Automotive detailing operations all around the country are in the midst of winter. Standalone detail shops and car washes that offer detailing are both waiting for spring, and wondering what kind of year it will be. Yet many operations will simply have another blasé year of so-so profits.

The standalone operator who trudges along, year-in, year-out, will sometimes wonder, “is this all there is?” Meanwhile, the car wash owner who doesn’t pay much attention to that shack in the back with some guys doing “detailing” might consider, “what do I keep that thing open for, anyway?” At car washes, the detail shop can sometimes be an afterthought. It may not be considered a real moneymaker.

Perhaps, now that spring is around the corner, with its fresh batch ofpotential repeat and new customers, it is a great time to think about taking your detail business to the next level. The truth is, if a detail operation is set up and managed correctly, it can generate a hefty profit.


Over the years, I have visited many shops around the country and I’ve unfortunately seen some pretty dumpy places. There are often more than one problem, including poor management, inefficient techniques, inadequate pricing and packaging, filthy and run-down conditions, less than desirable employees, and broken-down or inadequate equipment.

Ask yourself some honest questions:

• Are your customers thrilled with your service?

• Do the finished vehicles look and smell spectacular?

• Do the customers say things like: “The car’s never looked better!” or “It looks like a brand-new car!”

• Do you get a lot of complaints or comebacks?

• Do you have tons of repeat business?

• Do your detail technicians look and act professionally?

• Are detail jobs completed when promised?

• Is the schedule booked several days or weeks in advance?

• Does the shop look clean and tidy?

• Considering the volume, is your operation generating great profits or are you just paying bills all the time?

If the answers to these questions are less than positive, perhaps it’s time to take a serious look at your detail operation.

Many of these problems are the result of a combination of lack of training of technicians and inadequate equipment and supplies. It’s amazing to me how many operators across the country expect their detail operations to do well by using the training method of “the old guy trains the new guy.”

Most detail shops don’t have an in-house training system in place and thus the quality of the technician goes down with each new hire. Relying on the experience that the new hire claims to possess only brings chaos and variability into the detail shop because each technician will be doing things differently with little consistency in results.

Volume of business is, of course, tied to marketing. Detail centers at car washes have a great advantage in that they have a constant stream of potential customers coming in for washes virtually every day. If a good percentage of these customers are not being converted to future detail jobs, there is a breakdown in salesmanship at some level.

Standalone detail shops have to work quite a bit harder for their customers, however. If volume is low, one has to go back to the marketing efforts, and those efforts should target both new and existing customers.


Often the business owner doesn’t feel like he or she has the time or the expertise to examine the operation, pinpoint all of the problems, and create and implement solutions. Or perhaps the situation is that the operator feels like he or she has done everything, and nothing seems to be working.

If your detail operation has really not gone anywhere in the last few years, consider bringing in an expert for an outside, objective analysis of your operation. Yes, there will be fees involved. You have a choice of looking at these fees as an expense or as an investment in the future. A good consultant will help you determine the areas that need improvement, help you with a plan to make those improvements, and follow-up so that your implementation of the improvements yields great results.

Training is available on many levels. There are “detail schools” to which you can send your technicians for several days of training. There are reasonable video training programs available to bring training back to your location. One advantage of a video program that demonstrates good detailing techniques is that it can be shown to every new hire, thus creating consistency in technique among all technicians at the operation.

Perhaps the best training situation is the one that occurs at your location. Such training can be tailored to your specific operation, taking into consideration the actual factors that you experience in your day-to-day operation. Such factors include the equipment and chemicals that you use, the types of customers and vehicles that you encounter, and the operational conditions. On-site training can help you develop your own training system that you can use over and over again after the trainer has left.


A high-quality, intensive training program will require several days, during which multiple issues will be addressed.

First, it is necessary to assess the current operational situation and also to determine the goals of the owners. More informally, “where are you and where do you want to go.” With these thoughts in mind, the trainer can then proceed to help out in the following areas.

I often find that many problems are created by the menu of detailing packages that are offered. Often there are too many choices for the customer, and often the pricing does not reflect the amount of work that goes into delivering the package. If the owner is willing, I like to start with adjustments to the menu, and then provide training on how to perform the items in the revised menu.

The key to consistent results in automotive detailing is using systematic procedures. Those procedures have to include the use of proper equipment and chemicals, as well as proven techniques and “rules of motion” to properly use the equipment and chemicals. Instruction in efficient and effective procedures will constitute the bulk of the training.

Nonetheless, a good training event will also likely include some equipment and chemical improvements. Be prepared to make some changes and to invest in some new equipment and chemicals that will help you do a better job. Also be prepared to spend some time re-organizing the shop. An unbiased eye will see the inefficiencies of your shop’s layout.

A formal training event wouldnot be complete without some discussion of marketing, sales, and customer retention. Also, administrative issues should be covered.


Many of the same issues mentioned in the previous section need to be covered at the car wash as well. There are also some situation-specific issues at the car wash detail center.

In car wash operations, it is beneficial to have a manager who has control of the detail shop so that the owner or general manager can focus on other areas. In this scenario, the detail manager is, more or less, running a separate business within the car wash. Thus, the detail trainer will be spending a lot of time with this person.

Regarding marketing, the car wash has the great advantage of having a captive customer base to which detailing services can be marketed. If the detail shop is not cranking out volume, perhaps you can look at the sales efforts. In some cases, it would be beneficial for the ticket writers to be paid a commission to set detail appointments. In other cases, it might be better for the detail manager to sell detailing to waiting customers at the finish lanes.

Additionally, a passive marketing campaign might also be helpful. Customers sitting around waiting for washed cars to be finished can be targeted with posters, brochures, or leaflets. Try a “special of the week.” Or you can feature a specific detailing service each week, for example odor neutralization, leather conditioning, mat and carpet cleaning, polishing, sealant application, convertible top care, headlamp clarification, or chrome and aluminum wheel polishing.

Another common issue at the car wash is scheduling. There is a delicate balance that must be maintained between convenience for the customer and capability of the detail technicians to deliver a high-quality result in the time provided. Thus, the training should include evaluating whether or not it is appropriate for customers to be waiting for services or if the vehicles should be scheduled for drop-off.


The bottom line purpose of improving your operation is to increase customer satisfaction. In fact, your goal should be to delight the customer. This can only be done if the operation is set up to produce spectacular results.

The benefit of spectacular results on a consistent basis is that customers will come back as well as encourage their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family members to patronize your business. As you develop a reputation for excellent results, you get to increase your rates. Customers will gladly pay extra for excellent results.


It is getting close to the beginning of the detailing season for many of us. It’s a great time to upgrade your operation. It will take time, effort, and an investment of dollars. You may want to bring in outside help to assist you in maximizing your profit. If you take the right steps, your customers will notice changes, which will increase their likelihood to return and to send their friends!

Prentice St. Clair is president of Detail in Progress, a San Diego-based automotive reconditioning consulting firm. To contact him, e-mail or call (619) 701-1100.