Quality over quantity has been my main motto since I got into the business of car detailing roughly 5-6 years ago. It’s something on which I based the mission of LUSTR Auto Detail and something that’s on my mind during every detail job, usually when I have 10 q-tips in hand trying to pull that last bit of dirt from a lug nut hole :). Thus, it’s become second nature explaining to potential clients the difference between LUSTR Auto Detail services and those provided by the local car washes and detail shops. While it must be done and I enjoy the chance to do so, it’s not the simplest thing to explain what I do differently and why high quality detailing work, like most any other service, costs more money.
However, recently I received a phone call from a potential client, who asked me about the difference in such a way that made me appreciate the chance we as quality detailers have to educate the general public about automotive detailing. It reminded me of a great article Todd Cooperider wrote, explaining What is a “Full Detail”, so I wanted to elaborate a bit more and put a bit of a different spin on it. With that comes this article, which is a short but sweet explanation of some main differences we as quality detailers provide to completely isolate ourselves from local shops, car wash places, and dealers, in other words volume-oriented detail shops. While it’s a short and sweet explanation, it’s a lengthy article as I’ve tried to explain some of the main factors in clear detail, no pun intended. One small disclaimer: While all of us Pros on the Detailed Image blog, as well as other quality detailers out there, share many attributes and beliefs in the art of detailing, this article is written representing solely my methods and opinions based on years of experience.
The client mentioned above, who we’ll call Bob for this article, didn’t ask the usual “How much for my car? Hmm that seems way too expensive.” Or “Your reviews are great, but are you able to match the price of X, Y, or Z Detailers?” Or my favorite “Hi, I want to get a full detail, outside polished up and interior done, how much and when can you do it?” On the contrary, Bob was an owner of a gorgeous mid 2000s luxury coupe who did almost all the paint maintenance on his own, which is always a big plus. In other words, he wasn’t someone who typically uses the quick, lower quality, volume shops and didn’t just call me to price shop based on my great online reviews. Rather, since Bob had decided the car needed a professional touch, he was on a mission to take the best possible care of his aging car and was doing thorough research before making any appointments. Bob simply explained to me that he has been searching for a quality detail shop in the Chicagoland area and came across a few businesses with great reviews on Yelp and other similar websites. After looking through my website as well as websites of a couple other detailing businesses in the area, Bob realized that while I provided thorough information as well as services that seemed to be what he was looking for, other shops had great reviews and offered substantially cheaper services. Since he was after quality and not simply price shopping, Bob wanted to figure out what exactly justifies the substantial price difference and if my services are worth it. So he simply asked for me to explain “What exactly warrants the price difference of my services compared to others in the area?”
I won’t type out our entire conversation, partly because there’s no way I remember the specifics, but long story short, there are three main factors that I explained to Bob: Customer Service, Products and Techniques, Passion and Experience.
No, I don’t mean that quality detailers have a phone person with a sexy voice that will answer 24/7 and solve your problems immediately :). In my opinion and in my business customer service is comprised of honesty and humility. Honesty to truthfully recommend a service to all clients based on their needs and humility to be able to recommend a job that will earn you less money for the sake of properly detailing and preserving the vehicle.
Each new relationship with my clients begins with a thorough discussion and inspection of the vehicle. The main goal of this is to find out the client’s reasons for seeking professional detailing services and to determine if I’m able to provide a solution. This happens as part of what I call a Pre-Detail Assessment, which is a thorough 30+ minute inspection of the vehicle in question. Once the vehicle is in for the assessment, we go over the entire vehicle to determine the client’s concerns and expectations. If we plan on doing any paint correction, I’ll usually perform a few polishing test spots in order to show the client exactly what they can expect out of a certain service, then we can schedule accordingly. Before scheduling a service, I like to know everything from the vehicle’s detail history, to the way the vehicle is being utilized and most importantly the client’s maintenance routines.
