Speaking from my professional experience, just because someone has a car does not make them your customer. Many people are not going to change how they view your craft or detailing in general. Just because you offer a great deal and or go above and beyond for a customer does not mean their expectations will be realistic and fair. How often do enthusiasts who work on family and close friends’ vehicles think about the systems put into place to help protect themselves from liability the way a professional would? Would you feel comfortable sending your car through an automatic car wash? Would you let any detailer touch your car? Many of the people reading this would say no. Yet we do not represent the majority of the population. Watching a great detailer methodically work on his or her craft bringing a wrecked to car to near perfection is eye candy to me, but not to most people. A significant part of my business is trying to educate people about detailing. It is part of the reason why I am here. I confess, my time learning how to run an auto detailing business has been a humbling experience.
Reece wrote an article for the DI Blog called The Top 5 Mistakes Detailers Make, which he brings up (mistake #5) many young detailers shortcomings in assessing and quoting work. This is a very real problem. I know because all of it described me.
An acquaintance of mine, who had never used my service, told me he recently purchased a 2009 BMW M3. He wanted me to detail his vehicle. It is not uncommon for me or another detailer to perform new car prep often due to dealership prep leaving a car’s paint in even worse shape. On the surface, this seemed like another great opportunity for me to show off my skills and impress someone by really bringing life into this car. But there were red flags I ignored. Although I repeatedly asked this person what he wanted, he kept making references to an episode on T.V. which I was performing a two-stage paint correction. Even after sending him the link to the service menu page on my website, I was messaged the same cryptic answer. After me giving him a brief explanation about the kind of detailing that he saw, I asked him if that was what he wanted. Which he said it was.
Even during that time, I was requiring face to face consultations with a vehicle. With him being an acquaintance that seemed to look the part, I let my guard down. But I continued to double down. I was generous enough to treat the interior as extra bonus. But there was more. Working on the vehicle I noticed a crack in the weather stripping. Through research, I learned this was a common problem with BMWs, but it was the first I had seen of it. Being someone who was trying to do something in the best interest of a customer I cleaned and dressed all trim and weather stripping to curb in deterioration as best I could. Something I would do if it was my own car do again. Upon pick up I did show the customer the condition of the vehicle and explained what I did. I did take pictures, which I do first and foremost to protect myself. With that said, in hindsight, I would not have touched that without an agreed upon communication. To be blunt, I was detailer smart and business dumb.
I truly believe a big problem for many of us who started out as enthusiasts is we betray ourselves with our passion and empathy. Many of us learned how to detail because our standards of excellence did not align with our budgets. Many of our peers will never appreciate the time, physical, and financial resources we invest in our craft. We make the mistake of letting our guilt for charging accordingly get in the way of running a profitable business.
Too my surprise days later, I received the nightmare message that he was not happy. It started with as him dissecting the free interior service, telling me he really didn’t care about his paint. It turned into something worse, he told me I made his weather stripping disintegrate. I explained how that was impossible to no avail. This is not to say I have an unblemished record. I am absolutely confident that his car was parked outside during a hurricane, and his self-proclaimed recent details that I suspect were trips to an automatic wash, that and other factors affected his weather stripping. I did ultimately refund all of his money. That I do no regret. My regret is offering a service to someone who is not my typical customer. I truly believe telling him that we are not a fit, would have been the only way to save myself from epic frustration. On average I probably got about 2 hours of sleep per night that week. It was the one time I really asked myself if I wanted to continue detailing cars professionally. A friend of mine told me “you have to screen the applicants, you can’t please everyone”.
The very next week I received a text message from a previous client. An owner of a Mustang I detailed a year ago wants to have his vehicle detailed again. I instantly felt rejuvenated. This person is probably my favorite and most loyal client. Funny how things work out. My first time with him, he told me he was searching for a great detailer and was anxious about trusting anyone with his car. He was very clear in his communication of what he wanted and never complained about the cost of service. Another friend of mine told me “now if you could only find 10 more customers like that”. That does not happen when you are trying to be everyone’s detailer. That weekend I said to myself “you know Rodney some people can’t be educated”. But if I keep wasting time beating a dead horse I can miss out on ten of my ideal clients.
Determined to turn a negative into a positive, I continued to make significant changes in my company. I became stricter with policies that would allow me to look the part of a professional detailer. If you have never had your car detailed by me, you have to see me and I will request that you look at my website. A before detail inspection sheet has to be signed before work is started and later signed before pick up. I may require a deposit at my discretion. I made marginal but noticeable increases in my prices. I felt in hindsight I was teetering towards no man’s land, attracting the local car was detailer and at the same time potentially pushing away someone who had a hard time understanding a higher end service at a budget-friendly price.
There is that kind of customer who knows only enough to not want to be educated. I remember after the BMW owner was complaining about the residue he saw on top of his car (that came from trees he parks under), he takes his cotton shirt button down and rubs hard and vigorously to show what was acceptable dirt post detail. At that point, the enthusiast in me came out spontaneously screaming “what are you doing”! He was shocked to hear that could scratch his car and he also thought there was a one-inch thick layer of wax that would stop this. After I explained as best as I could how that is not how paint protection works, he told me doesn’t really care about those scratches. It was this conversation that I look back on that sparked my best 6 week stretch in business. Ironically, traditionally the worst time of the year for detailers, became the best time for me.
I am not mandating you should take all or any of the steps I took. Everyone is in a different place and environment. I can say however that if you are reading this, there is a reasonable chance you are humble and passionate about what you have to offer others as a detailer. From my personal experience and observation of others, I feel my story may resonate with a lot of people who struggle to find people who appreciate your work. If that is the case I hope you take my words to heart and enjoy the same kind of turnaround.