Fresh from the 2017 Car Wash Show in Las Vegas,
I had the opportunity to reflect on the last few days while flying back to the factory. On the plane, two realizations came to mind: First, the car wash industry is simply exploding with opportunity for growth. Second, the rules have changed for those intending to earn their unfair share of the business. New locations are being built as quickly as investors can find properties. National chains, flush with investment capital, are acquiring locations at break-neck speed. Growing consumer demand for fast, convenient, affordable car washing is fueling this consolidation and construction, and it doesn’t look like it’ll slow down anytime soon.
However, I was a little bit alarmed after I spoke to several operators who were more concerned about new competition eating into their current business than looking for ways to increase their capture rate and retain that growth market. That’s when I realized that some veteran operators haven’t yet embraced the new reality — customers are searching for a branded, retail-like experience when getting a car wash. They crave something more along the lines of a break from their day than to complete what they once considered a chore. So I decided to test my hypothesis.
I asked my fellow wash operators a rhetorical question that a friend had once asked me — one that forever altered the course of my business. I asked them to picture themselves standing in the middle of a giant stadium, holding a microphone, surrounded by every potential customer within a five-mile radius of their business. Now, give the crowd your 15-second elevator pitch: why should they choose your wash over any other?
Go ahead, give it a try.
Not so easy, is it?
The first time I tried, I barely uttered, “We deliver a clean car fast and affordable,” before giving up. Today, this service level is the minimum expectation — a simple commodity. Frustrated with my effort to find any point of differentiation, I did what many businesspeople who are confused by (or just too busy to deal with) marketing and branding do: I turned to discounting my commodity. So now my 15-second monologue became, “We deliver a clean car fast and affordable – see me for a coupon for a free wash to try it out!” Feeling a bit more confident, I smiled and turned to my friend, who replied, “Is that the best you can do?”
He then asked, “If I told you to go buy a 2×4 piece of lumber, where would you go to buy it?” Without hesitation, I answered with my preferred home improvement store. He pushed me to explain my answer. What about the store draws me in? I answered, “Because I never have to save a receipt. Whenever I have a return, I just swipe my card and get my money back without question.” My ”a-ha” moment came once I realized that brand trumps commodity. When you’re a brand, people recall their experiences with your business and return. When you’re a commodity, it’s a race to the bottom.
If I had the opportunity to tell every person in town why they’d be foolish to not run out and visit my wash, what would be the reason? In other words, what could I say that my competitors couldn’t? Realizing that my logo and signage were just a small part of my overall brand experience, I sat down and started to compile a list of competitive advantages that I felt were important to my customers. Next, I joined that list with steps that I could take to own that position in my market. Here are my results:
OWN THE CONVENIENCE FACTOR
Like most things at a car wash, owning this position starts with labor or, more accurately, the absence of labor. In order to offer convenient hours of operation, rain or shine, with a consistent service time, labor must be minimized in the wash process. Every detail from training to preventive maintenance must be mastered. In addition, your service menu must guide customers to quick, confident, decisions with clear expectations of performance. Good-better-best is a sound rule of thumb, and it’s likely you’ll want to test different wash menus to dial this in.
Now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is. Doing the legwork to offer a consistent quality service in a promised time is only one side of the equation. The other is a bit scarier: an advertised guarantee. If you’re prepared to offer an “XX-minutes or its free” or similar policy, and deliver a consistent quality product, you’ll be on your way to owning the market as the most convenient car wash.
OWN COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT
Fundraising programs are an essential component of community involvement, but aren’t the only path to owning this distinction in your market. I’ve met car wash operators who have continued to pay their employees while they assisted with the cleanup of their town after a natural disaster. You may choose to contribute in other ways, but you should be creative. There are endless opportunities to align your car wash with community interests — just don’t forget to share your effort with followers on your social media networks.
That said, hosting charity wash days with a percentage of the profits going to the organization can both increase traffic and present a great opportunity for media coverage. Another favorite is for kids to sell wash books and keep a part of the profit. Leverage technology to improve performance. Most pay stations have some mechanism for a customer to enter a code to donate a portion of their payment to a favorite charity. For example, you may negotiate with a local band or sports team that every time a customer buys the top package and enters the assigned code, the group earns two dollars. Imagine all the students and parents involved in your fundraising event sending out electronic codes to friends and relatives across the Internet to buy your top package. Picture thousands of potential customers planning a trip to your wash to help the people and causes that they care about. Grassroots marketing can deliver exciting results, but typically only the first business in a community to do something new will reap the reward.
If you’re considering taking ownership of the highest quality car wash position in your market, I’ll assume that you’re already on top of your game. What I will say is that the relentless pursuit of perfection in delivering a quality wash is only one part of this position. You’ll need to focus equal, if not greater, effort on creating a memorable customer experience. Start with uniforms, signage, landscaping, and everything that a customer can touch or see. Inside the tunnel use LED lighting, coordinated scents, and clean wall paneling to reinforce the sense of quality. Analyze staff interactions and develop standardized greetings and procedures. I’ve seen full-serves where attendants spread the drying towels on the ground so that a customer could wipe their feet before entering the car. I’ve seen flex-serves with beautiful signage detailing their 7-step wash process to protect your car. I know express operators that dress their staff in bowties and actively train on their customer service philosophy. The position of highest quality wash can take on many forms, but it starts with delivering a consistent, quality product.
Write down your 15-second pitch about what sets your business apart from every competitor in the marketplace. Read it back to yourself. Repeat and refine your statement until you feel it’s so compelling that customers hearing it will believe your car wash offers a value proposition that’s important to them and distinct in the market. Hire a marketing agency that can create logos, signage, messages, and architectural building enhancements to reinforce your core message in your customer’s mind. Train your employees to live, breathe, and believe in your position. From that base, you may never find yourself in front of a stadium of customers, but supported with advertising, your customers will find you — and return.
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.