It seems that 2018 is shaping up to be the year of “free” perks. No matter where you go, you’re bombarded with deals that involve added value — buy this, get that; use this store card, get points towards free rewards. It’s all a bit hard to manage, and honestly, I hardly ever notice the perks any more — except when they don’t work like they’re supposed to. We’ve all been there: a coffee machine that’s temporarily broken down, a free pastry that’s all sold out — no matter what the benefit was, when it doesn’t work right, it feels like a loss, even if the gain is net neutral.

Free and no good is still no good.This happened most recently for me when visiting my local auto dealer for service on my pickup truck. I was in a rush to get back to work, so I scheduled the earliest appointment possible. I knew that the dealer always had fresh donuts and hot coffee, so I skipped breakfast and hit the road. When I arrived, I was disappointed to discover that the coffee machine was down — a hand-written sign indicated that it was missing a part — and to add insult to injury, someone else had claimed the last donut.

So there I was: hungry, thirsty, and worse still, too busy for the rest of the morning to do much about it. I took a bet that the free coffee and snacks would be available, and my favorite auto dealer let me down. As always, the technicians did a good job on the truck, yet somehow I left the dealer feeling a bit more disappointed than I probably should have. Needless to say, the whole ordeal turned an otherwise positive service into a neutral experience at best.

The experience also reminded me of an old piece of wisdom that often circles around the office here at Sonny’s: “Free and no good is still no good.” If you’re going to offer a free perk, you’d better make sure that the perk works. First, it’s got to work for your customer by delivering on their expectations; second, it has to work for your car wash business by enhancing value, adding to the overall experience, and creating a loyal customer base. For example, consider your free vacuum stations: I’m on record as having said that adding free vacuum stations is a great way to create a competitive advantage in your trade area, to attract new customers, and to add tangible value to every package at an express exterior car wash. Now, I still strongly feel that way, but perhaps what I should have said is that car wash vacuum stations are a great perk, but only when they work.

What are some of the ways that vacuums can fail your business? For one, a turbine might simply break, rendering the whole system inoperable, or it can fail over time, causing diminishing suction that gets progressively worse over time. These are fairly obvious, and there are ways to anticipate these failures to maintain peak suction and avoid downtime. But are there other ways that your free vacuums can cause a negative customer experience? I find it best to look at what real customers have to say, so let’s turn to the Internet to examine two reviews.

The four-star Yelp review, above, was left by a self-identified car wash club member at a local car wash. Now, four-star reviews are pretty good, but this one could’ve been a raving five-star review. What held this customer back? A poorly maintained vacuum with diminishing suction. Though the vacuums are technically free, the customer clearly views them as part of the package she pays for, and isn’t getting the power or convenience that she expects.

Right, is another review from the same Yelp page. Notice anything? Besides the obvious lack of star-power, this review was written almost entirely about that particular customer’s experience at the vacuum station. “The car wash works just fine,” notes the reviewer, but this long-time customer’s negative experience attempting to vacuum their car was enough to cause them to never come back, and worse still, caused them to write about it and convince five other readers to agree. To invest in something such as a free vacuum station and lose customers rather than delight them simply doesn’t make much practical business sense.

So, how do you make your vacuum perk work for you? Here are a few tips:

1. Invest in a central vacuum system from the start.

If you are going to offer free vacuums, you should always incorporate a central-style vacuum. When laying out the free vacuum area, plan to maximize the number of available spots, but don’t sacrifice the size of your spaces. If you make the spaces too small, it might lead to unhappy customers; on the other hand, large spaces take up valuable area, and can clog up your site. Ensure that somebody with experience in car wash vacuums reviews your site plan. A properly set-up vacuum station minimizes the chance for traffic jams, keeping customers flowing freely about your site and speeding up their visit time.

2. What can go wrong might go wrong.

There’s only so much abuse that a turbine, separator, and all of the associated pipes can take. Customers get overzealous, sucking up everything from forks and knives to pens and plastic bags — all things that can overload a traditional vacuum system. Avoid premature wear and protect your turbine with a multi-point separation system designed with point-of-use separators. The point-of-use separators catch large objects before they get into the system and cause clogs — or worse, destroy the turbine.

3. Keep it tidy.

A well-kept, clean vacuum station is more inviting and efficient than an afterthought. You need plenty of trash receptacles available to customers — and make sure you empty them frequently. Ensure that your area is clutter-free and eliminate any potential safety hazards. In addition to frequent checks for clogs, also make sure the staff keeps the hoses clean so they don’t mark the vehicle interior with dirt.

4. Have a plan.

Vacuums turbines are tough, but any moving part has the potential to fail — it’s a fact. Make sure you follow the maintenance steps suggested by the manufacturer: for example, if greasing is needed, make sure to use a high-temperature grease. Another part of the plan is knowing how quickly you can install a replacement motor, turbine, or other critical parts. If your vacuums can’t work, you’ll force customers to look for locations that can service their needs. Fight diminishing power and broken turbines by inspecting your system frequently, so you can anticipate their failure points and prepare to swap bags, separators, or turbines at the first sign of problems.

There’s a reason why perks are so popular — when done correctly, perks add tremendous value, and can even become a key differentiator in a saturated and increasingly commoditized market. Central vacuum systems are a common perk that is extremely important to customers. Do it right, and you’ll retain many customers on the merit of free vacuums alone; do it wrong, and this is one perk that might just work against you.

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