If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: there is absolutely no reason that a modern car wash would require manual prep. Your tunnel should produce a clean, dry, and shiny vehicle every single time — without manual prep.

Yet, here I am writing an article about why you may consider manually prepping a vehicle. Bear with me.

The Playing Field

Remember the mom and pop shops of years past? It was the way people serviced you that was to be emulated and it encouraged customers to return time and time again. This hasn’t changed in the car wash business.

• Respect. A smiling attendant who treats a customer and their car with care.

• Appreciation. An exit thank-you sign or a customer service text after a visit.

• Quality. A clean, shiny, dry vehicle every visit.

Fast forward to 2020: the norm is also foam, lights, signage, and branding. A branded business that puts on a good show for a $7 basic wash will have more visitors and higher revenue than a wash that doesn’t invest in a comparable experience. It’s just the way it is. People pay to play!

Up Your Game

If you’re in an area where competition is steep and the playing field is rather even, how do you up your game without breaking the bank? Think of the last time you were blown away by a brand’s customer service. Think about what made the customer experience great, and ask yourself if it cost the company a lot to impress you. Most likely not.

Which brings me to bug prep. Hand-prepping vehicles to increase customer loyalty certainly isn’t new. What’s new are the tactics to get all the customer-pleasing goodness — without negatively impacting your bottom line.

Bug Prep: To Pay or Not to Pay

There are essentially two methods to present a hand-prep experience to customers: unpaid and paid. I happen to be an under-promise and over-deliver kind of guy. With that in mind, I personally like the unpaid model.

At my wash, the guide-on attendant has a foaming sprayer next to them with a graphic of an “X” marked through a big graphic bug. An obvious symbol to the customer of what this service is for. If the attendant sees any bugs or bird droppings on the vehicle, they spray it. They also spray the windshield of every car, regardless of how clean it appears.

With the paid option, we usually see $3 for a “bug-prep” add-on or as part of a top-tier package. If you go this route, remember that when a customer pays for a service, the expectation also increases, as in 100 percent of bugs and residue should be removed. This leads us into obvious and not-so-obvious pitfalls you’ll want to avoid. Let’s take a look.

Paid Hand-Prep Pitfall:Beware of Bugs

You can deliver a basic bug-prep service with a foaming spray or with a hog’s hair brush. Although I prefer the simplicity of a foamed application, I’ll admit that seeing attendants diligently scrubbing a vehicle with a hog’s hair brush makes a great visual impact.

However, customers with severe bug problems may require restorative services such as clay or polish, along with wax or paint sealant. These customers may overestimate the ability of your bug-prep to fix their problem. Be careful not to give them false hope.

What’s the solution? Offer a self-prep area where customers can treat their own car. If they can’t get it off themselves, they won’t blame you.

Paid Hand-Prep Pitfall: Signage

Nobody wants to feel cheated out of a special service. If you are offering paid hand-prep, make it clear to everyone that it is a paid service. Start by making sure your menu board is clear with the upsell offering. Use a confirmation sign that illuminates to tell the customer that they paid for the extra service — this sign also notifies attendants to begin prepping the vehicle.

Also make sure the customer entering the tunnel behind the one who purchased the service doesn’t presume they were cheated out of the hand-prep. You can do this by adding a secondary confirmation sign. Position it right in front of the tunnel. Program it to say something like: “The car in front of you has purchased…” followed by a list of the appropriate extra services. This eliminates confusion and also increases the likelihood that the customer will buy your premium services on their next visit.

Paid Hand-Prep Pitfall: Labor

The hallmark of the express-exterior model is delivering an absolutely consistent service in a consistent amount of time. On slower days, the existing guide-on attendant is capable of handling the hand-prep service themselves. On busier days, you may need to add attendants in order to successfully perform the application.

Don’t assume that everyone has common sense because, in my experience, it is not that common. Plan to train additional staff extensively. Attendants must understand and practice how to process each car without slowing production.

Just as important, they must be trained to never perform the service on a car that has not paid for it. Attendants tend to get into a rhythm of bug-prepping and end up prepping every car they see.

This undermines the value of the hand-prep service.

Paid Hand-Prep Pitfall: Safety

Traditionally, manual prep work is done with a high-pressure gun. This allows attendants to remain at a safe distance from the vehicle but lacks the personalization of an attendant gently scrubbing with a foamed brush.

An attendant using a foamed brush is memorable to the customer and a remarkably powerful way to boost your average ticket. However, if you’re not prepared to make the necessary investments in labor, management, and training to perform hand-prep safely, don’t do it at all.

With any manual prep, training and management of attendants is crucial. Although I provide long-handled brushes, there is a very strong temptation for attendants to step in front of the car.

The faster they work, the stronger this temptation becomes. You must ensure that any attendant you have is physically capable of prepping the car (from one side if single-staffed).

Whatever you do, don’t allow attendants to cross in front of the vehicle.

Untrained attendants racing around a wet and slippery tunnel entrance with a distracted customer behind the wheel is a disaster waiting to happen.

The End Game

There’s a statement in Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People that says, “talk in terms of the other person’s interests.” Bug prep in car washing is the epitome of Dale Carnegie’s lesson to all of us. Take this to a broader scale and what all great customer service businesses have in common is they genuinely care about their customers’ experiences and they use their products and services to talk-the-talk.

If you’re in a league with some steep competition, think about the products and services that are of interest to customers in your region, and put a plan in action. Bug prep or not, every business can excel with customer service in different ways; the secret is to approach it with a happy customer as the end goal.

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.