Entering the car-wash industry as a new operator or owner can be overwhelming. There is so much information, it can take years to digest it all—and equally as long to develop your business model. If you are looking to get started in this business, following are some things I have learned over the years as a full-service carwash owner:
Do Your Homework
First, take your time and do the research. Attend your local and national conventions and listen to your peers. As you walk the floor at industry shows, visit all of the major vendors, such as chemical companies, tunnel manufacturers, software providers, finance and insurance providers, and lobby merchandisers. Also, most car-wash owners love what they do and truly enjoy talking about and sharing their experiences.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and listen to what experienced operators have to say about the industry. One of the most valuable relationships I developed was with my equipment distributor. He was able to provide services including site selection, site layout, blueprint samples, pro forma projections, supplier recommendations and startup. Without this wealth of knowledge, I might still be planning.
Plan Your Model
As you develop your model, determine what is going to make your wash different from competitors’ and make sure it is what the market wants. I came across numerous concepts during this period, many of which I determined the climate or market would not support. Your total model will come together slowly. If you have done the research, you will have all the confidence you need to make the financial commitment required to open a successful car wash.
Allow for and plan for contingencies in your model—everything from slower-than-expected growth numbers to poor weather conditions— whatever your market and climate may throw at you. Every year, some phenomenon will adversely affect your business. The more prepared you are and the more foresight you have, the more successful you will be.
Stick to your guns and give your model the chance it needs to be a success. And don’t cave in to the newest, latest and greatest concept every salesperson pitches. Be flexible and open-minded when approached. Listen, learn, and rely on the research you developed from the onset. Also, as you learn new things in the industry, make small changes so you can accurately gauge the results.
Focus on Customer Service
Six months after opening my first location, I purchased a second car wash. I quickly learned it is important to set customer expectations and work hard at exceeding them at all times. This can be accomplished through consistent quality and customer service. Not only will you have more satisfied patrons, you will develop a loyal customer base over the long haul.
There is no better advertising than positive word of mouth, and there is nothing worse than negative references. It’s important to determine what a long-term, loyal customer is worth to you, given not only his business but the referrals he generates. When a problem arises with a customer, keep that value in your head and negotiate an equitable solution to the problem. Nine times out of 10, you can reach common ground, keep a happy customer, and avoid negative referrals.
Educate the Public
Another important responsibility you have is to the industry itself. Take the time and effort to educate your customers on your wash process and the benefits of added services, and continue to develop a positive image of professional car-washing.
One aspect of the business I have spent a lot of time educating customers about is environmental issues. Depending on your location and climate, chemical runoff and conservation may be a big issue. I ran an entire campaign that included table tents, bathroom posters and print ads, explaining my reclaim system and water use in my tunnel. Not only does this type of effort add value to your business, it allows customers to feel good about their wash in times of drought. The more continuous work you do to educate the public and local political representatives, the less chance of drastic restrictions being placed on your wash and others across the country.
Finally, and most important, have fun. This business can provide a lifetime of experiences and—if planned and run appropriately—financial security. If you are looking to get into this industry or to expand, do your research, keep an open mind, plan for contingencies, believe in your plan, and be good to the industry. In turn, you will be rewarded with complete job satisfaction.
Greg Hart is the owner of Carolina Springs Autospa in Morresville, N.C. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.