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First Impressions

Fred Grauer Comments
Posted in Articles, Archive

How many times have you driven into an area looking for a car wash only to be frustrated by not quickly finding it? What’s worse, when you finally pull into the driveway, you realize you drove by the place one or two times before recognizing it. Now you wonder why you didn’t stop for directions or maybe buy that GPS system.

Be angry at yourself all you want, but the truth is the owner of that business is as much at fault as you are. Think about it—why didn’t you recognize your destination? Was it lack of signage, poor visibility, unappealing presentation or just lack of overall site identification? When it comes to operating a business—whether dedicated storage or combined with a car wash—put yourself in the shoes of your customers. Ask yourself: Is my site clearly identified, user-friendly and welcoming to my customers?

Guest Relations

The Disney organization is one of the smartest, best-run companies in the world when it comes to managing customers. As a matter of fact, Disney has been so well recognized as a leader in this area, Disney University was created to share what the company knows. At Disney, the title “customerservice representative” doesn’t even exist. Associates at Disney are in the “guest-relations” business.

Disney is as much about entertainment for adults as it is for children. If you haven’t been to a Disney theme park, do yourself a favor and book a flight. When you arrive, pay attention to everything from travel signage to the park to instructional information. And by the way, take lots of notes! Or think about taking one of the many courses offered through the university.

Although Disney’s budget is significantly larger than yours, you can emulate much of what it does in the course of its everyday business practices. Think about street presentation, theme and design of your buildings, signage and, above all, ingress and egress. Make it easy and safe to transition on and off your site. Take a look at how guests are greeted once on the property. Is your greeting professional, welcoming and non-threatening? Are your employees uniformed? Is it easy to recognize your management? Is it easy to do business with you? Do really treat people who enter your domain as guests?

You might be thinking, this Disney stuff is all well and good, but how does it affect me? Let me ask a few questions: Are your numbers down in units as well as sales dollars? Is your employee turnover getting worse? Are you seeing your regular guests less frequently? If your answers are all “no,” one of three things is happening: 1) you’re exceeding all expectations; 2) you have no competition; or 3) you are in total denial and chocking up the downturn to everything but what you see in the mirror.

The Drill

When an owner complains his business is doing poorly, he will often say he is at a total loss to come up with a rational, logical explanation. I have received calls from owners who say this blankity-blank car-wash business is not living up to their expectations. They attribute this to: 1) the economy; 2) their equipment provider; 3) their lender; 4) the phase of the moon; or 5) take your pick. Every time I receive one of these calls, I put the caller through the same drill. First I tell him to take out a note pad and right down these simple instructions and questions:

Walk out of your driveway and down the street 200 to 300 feet in each direction, then record your impressions. Can you easily identify your business? Remember, a vehicle traveling at 30 mph is traveling at 44 feet per second. Think of how little time a potential guest has to recognize you. If your property has 100 feet of frontage, your customer only has 2.5 seconds to recognize your business and acknowledge he needs you. That’s not much time to make a course correction, is it?

Once you have walked to and from your site, enter the property. Can your guests understand what’s going on and how to proceed? Are instructional signs easy to understand and placed where your guests can read them? If you are struggling with answering these questions objectively, ask your neighbor or, better yet, enlist several secret shoppers and let them critique your presentation.

The car-wash business is no different from any other retail business. You have to make it interesting, fun and entertaining for your guests. You also have to meet or exceed your guests’ expectations or you won’t get them to return. For years, I have told people entering the car-wash business that all you have to do to be successful is “clean cars quickly and safely in a clean, pleasant environment.” It is that simple! The challenge is you have to accomplish every component of that goal and do it well.

Execution is critical—it starts on the street and continues from the time your guests enter your property until he leaves. Think about the care you take the first time you invite guests to your home. Your business is no different. First impressions are lasting impressions. Are you broadcasting to passing motorists that you want them to be your guests?

Fred Grauer is the vice president of corporate accounts for MarkVII, a car-wash equipment manufacturer located in Arvada, Colo. He has made a life-long career of designing, selling, building and operating car washes. He can be reached at

“At the Car Wash” is a monthly column written exclusively for self-storage operators interested in providing a mixed-use development including a car-wash facility. If there are particular topics you would like to see addressed, feel free to contact the author or e-mail

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