Long story short, my Pre-Detail Assessment is a 30 or so minute session, during which I assess the paint, discuss issues with the client, and finally schedule a detail service accordingly. I never up sell any services, rather simply recommend the minimum paint restoration necessary to bring the vehicle back to life and protect the paint. Similarly, if the client wants the vehicle perfect and time/cost is no issue, it’s possible I will still recommend a less invasive service if the paint condition and thickness aren’t in favor of too much polishing. In other words, I am known to take an approach to polishing work with caution and the intent of preserving as much paint as possible for future correction. I feel it is my duty as a detail professional to recommend a client, such as Bob, who will daily drive his car through winter in Chicago, not to bother with much correction now and save it for spring time. Why? Because removing the few microns of paint now to correct a few lighter swirl marks and some scratches is not as ideal as saving those few microns to correct more swirl marks and more scratches later on in the spring. Yes, there’s always a chance that the paint will look almost identical in 3-4 months as it does now, but I’d rather not take that chance and take the safer route. To sum it all up, a proper evaluation of a vehicle takes at least 20-30 minutes and sometimes less truly is more when it involves paint polishing.
In contrast, any of the local detail shops or car wash places will simply give the client a price and say to bring it by. That means the 30 minutes I spend inspecting the paint in person can all somehow be placed into a single minute-long phone conversation! I definitely missed that How-To article, thanks Todd! Joking aside, I think my point is obvious here… there’s no way the needs of an enthusiast can be satisfied with a simple drop down service menu as you see in the volume oriented shops. Since cars are rarely, if ever, in the same condition and because the paint on even the same make and model vehicles usually varies, it’s nearly impossible to recommend a service over the phone, let alone it be the correct service. This, of course, is in addition to the fact that almost all services performed by cheaper/volume oriented shops are poorly executed and more often than not result in actual deterioration of the paint, but that’s another article on its own.
Products and Techniques
Next up is product selection and techniques employed while performing detailing work. Notice I said product selection rather than simply products. Reason being I truly believe that most products out there, especially those introduced over the past 2-4 years, are capable of producing very good results. For example, many over-the-counter (OTC) products get overlooked due to the stigma that comes with them as being of lower quality. In my opinion, many OTC products are capable of producing results very close to those of some professional or boutique products, the deciding factor being product selection. As an example, Meguiar’s #83 Dual Action Cleaner/Polish is an older polish usually available at local car part stores. It’s a medium correction polish that can get some pretty good defects out and on some harder paints it can finish down very well, sometimes not even requiring a finishing step. What this means is that in some odd cases, if a client is limited by a certain budget and wants a one polishing step detail job on his white Mercedes (know to have very hard paint normally), I can reach for the OTC Meguiar’s #83, pair it with a proper pad after doing some polishing test spots, and do quite a bit of correction on swirl marks while leaving a nice glossy finish. At the same time, there are numerous car washes or detail shops just down the street from me taking the #83, squirting it on some old wool pad that’s attached to a rotary polisher, and attacking extremely soft, black Porsche paint with it. This clearly shows how a difference in product selection can lead to a huge distinction in results.
To clarify, while I did use Meguiar’s #83 years ago and still have some, I have since replaced it with some newer polishes that have the same amount of correcting ability but are easier to work with and finish down much better. A couple examples are Menzerna Super Intensive Polish (PO83) and Meguiar’s DA Microfiber Correction Compound (D300).
Techniques employed in detailing work vary from detailer to detailer, especially when talking about the order of performing certain tasks. Many of us have our reasons for cleaning wheels first or last, dressing or not dressing tires, etc., but at the end of the day it all boils down to how much can we improve our techniques to produce better results. For example, imagine a detailer is given a job of using one polishing step on the hood of an average sedan, say a BMW 3 series. This hood can be visually divided into polishing sections in order for the detailer to have some sense of direction of what has been polished, where he’s going next, comparing sections, etc. The variable here is the amount of sections.
Personally, when contracted for my Light Polish Detail (a detail consisting of a wash, clay, one polish step, then wax) I divide the hood of a 3 series into about 8 sections. On almost every car I divide it down the middle and then divide the halves into a certain amount of sections. Some cars have scoops, odd shapes, etc. on the hood, so it’s necessary to divide the hood differently, but that’s beside the point so let’s go back to our 3 series hood. While I have these 8 sections, a detailer that isn’t necessarily bad, but quicker and cheaper, might have 6, or 4, or even 2 sections on the hood. What this means is while one step of polishing on the hood may take me about 30 minutes, the quicker detailers out there are doing it for 5-10 minutes. While neither of us is doing anything detrimental to the vehicle in this example, the results both in paint condition and final cost will vary significantly.
