Expert Advice — Becoming Relevant to a New Customer
We feel that it’s extremely important to have your own look and a professional look on any boulevard in America today. There is not better opportunity to capture a new customer than right in front of you, off the boulevard. We can do radio. We can do TV advertisements and we can do mailers. None are as powerful as putting a professional business on a boulevard and having people’s curiosity bring them in.
Oftentimes, a city will dictate what you can build. For instance, in this building, we have a polycarbonate roof. It’s opaque and lets natural light into the building. It’s great for us, but some cities don’t like it and they want that to become a solid roof. Sometimes they don’t like our colors and they want earth tones. Sometimes they don’t want any signage out in front of it and they want to bury the business in trees. You really have to make the decision to move on sometimes when you don’t feel good about it. I always want to be front and center on the boulevard and visible. And I like to have my own image rather than something that a city dictated to me. So, I’m not afraid to move on from one city to the next.
Personally, I think done with the shoe box, the rectangular carwash. And again, in the last 10, 15 years, it really didn’t matter what you built or where you built it, it did well. I think as time goes on, I think the customers are going to gravitate to those sexier locations and more modern type of car washes.
A sign is your identity and it is very important to your location. And it’s no secret that locations with great signage do well. If a city is taking all signage away from you and leaving you little chance to attract customers from the boulevard, it might be time to look for another city. Digital reader boards are extremely effective however, cities by and large, don’t like them. They’re very tough to get approved. But if you can get one approved, you’ve got a very, very effective tool to communicate to the passersby exactly what you are. Some of these new buildings, the modern buildings, a passerby might think, “My God, that’s got to be a $30 dollar carwash in there.” When actually it’s a $5 dollar carwash. An LED Programmable reader board can dispel all of that.
We think natural light is by far the best. It creates a different feel altogether going through the tunnel. The dark and narrow and short tunnels are kind of a carry-over from the old full-service days when the customer was not in the car. It really didn’t matter what you sent the car through, but today it’s different. You have ladies with their children. And the soccer moms coming through. The feel has got to be open. It’s got to be airy. It’s got to feel safe.
At night, I like LED. I like it completely lit. Lit-beyond-belief lit. That creates a feeling of safety. LED lighting at night is critical. If you’re going to be able to stay open and all the big car washes stay open at night. The biggest names in the business carry their business up until 9:00 and 10:00 at night. You can’t do that without proper lighting. LED lighting has changed everything. It’s very simple to create a very bright tunnel today.
As far as cleaning goes, we have to pay particular attention to cleaning because now the customer is seeing everything about the carwash. Stainless steel equipment will go a long way towards cleaning. It’s a lifetime thing, we actually clean it with 400 Grit Sandpaper.
We feel that floor maintenance is extremely important. It’s a safety issue for one, and it’s a housekeeping issue for two. We build in high-pressure wash units so that we can plug in a high-pressure gun in several portions of the tunnel so that we can wash it down daily. If it’s not washed down, it’s just a matter of days before algae can start to form. Algae turn very slippery and become a safety issue at that point.
It’s important to us to have service signs throughout the tunnel, to let the customer know that he’s receiving what he got. When the light comes on, it just reinforces in his mind that he’s getting all that he bought.
RFID is an exciting technology. And with clubs growing the way that they are, I think club members love just driving around the long line. And oftentimes, not even having to stop, having their windshield read and away they go. I know that I would want this in any car wash I built.
So, when you have three basic ways of paying for a car wash, being cash, credit and transponder, it stands to reason at least to me, that a new customer would probably gravitate towards the cashier, towards a person. And that’s really where I would like to see them land because I want to know when I got a new customer on the lot.
So, of the three types of transactions that we have, the advantage and disadvantages of each would be, well let’s start with the RFID lane. That customer is paid one price and is coming through as often as they wish. I really have no way to sell much more to them being that there’s nobody out in that lane. I can’t tell them, “Hey, Father’s Day is coming up and we have this promotion going.” So beyond that, that’s the disadvantage for RFID. For credit, obviously, the fees involved. On the cash portion of it, the only disadvantage to that is that we have to pay a person to take the cash.
