Will Customers Accept Change?

Anthony Analetto, President, SONNY's/The Car Wash Factory

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I recently saw a documentary high­lighting what American fast-food companies did to “educate” customers in rural parts of China as they introduced drive-thru franchises in those markets. Most interesting wasn’t the signage, staff training or other simple mechanisms used to educate customers. What really stood out was management’s belief that success didn’t mean changing their busi­ness model, but finding the right way to communicate the advantages of change to a new customer.

Several recent conversations flashed in my head. All involved successful in-bay automatic car-wash operators intrigued by the potential of a mini-tunnel conversion. Each conversation started with a review of traffic counts and site characteristics; transitioned into management considerations and pro forma analysis of the investment; and ended with enthusiasm for the numbers, conflicted by two statements. First was, “Do I need to add employees?” Second: “I’m not sure customers will accept the change.”

Identify the Obstacles

Mini-tunnel car-wash retrofits are abso­lutely not appropriate for every prop­erty. Prerequisites for success include specific site conditions. Overcoming labor and customer adoption obstacles, however, is straightforward. As Henry Ford once said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” Understanding how these obstacles relate to the goal of maximizing car-wash profits is the key to evaluating the potential of a mini-tunnel car wash conversion.

Early in my long career of washing cars, I have to admit to being guilty of the management process I like to call whack-a-mole. Open each day, fix whatever breaks, solve problems as they happen, go home exhausted, and repeat the pro­cess the next day. It’s rather like playing the game whack-a-mole. You stand there waiting for a problem to pop up, then whack at it until it’s gone. It’s not fun. Even if you’re generating income, you will grow to dislike the day-to-day operation.

Although a mini-tunnel can oper­ate without labor, it is recommended to have an attendant available at all times for safety. Adding an employee is a fixed cost. Calculating your ROI including that cost is simple. Don’t confuse this, however, as simply adding a body to your payroll.

Creating a high-volume, high-profit, enjoyable car-wash business demands careful management—the same level of management required to succeed with any profit center on your property. Training, preventive maintenance, poli­cies, procedures, marketing and staff­ing must be in place and documented. Without that, you will enter a never-ending game of whack-a-mole—one that you will grow to dislike, no matter how much money you’re making.

Customers and Behavior

I started this article talking about how American fast-food companies struggled to get rural Chinese citizens to embrace drive-thru restaurants. After several comical failures, they were successful. Simple signs helped customers recognize the value of getting a quality product, in a consistent amount of time, at a com­petitive price by following the drive-thru process designed by the restaurant.

But we don’t have to look overseas for examples of influencing consumer behavior. I still recall the debate that customers would never pump their own gas, which they did. I remember the con­cerns that c-store sales would drop if they pumped their own gas, but they didn’t.

A percentage of customers prefer in-bay automatics. By paying more, they get more, visible in more passes and a longer wash cycle. Although satisfying for a customer not strapped for time, it wreaks havoc on your throughput and revenue, and it forces customers to leave without a wash if they’re not willing to wait. Mini-tunnels solve this: Every customer enters and exits the tunnel in approximately 3 minutes. Your car-wash business delivers a stronger value proposition with four components: a quality product, in a consistent amount of time, at a competitive price, with a pleasant and memorable retail experience.

The next time you think customers won’t accept change, stop and evaluate: Does the proposed change increase or decrease the value proposition being offered? If it increases, chances are you’ll appeal to a wider audience waiting to applaud your decision.

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