Paint wise, doing smaller sections on a panel will yield better results as it’s concentrated correction that obviously leads to better defect removal. Add to that proper pressure, proper polisher speed, arm movements and product selection as mentioned above, a quality detailer will get the maximum yield from that one polishing step whereas someone doing quicker work will only improve the paint slightly.
Cost wise, let’s simply imagine the hood to be 1/8th of a vehicle’s paint total surface area (just throwing a number out there, didn’t actually calculate it). That means that it takes me roughly 4 hours to complete the one step of polishing on the entire vehicle, while the other detailer is doing the same one polishing step in at most 1.5 hours. If we both charge $60/hr and ignoring the rest of the detail like washing, claying, etc., the difference in price will be about $150. Add that to the entire detail as well as additional polishing steps and you can see how the price between a quality detailer and a quicker detailer can differ considerably.
The exception in this example is the fact that a huge majority of the quicker detailers out there, whether individuals or a volume shop/car wash, don’t care much if at all for proper car detailing. Thus, they not only performing the one polishing step in a faster time and with the lesser results of quality detailers, but with improper products and techniques their work is usually detrimental to the paint finish.
I’ll repeat this again and again, but as you can clearly see in this example, in the car detailing industry you get pretty much exactly what you pay for each and every time. Unfortunately, going with the cheaper and quicker jobs will also usually lead to negative results rather than simply less correction compared to proper detailing, ultimately resulting in a poor finish and damaged paint.
Passion and Experience
Beyond the accurate evaluation of a vehicle, correct service recommendation and use of appropriate products and techniques lies a very important part of a quality detailer’s repertoire, which is the passion and experience they posses from years of hard work and rigorous training. I articulate passion and experience as one because, personally, they have always come hand in hand throughout my detailing career. All detailers who I know that perform great detail work and am pleased to call colleagues are in one way or another hardcore car enthusiasts. Whether they started cleaning cars for some grimy car wash back in the day, spent countless hours in the garage trying to make the finish perfect by hand, or simply started with a mechanical background fixing cars, these individuals all have a passion for fine automotive work that translates to the quality results they produce now. They truly believe vehicles deserve better treatment than the norm and have spent countless hours, weeks and years improving their skills to provide such treatments.
I personally always tell clients that I am man enough to admit taking my first car to those car washes where you put some coins in, grab the disgusting brush, which is typically jam-packed with small rocks and dirt, then scrub your paint shamelessly before rinsing it down and drying with a “shammy” to further force the dirt into the finish. Live and learn as they say. After that car, a high mile, white 97 VW GTI that I’ll never forget, was replaced with a jet black 98 328i and things changed for the better. Through my passion for automobiles, I squandered many days and dollars in my pursuit of perfection and, consequently, received the experience necessary to perform higher end and higher quality detail work now provided by LUSTR Auto Detail.
Similarly, most quality detailers out there are always looking to improve and learn new things, in order to provide their clients with the best services available. Thus, many are either in the process or already offering services in related disciplines, such as window tinting, clear bra installations and wheel refinishing. All this because due to their passion and experience these detailers realized things can be enhanced and better results can be provided to the clients.
In conclusion, the goal of this article wasn’t to condemn cheaper and quicker detail work, nor was it to state that high end, quality automotive detailing is the solution for everyone. Rather, my intent was to make available some information that can help car owners of all shapes and sizes make more informed decisions when seeking detailing work. As many already know, there is a demand for both quicker and quality detail work. Because most individuals out there are owners seeking more economical services to simply clean their cars, I believe our next challenge as quality detailers is to find some sort of middle ground. To improve the quality of the quicker detailing jobs by means of utilizing better products and safer techniques. It’s something that I’ve been personally debating lately: Can the gap between your typical car wash and your local quality detailer be bridged in terms of quality and price?
I can’t claim to have the right answer yet, but I believe that it is possible and I intend to take this issue head on. My plan of attack is to offer an additional service structure catering to the majority of vehicle owners, those seeking simpler, more economical detail work, while employing the products and techniques of high end services to provide results much better than what’s currently available. Only time will tell whether this initiative is successful, but regardless of the outcome, I’ll reiterate my point from earlier: in the world of automotive detailing you can always count on getting what you pay for.
For those wondering, Bob ended up coming for a Pre-Detail Assessment, scheduling a service, then after a couple days picked up his car a very happy owner. He will be back in the spring for a more thorough paint correction.
As always, thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it. I wish everyone here a happy and healthy 2012!
LUSTR Auto Detail