Evaluating Your Detail Department: Part II

In the last issue of the magazine (Part I), we discussed the constant problems for dealers with their detailing departments and some of the reasons behind this struggle. If you recall, the real culprit seems to be the paradigm that dealers and the entire automobile industry has regarding the detail departments in dealerships.

That paradigm seems to be that the detail department is looked upon as unimportant — at least unimportant enough to devote management’s time, key personnel or money, to its improvement.

As you may recall, what we did in the article was offer a pattern you could use, the “Principles of Production” to evaluate your department to find the problems. These principles, in order of importance were:

■ Management
■ Personnel
■ Equipment
■ Facilities
■ Chemicals & Supplies

In the last issue, each of these principles were generalized to help you see the problems that might exist in your detail department, and to help you self-evaluate what needs to change in your operation to have a department that functions well, is efficient, and is profitable.

This article will conclude the evaluation by offering suggestions on what can be done, again using the Principles of Production.


As mentioned in the last segment, what almost every dealership detail department lacks is a “Department Manager.” Not a detailer, but a manager — a competent person who understands what to manage and how to manage people, finances, equipment and chemicals.

This does not have to be a manager on the level of a service manager, but it has to be a person who focuses on management of the department, not on detailing. These are the same young people that might be managing a Jiffy Lube, Grease Monkey or the locally owned quick lubrication center in your area.

What the person needs to know about detailing can be learned from a variety of sources.

Remember, you want to hire people with good values and a good work ethic, not detail skills — you can teach them the skills.

This person might train one of their detailers to be the shop foreman, if there is a person capable of handling that responsibility in their absence.

If a dealer is unwilling to put a person like this in charge of their detail department, it is a guarantee that their detail department will continue to operate as it has in the past.

And reading this article any further would be for naught because without a good manager running the department, none of the other Principles of Production will be followed with any degree of consistency.


As big an issue as the lack of a good manager, the lack of good detail personnel is just as important. As I have preached for years to dealers, car wash operators and owners of detail businesses, the typical “experienced” detailer is NOT the person you want.

First, their experience is very suspect. Up until the International Detailing Association started their program of certification, there were literally no truly trained detailers. Most learned their skills “on the job;” and these skills were suspect because the person they trained under, like them, got their experience on the job.

What a dealer must do, as mentioned above, is look for people with good values and teach them the skills they need. There are numerous places that a dealer can go to get on-site training at the dealership for his employees.

As is always said in the industry, “If you hire an experienced detailer, their experience is only good if you let them do what they want.”

What you need to do is place an advertisement in the local paper or on Craigslist (or other online job sites) for people looking for a career in the automobile industry and offer them a ground floor chance for a career with your dealership. Such an advertisement might read:

AUTO SERVICE TRAINEES – ABC Auto Group has immediate openings for auto service trainees in a new dealership department. No experience necessary, will provide complete training. Candidates must have a high school diploma, valid driver’s license and a clean driving record. Must be a self-starter, have stable work history and be looking for a long-term career. Send a cover letter and resume to Human Resources – ABC Auto Group.

NOTE: If you want them to apply in person, then indicate where they should go and to whom to speak to for an application.


As poorly staffed as many dealership detailing departments might be, most are also terribly equipped to clean vehicles whose values are well above $20,000 and some over $100,000. What can be worse, working on these vehicles with ill-trained personnel makes the chances for poor quality work and damage a sure thing.

There is more technology and equipment available today to allow detailers to recondition vehicles to a like-new condition, but someone in the dealership needs to understand what is available, how it functions and how to use it.

Too often, the attitude in dealerships can be summed up in this phrase: “It costs what? You have to be kidding; you don’t invest that kind of money in the detail department.”

With that attitude, even with a good manager and good personnel, if they do not have the proper equipment, you are preventing them from doing the job.

Furthermore, dealerships often might have some of the correct equipment, but they do not have sufficient equipment to keep “all” employees working all the time. For example, a heated soil extractor (which is an absolutely necessary piece of equipment to properly clean carpets, carpet floor mats and fabric upholstery) is either not available, or the department has only one machine.

The folly of this is that if you have three to five employees working on two to three vehicles at the same time, some employees are going to be standing around “waiting for the soil extractor”, while someone else is using it.

Think about that: you are paying an employee a minimum of $12 an hour with social security, etc., and they are standing around waiting. This happens more often than a dealer realizes. And that is only the “tip of the iceberg.”

It happens with something as simple as a vacuum, a buffer or a polisher. In addition, it happens with supplies. Do you know why vehicles have swirls in the paint? There are many reasons, but a simple one is that the detail department does not have a sufficient supply of the proper and clean buffing and polishing pads. Pads that cost under $10 each are being used on the paint finish of a multi-thousand dollar vehicle.

