’ experience in the car wash business and is a partner at SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.