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Detailing is Very Much Alive: Dealerships are Increasing Customer Satisfaction and Profits as a Result

While some dealers believe detailing, as a profit center, has gone by the wayside, many dealerships have added detail operations to their fixed ops to generate revenue and enhance the customer’s experience at the dealership.

Today, many dealers do in-house reconditioning on used vehicles or slow-turning vehicles that need a quick makeover, but they’re not incorporating it as a part of their retail business. Not only can dealers generate revenue from this, but they can also increase customer satisfaction.

A Spa Day
While some consider reconditioning and detailing synonymous, they are very different. According to Ken Billado, assistant manager of the detail operation at The Automaster (a high-line and import dealership group out of Shelburne, Vt.), reconditioning is quite different from detailing. He said a reconditioned car “looks good from a distance” but “if you start looking closely, you’re going to see things that have not been cleaned.”

The Automaster Spa, a name given to the group’s detail operation by General Manager Dale Fillion, reconditions all trade-ins that are sent to auction and performs full interior and exterior details on the trade-ins they resell. Billado said, with detailing, his shop “gets all the nooks and crannies, the vents and under the seats.” And the detailing process takes a substantial amount of time. He’ll assign two or three people to a detail that will take three to four hours.

While that may seem like a lot of time with such manpower, the Automaster Spa’s focus is on quality. Quality translates to increased customer satisfaction and repeat and referral customers, and that’s why the Automaster group made such an investment in detailing.

In 2001, the dealership decided to build a separate, state-of-the-art facility for the Automaster Spa. If customers choose to wait on their vehicles, they can sit in a cushy waiting area that overlooks the four bays where details are performed. In the dealership’s previous shop, which was a part of its service department, there was limited space and supplies and tools weren’t nearly as organized as they are today.

Now, in the new building, there is no jumble of cords running across the floor. All cords run underground, creating an organized appearance, and the chemicals used to detail are neatly arranged in a ChemSpense station, which also houses essential tools like a vacuum and shampooer. Billado said, “People come in here and look at the shop, and everything is neat and organized. People are paying to have their vehicles cleaned, and they want a nice clean shop, not some dark corner in a service shop with a couple of wet vacs.”

Automaster also adds convenience to quality. “Our service department here does a good job of selling [details] too. We’ll work with service. If [customers] are coming in for any kind of service, we can also clean their cars in the same day, and people like that one-stop shopping … it’s convenient for them.”

To help draw in new customers, the dealership advertises Automaster Spa on the radio.  For the most part, however, they grow their detail customer base through word-of-mouth. Additionally, every car sold goes to the spa one last time to ready it for delivery.

Domestic Detailing
Todd Tylewski, service manager at Houston Ford in Pine River, Minn., employs two to four employees in his detailing department depending on the time of year. Amazingly, their detail department has seen no turnover in more than three and a half years. He commended the quality of his personnel and his dealer’s research as main reasons for the department’s success.

Dealer Dick Houston trekked across the country researching different detail systems in search of one with two qualities: efficiency and productivity. According to Tylewski, Houston “went to look at what it was going to take to make the department functional—not just wash the car and vacuum the carpet.” Once he completed his search, he partnered with Detail Plus to equip his detail operation.

In addition to finding the proper equipment, Houston had to add onto his service department to allocate an appropriate amount of space for the operation. The detail department, which includes four bays and a car wash, is set up to detail any type of vehicle—from Bobcats and boats to SUVs and semis.

While the dealership offers full details, the express detail for $39 attracts many customers. This low-priced detail is advertised on fliers a couple times a year. In January, the service department sent out 2,900 mailers promoting the $39 Winter Detail Special. Houston estimates between 20 and 25 percent of the work in the detail operation is customer pay work.

Throughout the winter months, there’s more in-house work to be done. During a normal year, Pine River will see up to 60 inches of snow, and each time it snows, the inventory has to have the snow knocked off. Cars must also be washed more frequently.

In White Bear Lake, Minn., the White Bear Lake Superstore, which sells GMC, Pontiac and Buick, boosts business in the detail operation with the Auto Butler customer retention program. Customers are sent reminders twice a year alerting them it’s time for a detail—both exterior and interior. A courtesy shuttle takes customers to and from work, while their vehicles are being detailed.

Lee Gatrell, owner at White Bear Lake Superstore, said, “The average Auto Butler customer is spending $200 more each time they come back for the Auto Butler service.” His operation adds $5,000 per day to the bottom line through detailing services.