In short, a dealer has to be willing to invest in all the equipment necessary to have a modern detail department, and enough of it to keep all the employees busy every hour of the day with no “standing around waiting.”

What you need to do is have someone in the dealership become familiar with the equipment technology available today and properly research it: things like heated soil extractors; dual-action polishers; vapor steamers; ozone generators; and automatic chemical dispensing systems.

Moreover, you need to be certain you have employees that know how to use the equipment. I have seen ozone generators, for example, sitting on a shelf or in a corner not being used because no one knows how to use it. You must insure that all your personnel are competent enough to learn the benefits of using the equipment, and then know how to use it to accomplish the job for which it was designed.

Doesn’t this come back to a competent manager and a competent staff? Without those in place, any investment in equipment is foolish. Just as well, give the detailers a shop vacuum and a can of wax and some towels.


While some dealers devote whatever space is leftover to the detail department, many today are designing a few bays for detailing that are, more or less, thought out reasonably well. However, even here there is a lot lacking, simply because those doing the planning and the layout are not experienced with the everyday workings of a detail department.

It involves more than a couple of dry bays and one or two wash bays in the back of the dealership.

Thought has to be put into the volume of vehicles that will go through the department in a day, week and month to ascertain how much space will be needed. Once that is done, then the exact layout of the space into and out of the bays should be considered for smooth flow.

There should be marshalling space; that is, space for vehicles needing detailing and those completed and/or waiting for final inspection.

If the dealership has a car wash, that does not obviate the necessity for a wash bay for the detail department. Yet many dealerships design their detail department without a wash bay.

The detail wash bay is for more than washing, it is used to clean engines, hand-clean wheels with “baked on” brake dust, and remove excessive amounts of tar — processes that can take 30 to 45 minutes, in addition to the wash.

Then there is the question of lighting. Again, it is more than putting up some fluorescent lights or halogen or metal halide fixtures. Care and consideration has to be taken in analyzing the needs of a detail department: to be able to see the scratches and swirls in the paint, not only on top surfaces, but also the sides where they show the most; to be able to see inside the vehicles to catch the dirt and grit in the cracks and crevices. That is the reason that most interiors are found to be unsatisfactory: the detailer’s inability to see the dirt inside the vehicle.

In short, a detail department in a dealership needs to be designed by someone who knows what is needed and has the ability to engineer a proper design with proper lighting.

Chemicals & Supplies

While last on the list, it does not indicate that this area is not important.

The key with chemicals is that only one person should make the decision on what to purchase and in what quantities. Like the service department, the dealership makes a decision of purchasing one brand of motor oil and lubricant; the mechanic is not allowed to use his preferred brand of oil, etc. That would be chaos, and that is too often what is happening in the detail department.

Furthermore, every salesperson from every company in the area calls on the detail department and drops off free samples. This is a practice that should be completely eliminated. That is why a dealership ends up with a myriad of small, unmarked plastic bottles containing “who knows what”. This is a violation of OSHA Regulations that could result in heavy fines for the dealership.

The manager in charge of the department should be completely in charge of what is used and should be required to keep a weekly inventory control of the chemicals and supplies (which will be mentioned below) and held accountable.

Operational supplies is a broad area in a detail department, but many of the supplies can make the detail job so much easier, faster and more efficient, and should be controlled and inventoried on a weekly basis, or the cost will easily get out of hand.

Some of the supplies to consider are:

Buffing pads: Today there are both wool, poly-wool blends, and a myriad of different foam pads that must be understood and used to achieve a shiny, swirl- and hologram-free finish.

Towels: For years, dealerships have used a towel service, which, in my opinion, is a HUGE cost that does not have to be incurred.

The best towel to use today in detailing is the microfiber towel. It is very absorbent, picks up dirt and wax far better than terry or cotton towels, and is excellent for cleaning windows. Personally, I recommend a dealer buy their own stock of microfiber towels and an inexpensive washer/dryer to maintain their own towel program.

Brushes: There are many new and innovative brushes available to aid in cleaning tires, wheels, carpets, upholstery, taking dirt and dust out of cracks and crevices, removing compound/polish/wax residue from the exterior of the vehicle.

A manager really needs to know what is available and insure his employees are well trained in their use; and again, maintain an inventory control system.


While this article only scratches the surface of how a dealer might evaluate and improve their detail department, it does provide some insight into what to look for and how to go about making improvements.

A properly functioning detail department is the result of what sociologists call “multiple causation.”

And what you have with the Principles of Production are the multiple causes that result in the detail department every dealer wants. Now you know, and you have what it takes to evaluate your department as well as a brief but insightful look at what you can do to improve.

As always, if I can help you or answer any questions feel free to me at [email protected].

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