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M3 and a Mustang: Precautionary Tale for any New Professional Detailer



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.

Rodney Tatum
Mirror Reflections Auto Spa
Gainesville, Florida
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16 comments on M3 and a Mustang: Precautionary Tale for any New Professional Detailer

  1. Ray says:

    This is some great advice and insight and sorry to hear you had a horrible experience with an acquaintance. It’s sad that sometimes the person you know is more challenging than a complete stranger. I have been in business part-time detailing for about 2 years now.

    When I first started out I also made the mistake of under quoting over the phone and thinking when someone says “the car gets cleaned regularly. its not so bad” as the person understood what I was asking. Now I pick and choose my customer based on pre-screening questions over the phone and providing an in person consultation and walking over the car with them and pointing out current issues with the car, discussing budget and expectations. It makes a world of difference as you are on the same page prior to and during the service. Then to your point when you do go above and beyond their expectation they value it. I turned away 3 potential clients this year because they just did not fit with my business/ customer principles and I have come to realize that is OK. The result was I made 4 new clients that understood and valued the type of detailing/ paint correction we provide and that was only because I did not waste my time trying to make the other 3 happy that potentially would have not been happy with the service at all or just had wild expectations. Not everyone can be your customer, you need to work on finding and maintaining the right customers.


    • Rodney Tatum says:

      Thank you Ray for your response and kind words. I am happy to read business has been trending upward for you as well.

      Although there was some internal debate sharing this experience, I knee deep down this was a story that definitely needed to be told.

  2. Ron Ayotte says:

    Excellent article and advice! When asked about my pricing, I give an estimated range but also tell the potential client also require that I see the vehicle prior to quoting an exact price.

    I find that eliminates the “price shoppers”

  3. Richie says:

    I too suffered the same misfortune with known, so called friends.
    Different business, but identical results.
    Ones passion to detail is often missed by the normal, but particular client.
    Explaining the ins and outs, with pure technical knowledge often blinds them to the really don’t care side of what you aim to achieve, which results in deep self questioning.
    I sympathise with you entirely, but, keep going. Your ability will be recognised over time, and you will benefit in the long term.

    • Rodney Tatum says:

      Thank you Richie. I still have moments of questioning. Yes, a majority of people may not fully see the value or be in a position to support what we do. But within all of that their are still enough outliers to keep me doing what I love.

  4. Brad says:

    A fantastic article Rodney. Truly.

    I’m in an area in which most of the time true detailing is largely misunderstood and a lot of potential customers are tire kickers that either don’t know what they want, don’t care enough about their cars and/or don’t understand the detailing process. Not often but occasionally we find that even those who do make it to the formal quoting stage can’t comprehend how a “carwash” can cost so much, even though I’ve walked them around their car during the evaluation and thoroughly explained the time, materials and processes involved. They simply cannot see the value of it.

    Even after a detail, I still to this day feel the guilt you mentioned when the client, at delivery, even slightly (by my own interpretation) seems underwhelmed at what services I performed. From a business point of view I know the price is fair and usually the client received more than what they were quoted and charged for, but – as the enthusist – that guilt (for delivering something that we as detailers would consider less than perfect) is present – even though we know and the customer knows what they were quoted and what they could expect ahead of time. I often feel like I should have done more, even though I know I shouldn’t. Because of this, I have only six regular clients who are educated enough about the detailing and paint correction processes to appreciate what we do and acknowledge the value of our efforts.

    While I was certain I wasn’t the only “small” detailer that felt this way, it’s really nice to read an article from a larger professional detailer that was so on point and hit on everything that I still sometimes experience.

    100% – Getting and retaining quality customers is far more difficult than anything we do to their vehicles.

    Thanks Rodney.

    • Rodney Tatum says:

      Thank you Brad. One thing recently that has continued to give me a balanced perspective is diversifying the crowds of people I associate with. I can be around a certain group of people or social media: their idea of detailing is wash the car with anything that gets the dirt off and tire dressing makes the experience something special. A Professional Detailer to them is no different then the neighbor you pay ten dollars to wash your car after school. Being around only that can lead to questioning your professional worth. But I have also been to car club meets where the words paint correction are not foreign, and not only do you not get hung up on quoting price but told the number is very generous.

  5. Mark says:

    I enjoyed your article and have felt your pain. I have had friends say a five hour detail was worth about ten dollars, told them to keep using the car wash. You took the high road, returned the money and nicely said get lost. Understanding and handling your customer is not always easy.

    • Rodney Tatum says:

      Thank you Mark. It is not. It is one of the biggest hidden barriers in the industry; resiliency and having a quiet confidence about yourself. The difficult reality is a lot of people will not respect what we do as a legitimate trade and legitimate business no matter what.

  6. Greg Pautler says:

    I thought this was an exceptional article! I really appreciate that you mentioned how it affected your business but that it also took a toll on you personally and you questioned many aspects of life/business because a lot of us have been there! When we did detailing services I remember having a very similar situation and the intense stress it caused me for a few days was horrible. In the moment it’s hard to think of anything else but over time we gain perspective and can take away positives. I think you did a great job handling it and best of all you improved your business because of it. Hopefully others will learn from your experience and modify their business to minimize their exposure to these types of situations. Great work and thanks again for sharing it!!!!

  7. L Gonzalez says:

    Sorry to hear about your troubles sir. You did the right thing by refunding that guy’s money. Most people have no idea of what proper paint correction and protection involves in time, effort, and products/equipment used. On the flip side consider it a valuable lesson learned and glad to hear you went on a “tear” in getting new business afterwards.

  8. Tim says:

    Thanks for the article. Lessons shared and learned are a good thing. I think situations like this are one of the worse things we face chasing our passion and making a living. One thing that I’ve learned early on is that upon every detail I ensure both my video cameras in the garage are running for the entire duration of the detail including capturing audio. I do this to help, maybe not fully, but certainly help capture my work and everything that is done to the vehicle. I will also dictate notes and speak to the camera about things I find. Perhaps I may bring into salutations like you described, a closer view camera.

    I had a BMW with badly falling apart windshield cowling that I did record before photos of and noted the condition on my inspection form. No issues customer wise, but certainly a situation like with yours it could have been should they go down that path. My “backup” however would show that at no time did I damage the cowling.

    In the end, document and practice a little CYA to help make sure that situations don’t go too far south. I installed my cameras early on in my detailing days as I had some pretty pricey vehicles in my garage and I at no point will let myself be victim to someone saying I dented a car or that some damage was caused by me.

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