When a car is in for a detail at the superstore, the dealership makes sure what’s under the hood is running well. Detail customers can purchase a discounted oil change to be done at the time of detail, and the vehicle is inspected for service issues. If any repairs are needed, the dealership calls the customer with an estimate. Customers then have the option of resolving any service issues in the same trip. This service, no doubt, increases customer satisfaction.

While many domestic dealers think detailing is reserved for import dealers, a large number of domestic franchises are incorporating detail operations into their retail business as an added service to customers. Patrick Cronin, strategic account manager for NSS Enterprises (a company that offers detail equipment to dealers), estimated that 85 percent of their detail business is with domestic dealers.

Considering detailing as a part of maintaining customer relations is a growing trend. Cronin said, “The dealers that truly understand the value of car detailing are the same people who also understand customer retention.” He said Gatrell, who works with NSS, and many other domestics are utilizing “every tool” at hand – detailing included – to keep customers returning to their facilities.

Club Carrera
At Carrera Motors (a high-line dealership named after the Carrera race not the Porsche), Owner Tom Anderson said detailing has always been a part of their operation. However, their detailing business ramped up with the introduction of Club Carrera in January of 2006, a membership-based club for auto enthusiasts.

Club members have access a newly-built clubhouse that includes many amenities, one of which is a fully stocked detail area, so they can clean their own cars. If preferred, club members can have the detail staff at Carrera Motors handle it, while they enjoy some of the clubhouse’s other amenities like a lounge area with plush furniture and multiple flat-screen TVs, a stocked bar and kitchen, an automotive library, two flat-screen PCs and an outdoor barbeque.

The detail operation at Carrera also utilizes the Detail Plus’ ChemSpense system to eliminate the clutter of chords across the floor and organize equipment. Anderson said, “I think if you went to 95 percent of the detail shops, you probably couldn’t find the floors … Our detail shop is a beautiful thing—everything from the lighting, to the floors, to the ceilings to the equipment we install.” He also added that the system makes monitoring chemicals easier, since everything is together in one kiosk.

“I don’t think you can get the right pricing, the right product and the right people if you don’t have the right approach to the facility side of that business ... you’ve got to take care of your facility and equipment first before you take care of your customers,” added Anderson. He estimated 40 percent of his detail business is from retail work and 60 percent is internal work. “We consider detail part of the experience of the store.” While some detail operations are open five days a week, Carrera is open seven, doing mostly in-house work on Sundays.

Managing the Department
The Automaster Spa treats its employees well because, according to Billado, out of the 12 people employed in their detail operation, five have been employed there for over eight years. When he does have to seek new help, before putting an ad in the newspaper, he’ll ask his employees if anyone they know would be interested.

While he prefers experienced detailers, Billado will take the time to train someone new to detailing if they’re interested in making it a career. “We don’t mind training [someone new] because we have enough experienced guys here that we can take on somebody like that.”

As you can probably guess, the low turnover rates at Houston Ford’s detailing shop and the Automaster Spa experience aren’t the norm. Cronin of NSS advised, “Invest in the best person you can find and overpay them; don’t give them a reason to leave.”

When hiring a manager for the detail operation, Art Riddle, detail national accounts manager at Ecolab (another company that offers dealers detail equipment), advised, “Assign a champion to execute and manage the business. With the organic profits that are generated, the dealership can then afford to pay detail technicians above industry standards in order to break the immanent cycle of employee turnover.”

Having proper management in place is also vital to quality control. A detail operation, regardless of pay structure, must maintain a balance of efficiency and quality. Billado said he keeps an eye on “the amount of time we spend on the vehicles, for the most part. We don’t want to sacrifice quality for quantity. There’s that fine line between putting too many man-hours into a car … It’s more about the quality control than anything.”

Anderson said, “I think [detailing is] a tough business. A lot of dealers give up on the employment side, and it’s tough for employee retention and recruiting. It’s not the glamour side of the world we live in. It takes probably more energy and direct management of your workforce than most aspects of the car business. I think it’s easy to throw up your hands.”

He advised dealers interested in incorporating retail detail business into their fixed operations: “Approach [detailing] as a part of the experience you’re trying to introduce to your customers, rather than a river of cash.” To make that experience better, hire and retain quality employees. To do that, Anderson added, “Don’t try to buy cheap people. Pay well. Don’t have a minimum-wage mentality.”

Vol 5, Issue 4


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