Working At The Car Wash, Part II

In our last issue (“Reach Out to Your Customers!”), we talked about how a traditional business like the local car wash could apply some simple, Internet-based tactics to increase business, smooth peak / off-peak traffic and build relationships with its customers.

At the suggestion of newsletter subscriber Martin Stankard — a Westford, MA based management consultant and long time friend — I followed up this week by walking into my local car wash and speaking with them about how they saw the Internet fitting into their business.

I spoke with the manager, James. He was energetic, articulate and happy to talk.

Here’s what I learned. . .

* This store is one of about 75 locations across 16 states, with corporate offices in Saugus, Massachusetts.

* There is a centrally managed corporate web site, however James is not involved with it, nor could he tell me what reason a customer might have for visiting it.

* All the marketing and promotion of the business is done by the corporate office.

* There is a “Preferred Customer Program” in place which offers discounts on services, including a free birthday car wash.

* James has been in the industry for 13 years.

Based on my brief discussion with James and his description of where the Internet fits into his plans, I had a few suggestions that might apply to your business as well:

1. Dig For The Gold In Your Own Backyard. James told me that his database has the ability to run reports on every single car that has come through in the last five years, allowing him to sort on license plate number, date of visit, whatever. And although this gold mine of information could be used in any number of ways to fine tune the company’s marketing approach, it is simply used in the aggregate, as a way to track overall volume and sales. Why spend money on mass market advertising to people who have never even set foot in your store, when you have empirical data based on actual behavior that allows you to segment and communicate with existing customers?

2. Differentiate Between Your Best And Worst Customers. The Preferred Customer Program is a great idea, however it’s open to anybody, and all participants receive the exact same benefits. For maximum impact, the benefits need to be explicitly tied to a desired behavior. For example, the more often I wash my car, the more discounts I should receive. Or, if I bring in a new customer, I should get some reward. By giving the same benefits to everybody who simply fills in a card on the other hand, this company is giving away margin in return for behavior that isn’t tied to any particular business objective.

3. Don’t Take All Control Out Of The Hands Of Local Management. One of the most profound powers of the Internet is its ability to build relationships through cheap, convenient, personal communication. By removing the local manager from the electronic loop and controlling everything from a central point, this company is missing a chance to forge a bond with me. The store manager has 13 years of experience! And yet there is no way for me to ask him specific questions, no way for him to devise last minute specials and communicate them to me, and generally no way for us to get to know each other.

I’ve been going to this car wash for five years and never thought of it as anything but, “the car wash.” In just 15 minutes of talking with James however, I discovered that he is a nice guy who obviously cares a lot about his customers. Imagine the positive impact on business if James could make that same kind of connection with all his customers! The Internet can make that connection.

4. Take It One Step At A Time. James is a busy guy. He’s got a seven day a week operation staffed by dozens of hourly workers, often washing as many as 100 cars in a single hour. In a typical day he has to worry about eccentric machinery, special customer requests and local weather forecasts. The idea of managing a full blown web site initiative under these circumstances is intimidating, to say the least.

Small steps are the way for James to get started. By choosing one specific area of focus at a time (increase repeat business among existing customers, for example), and then taking small incremental steps to make that happen, James can begin to integrate the Internet into the daily life of his business. The web rewards constant, iterative improvements. Start small, but start!

 

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