Dealer Ops

What A Dealer Needs To Know About Running A Professional Detail/Reconditioning Department

It is clear in talking with auto dealers across the country that ALL have a desire to have an organized detail/recon department in their dealership, operates efficiently, even profitable and looks good.
This is possible, but to have that, the dealer must change his attitude about a detailing/recon department. Sounds simple enough, but unfortunately few dealers are able or willing to do this. As a result, they continue to have the type of detail operation in their dealership that they do not like or want. Sounds insane doesn't it? But they say that is a sure sign of insanity: "doing what you've always done and hoping for different results.”


Considering the costs to establish or upgrade a modern body shop of $250,000 to $1 or $2 million dollars, the cost to establish or upgrade a detail/recon department is very minimal.

Even equipping with the most modern Central Chemical Distribution Systems, Central Pressure Washing Systems and even an automatic carwash could cost less than $100,000.
The problem, however, is that most dealers don't feel that detailing/recon deserves more than a few thousand dollars investment. After all, "we've always been able to operate the department with little equipment and low paying, entry level people."

But that is the problem, isn't it? Old technology and unskilled, unreliable personnel.

As I said, changes are difficult or expensive; a dealer just has to be willing. As NIKE says to, "JUST DO IT!"


There isn't really any way around it. If a dealer wants to stay in business today, he has to make investments in business and facilities. The detail/recon department is no different. If it is true that used vehicles offer more profit potential for a dealer, than the sale of a new car, doesn't it seem logical they would want to do all they could to modernize and streamline this part of business?

Because detailing has always been sort of a "back-alley, cottage business," there really isn't much help for the dealer who wants to establish or upgrade a detail department. For years, the prime movers in the detail business have been, the chemical companies. And today, they are making more money in the histories of their companies than they ever have. Say to them, "Things need to change," and they will look at you as though you're crazy. "Change, why would we want to change? These are the best times we've ever had!?"

Bottom line, "don't expect much help from your detail chemical supplier. They are doing what they have been doing for the past 50 to 60 years: selling chemicals. A dealer needs more help than information on detailing chemicals.

It almost does not need to be said, but I will say it anyway. If you are going to make a decision about establishing a new detail department or upgrading your existing operation the decisions have to be well-planned and accurate if investments are to provide a proper return.

The questions are, however, "How does a dealer make such decisions? Where does he get the required information?" By hiring an experienced detailer, he certainly will know what is needed. WRONG! FALSE! INCORRECT! NO! NO! NO!


In his book, "The 'E' Myth,” author Michael E. Gerber describes the fatal assumption made by many business people that: "...if you understand the technical work of a business, you understand a business that does that technical work." The reason that this way of thinking is fatal is, it is just not true.

Almost everyone in the detail business today, chemical suppliers, their distributors and the detailers themselves are somewhat informed on most technical aspects of the trade, but not much more than that. All of them have been doing things the same way for years. If a dealer wants to change things, these people are certainly not who you would talk to for information on "how to change things."

But, there is still this mindset among dealers who want have a better body or detail shop to feel that all you need to know is the technical aspects of the trade. This mindset is always lurking in the wings.

When the dealer himself/herself; or someone they give the responsibility to investigates upgrading the detail shop begins research, it is always from a technical point of view. What equipment do we need? What is out there to do a better job?

Little time or attention is given to things like projected vehicle volume through the detail department; do we want to sell to the public; facilities, do we have enough space to process the expected volume; can we expand; how should the facility be laid out?

Recently, I received a layout for a proposed detail shop that a dealership in Florida was planning. The drawing had been done by an architectural firm who had designed dealership service departments, and with little or no knowledge of what is done in a detail department, they laid out a 12,000 sq. ft. building.

After reviewing the layout and discussing with the dealer what they wanted to achieve, we were able to give them sufficient used car detail bays, new car POI bays, wash bays and space for an automatic conveyorized carwash all in 5,000 sq. ft.


Now that you realize that our technical instincts are not the proper criteria to use when planning to establish a new or upgrading an existing detail department, we can turn to the other resources necessary to address this issue.

Assuming a dealer wants to upgrade their detail operation to increase efficiency and production, we find there are several resources to consider: Facilities Resources, Equipment Resources, Materials Resources, Manpower Resources and Management Resources.


These are the physical building(s) where production takes place. As critical as this is to an efficient, operational detail department, very few dealers, or even anyone in the detail business, gives it the consideration that is required. You must allocate sufficient space to the detailing department to allow for an efficient layout and design to ensure maximum production.

Equipment location, traffic flow patterns and careful attention to things like space organization, lighting, air quality, heat, air conditioning and noise are just some of the important layout and design considerations. Nevertheless, facility resources and the expectations of the layout and design are often overrated. There exists a belief that facilities and equipment, for that matter, hold the key to efficient production. Many dealers, even after spending HUGE sums of money on facilities and equipment, eventually realize that emphasis on these resources aren't the only answer. But that is what the "technician mentality within" wants to hear.


