Elevating the vital role of the detailer


Talk to any dealer and he or she will tell you that reconditioning (detailing) is vital to their dealership, yet the role of the detailer is often perceived negatively.

And for the detailer, there is a lot more at stake than negative stereotypes.

Detailers are exposed to a great many chemicals, which can cause occupational asthma. There is also a host of other dangers that could come from mixing the wrong chemicals, and the increased likelihood of slip-and-fall injuries, not to mention the potential impact on used-car sales and profits.

Despite all of these risks, detailers play a huge role in the profitability of the dealerships. Then why the bad reputation, and why are they and the department treated so badly?

There are a number of reasons for this situation — there are no education requirements or necessary certifications for detailers anywhere in the United States. Then, there is the problem of low pay; most detailers are paid by the car or just above minimum wage.

It is all theory regarding  why the detail industry has not advanced in the United States. Nevertheless, the prevailing thought is that most dealers or detail business owners want to keep the wage rates low. However, once you start attaching certifications to any profession, it raises the amount you have to pay people. Detailers work hard, they do a dirty and repetitive job, they work late at night and there are many things that can go wrong.

They deserve to be paid fairly and treated as an integral part of the dealership.

Training means retention

Turnover is a constant problem in detailing, with rates cited anywhere between 50 and 400 percent by dealers and detail business owners. That means dealerships could be replacing their entire workforce between once every two years and four times per year.

Training programs are an underutilized way to help tackle this problem. Not only does regular, in-depth training provide the opportunity to raise pay, but it also shows workers that the dealership cares about them, enhances skills and job performance, and helps with turnover.

The key, of course, is, you must have people who are capable of being trained. You cannot improve the detail employee by continuing to hire the same type of people repeatedly. You will just keep getting what you always have.

With the people we have trained, we have seen that the programs that have led to higher pay also lead to better retention. One of our customers had an incentive program so that detail staff would make more money as they advanced through the stages of training.

After two years, most of these employees are still there. They do not use training to weed people out, but people weeded themselves out.

The budget often has the final say in training decisions. Many dealers do not see the value in training when they look at it on paper. They see an upfront cost, the potential of having to pay more for certified and trained detailers, and the loss of man-hours that are spent training as negative impacts on the bottom line.

 Some dealers do not want to train people because they are afraid they will go somewhere else, but on the other side, what happens if you do not train them and they stay? Training will work if you hire the right people; you will get a positive return on your investment.

Promoting higher worker value

Our approach to training is simple — get knowledge into the detailer’s head — knowledge about chemicals, technology and the supplies available to detail vehicles properly. Additionally, knowledge about the vehicles:  paint finishes, wheels, leather, carpets, glass, etc. Most detailers we find have no real knowledge of the vehicle and are using techniques for detailing from the ‘50s.

The hands-on training breaks the detail jobs into these categories:

  1. Engine clean
  2. Wheels
  3. Body wash
  4. Tar removal
  5. Trunk clean
  6. Complete interior clean and shampoo
  7. Exterior buff, polish and wax
  8. Final detail

For each of these jobs there is a step-by-step process so every detailer does the same thing, the same way. This gives management control over the entire detail process, instead of every detailer doing it “their way.”

Professional organizations, such as the International Detailing Association, have training that results in a certification, but it is a lengthy program that involves several on-line tests, and then hands-on training at an IDA recognized location. This is probably too long and too expensive for dealers.

On-site training is best for a dealership — training the entire staff at your location, using your tools and chemicals. You do not have to buy into a complicated training program to find in-depth, high-quality training for your detail workers. There are several good trainers who will come to your dealership.

Of course, a dealer can go to their chemical supplier and ask for hands-on product and procedure training, but there is a question about the caliber of training they are going to receive. Most chemical companies only train to understand and use their chemicals, so your detailers are not really trained at all.

Rather, find a training program that moves beyond how to hold a buffer and delves into the chemistry behind cleaning.

One way to identify a high-quality training program is to ask how often the staff should be trained. That is a good question to define what the supplier really thinks training is. It is like going to the gym. If you go once or twice a year it is not going to make a difference. Training is the same way. If it is repetitive and constant, you are definitely going to get more buy-in from the staff.

There is no magic training program that is going to transform your detailers into technicians if they are the wrong individuals, and the training is just a one-time thing. It is a continuous  process with periodic refresher courses.

The impact of recognition and praise

There is a famous story about President John F. Kennedy’s encounter with a janitor who was cleaning a bathroom at NASA. Kennedy asked the man what he was doing, to which the custodian replied, “Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

That is the kind of pride that exemplifies the true role of a person’s work. By telling inspiring stories of detailing staff taking a proactive, engaged and proud stake in their role, the detail industry can help push the detail narrative forward — and move beyond negative perceptions.

Detailers have the capacity to improve the meaning and identity of their work by being proactive, engaging with others and seeing their value in the larger context of the organization. But it is up to the dealer to create this atmosphere. If the detailers are not engaged, nothing will change.

I have interviewed groups of detailers in dealerships that fell into two groups: one group did not like detailing and did not value their skills or role as a detailer. The second, happier group took great pride in their work.

I noted the happier detailers understood the value of their work at the dealership and altered the relational nature of their job to form bonds with everyone in the dealership. These detailers enjoyed the work and felt they were highly skilled. They engaged in tasks that made the jobs and lives of sales people easier.

Another observation of the happier, more proactive detailers was their ability to see their work in a larger context. These detailers were able to look at how what they did was so important to the dealership. Rather than focus on a detailing task, the happier detailers could see beyond that and how what they do has a major impact on the entire dealership and its customers.

How do dealers promote this proactive, heightened sense of value in their detail staff and their entire dealership?  Training helps. But praise and recognition are critical. The detailers have to see themselves as part of the whole, and the entire dealership must reflect this respect towards the detail staff.

Service managers, fixed operations managers and the new- and used-car managers can make a huge impact free of charge by reminding the detail staff of the importance of what they do. When it comes to detailing, people usually do not notice the job until something is not done right or when there is an unhappy customer.

Taking the time to notice when the job is being done well will pay huge dividends in lifting detail employee morale and keeping them around longer.

Invite in a training company to provide training for the detail staff. Then try something as simple as giving detail staff a certificate and a pat on the back, and telling them that training was important because what they do has a major impact on the dealership. Do this and do it well, and you will see less tardiness, less sleeping on the job and an overall upgrade in the work.

Finally, a pat on the back by the dealer principal cannot be underestimated. When you are talking to a group of detail employees, you do see them stand a little straighter when you tell them nobody else in the dealership has a more direct effect on the profitability of the dealership than they do. Unfortunately, it is a message that dealers do not deliver enough.

If you are interested in learning more about training, me at [email protected].

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