The customer’s expectation is often driven by the market and what competitors are doing and the way that the people that have been washing their car have been washing it. So if somebody goes to a car wash and they’re used to people prepping before the conveyor and drying after the conveyor, we’re going to hear about it over here. Our only defense is to put out a clean, dry and shiny car. This question’s probably going to come up about drying, also. I see more and more Express washes that have people out at the exit-end of the carwash, drying the cars. This is really a question of how was the dryer sized for that carwash. Was it ample? And was the car dry enough? So again, my only defense is clean, dry, and shiny.
New customers are the name of this game. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in business for 10 months, 10 weeks or 10 years, you’re getting new customers. If you’re retaining them, you can only grow. So, what we like to do is identify the new customer. They tend to gravitate towards our cashier that is a person, not a machine, because they often have questions that a machine cannot answer. When they ask a question that gives them away as a new customer, such as, “What do I do now? This is my first time in. Is there sales tax with that?” Or, a question that they would know had they been in before, we know that they’re a new customer. The game changes on that customer immediately. The cashier notifies the concierge of that guest’s presence and the concierge will personally introduce himself or herself to that customer when they make it to the vacuum plaza.
You draw the new customer in with your presence on the boulevard. You create curiosity with your location, with your site, with your facility. Once they come onto the lot, it’s important to identify them as a new customer. An exercise that I’ve done with many clients is we ask every customer that comes through for an entire day, customers that are not familiar looking, we ask them if they’ve been in before and we find out how many new customers they’re seeing. Even though they’re three, four or five years old, they’re seeing many, many new customers, often 20% or more. So, if we can convert new customers into regular customers, that’s the name of the game. And of course, retain regular customers.
This being a new carwash, personnel training is, again, absolutely crucial at this point. And it’s important to us that we don’t try to do too much for day one. So we want to make sure that we have a good set of fundamentals in place. Fundamentals, basically not giving the customer a reason not to come back. That’s what we’re going to try to avoid. So day one, we will be doing very little in the way of customer service, but staying out of the way of the business. As time goes on, as we get better, as we get trained, we’ll add a piece here and a piece there. And in time, it will be a very complicated thing to train a new employee. The initial employees will learn as they go.
Whether it’s a new customer or it’s your existing customer base, retaining it is the name of the game. A mentor of mine once told me years ago, and it’s rung true to this day that, “Great car washes are not measured by how many cars come, but by how many come back.” And when you think about that, if you’ve got a customer base filled with raving fans and your retention is great, and you got word of mouth working. You just got the buzz around the carwash. The new customer is the opportunity.
The new customer coming in, if he can be retained, that’s the way you blow the roof off of a carwash. And I’ve seen many, many, many operators do just that. And it really didn’t mean that they were in a great location and everything about the demographics was great. In fact, a lot of times they were in B markets and they were in B locations and nevertheless, they managed to blow the roof off of the carwash because they know how to retain customers. Staying relevant in the market, keeping it new, keeping it fresh, reinventing yourself from time to time, that’s what they do.
Well, we talked earlier about, “Let’s not give the customer a reason not to come back.” So, let’s talk about a few of those reasons that keep customers from coming back. And a good exercise that I tell clients to do all the time, just downloads pages and pages and pages of Yelp Reviews. Of not just your car wash, but all car washes from all over the world and see what it is that turns customers off.
So, one of the big ones, one of the big ones for me is speed and urgency. And you got to be able to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I being responsible with my guest’s time?” Because from the minute he pulls onto the lot, I’m responsible for the urgency and speed that I get him back out onto the boulevard. If my people are off to the side, texting. Or, if he pulls up to a kiosk and the employee has wandered from the kiosk and was talking to one of the other employees. Or, somebody’s on a cell phone, we’ve blown it. The image is shattered, at that point. And really if you ask these customers what they really want, if they were honest with you, what they really want is out.