Looking at a detail shop in any dealership, or anywhere for that matter, one can see the need for better equipment and tools. You may not know what is needed, but it is clear that there has to be a better way.

In any technical trade the right equipment and tools to do the job are critical. And today, with increasing wages, it is even more critical than any other time in history. However, the existing mentality in the detail business among detailers, shop owners and dealers is that we don't need much more than a few plastic squeeze and spray bottle, 101b electric buffer, shop vacuum and a few rags to get the job done.

Some others are looking for a new-fangled gizmo that will cure all the ills of the detailing department. For example, portable soil extractors for cleaning carpets and fabric upholstery have recently come on the detail scene to replace the primitive hand scrub brush and bucket of carpet shampoo. The problem is that an extractor is part of the solution, but not all of the solution to carpet and upholstery cleaning. Yet many dealers will invest $2,000 or $3,000 dollars in one machine for a department that has five detail bays believing that this is the answer to all their problems.

For the dealer and even the detail shop owner, this is just the age-old art of throwing money at the problem. The fault here is to think that this piece of equipment will solve more of the problems we have than it was ever designed to fix, or is capable of fixing.


It is generally accepted that you can't detail vehicles without the right chemicals to do the job. There is no argument about the correlation between having the right materials and efficient production. But once again there is a tendency here for the technical aspects to overwhelm the decision-making process.

Take for example Toyota's program to upgrade the detailing departments in their dealerships. The reasoning was to help the dealer meet the Certification requirements on late-model, high-end used Toyotas and Lexus.

What they did was simply go to one of the leading detail chemical companies for assistance. This was a classic example of putting all their emphasis on Material Resources for the answer to the problem. While the chemical company is quite knowledgeable in the use of their chemicals, they are not experts and even up on the latest equipment available to do the job. And, most know nothing about facility design and layout and certainly nothing about management resources. As a result, the Toyota program, in this author's point of view, has not achieved the results that were expected.

Toyota's answer, and the answer for any dealer, will be found closer to the base of the Production Pyramid, the resources of personnel and management.


The manpower resources are the employees used in the production process. Nothing happens without qualified employees. Even recognizing the importance of people most dealers go about the solution in the wrong way.

First and foremost we go after “experienced detailers.” If you don't like what you have, why would you hire the same type of personnel? Here it is again, doing what you have always done, getting what you've always got.

What you are trying to do is change the way your detailing department has functioned in the past. You can improve facilities, install the latest equipment and technology, and utilize the finest chemicals, but if you hire the same type of people as you have before, they will soon have this monument to efficiency operating at the same level as you had before.

You must hire personnel, not with good skills, but people with good values and potential and teach them the skills. While detailing does require some skill training it is not "rocket science," and the skills can be taught in a matter of a few days. I have personally trained people in foreign countries who could not speak English, who had no prior knowledge of detailing how to detail in 3 days, including high speed buffing.

Another mistake that is made is an extension of this thinking is to believe that if you offer a higher pay scale you will attract a better grade of detailer. While I might agree that you could get a better detailer, the bottom line is that you still have a detailer whose experience is only good if you allow them to do what they have always done. See the point?


These are the foundation of the Production Pyramid because without a clear understanding of this resource, the time, attention and money that was spent on all the other resources will be for naught, absolutely worthless.

Management Resources relate to the level of organization, administration, discipline and control applied to the business of reconditioning vehicles.

As much as a dealer knows about the importance of good management in the operation of their dealership, they seem to deny their importance when it comes to the detailing department. Whether they directly, or someone in the dealership directly manages the operation of the detail department, there is a tendency to hang onto the "technical aspects," and as a result, the tendency is that if we have good "detail technicians," we don't need to manage them. As a result, the detail department is soon back to where it always was.

Some of the areas where Management Resources must be effectively utilized are:

  1. Cost analysis and a clear understanding of what is required to detail a car and how much of this cost in labor and materials
  2. Ongoing performance standards and measurement
  3. Clearly defined goals and objectives for the department
  4. Clearly defined management philosophy
  5. Systems and procedures that are applied to the administrative and production management process
  6. The hiring, motivating and retraining of employees
  7. Delegation of responsibilities
  8. Well defined accountabilities


Here at the base of the Production Pyramid is what most dealers do not want to know about operating a successful detailing department.

As important as these 8 points are, it is rare to find a dealer, service manager, body shop manager or whoever in the dealership is responsible for the detailing department who spends any time and energy on the Management Resources related to the detailing department.


An electric buffer, plastic squeeze and spray bottles, a shop vacuum, an extractor and a few chemicals, plus detailing skills will not make it anymore. Many dealerships have detail departments, but they aren't really doing a professional, nor profitable job of detailing the vehicle. Why? Because the dealer has not allocated an equal amount of time, effort and money into all the production resources.


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