What dealers should know about operating a detail department

The most important thing a dealer should know today is that it is “not business as usual” when it comes to operating an efficient detail department.

Without question, in talking with auto dealers across the USA and Canada, they ALL want to operate a detail department that is organized, efficient, turns out quality work and makes a profit. Unfortunately, most do not.

Why? It has to do with the attitude the dealer and people in the entire dealership have towards detailing — the Cinderella of the dealership.

The change of attitude I speak of sounds simple enough, but unfortunately, few dealers are able or willing to do this. As a result, they continue to have the type of detail operation in their dealership that they do not like or want.

The changes aren’t difficult

Considering the costs to establish or upgrade a modern body shop of $250,000 to $1 million or $2 million or equip a service department, the cost to establish or upgrade a detail/recon department are minimal.

Even the equipment you need to have a first class detail department is not expensive.

Say you were going to equip the department with the modern central chemical distribution systems and central pressure washing systems. The cost would be less than $50,000.

The problem, however, is that most dealers don't feel that the detailing department deserves more than a few thousand dollars of investment. After all, “we've always been able to operate the department with little equipment and low-paying, entry-level people.”

But that is the problem, isn't it? Old technology and unskilled, unreliable personnel. As I said, changes are not difficult or expensive; a dealer just has to be willing, as Nike says, to, "Just Do It."

An investment is necessary

There is not really any way around it. If a dealer wants to stay in business today they have to make investments in their business and facilities. The detail department is no different. After all, if used vehicles offer more profit potential for a dealer than the sale of a new car, doesn't it seem logical that they would want to do all they could to modernize and streamline this part of their business?

Because detailing has always been sort of a “back-alley, cottage business,” there really isn't much help for the dealer who wants to establish or upgrade a detail department. The prime movers in the detail business have been, for years, the chemical companies. And today, they are making more money in the histories of their companies than they ever have. Say to them things need to change, and they will look at you as though you are crazy. “Change, why would we want to change? These are the best times we've ever had!”

Bottom line: do not expect much help from your detail chemical supplier. They are doing what they have been doing for the past 50 to 60 years: selling chemicals. A dealer needs more help than information on detailing chemicals.

It almost does not need to be said, but I will say it anyway. If you are considering or going to make a commitment to establish a new detail department or upgrade your existing operation the decisions have to be well-planned and accurate, if investments are to provide a proper return.

The question is, however, "How does a dealer make such decisions? Where does he get the required information?"

If you think the answer is, “By hiring an experienced detailer. He certainly will know what is needed,” you are incorrect.

“The ‘E’ Myth”

In his book, "The 'E' Myth,” author Michael E. Gerber describes the fatal assumption made by many business people that: “... if you understand the technical work of a business, you understand a business that does that technical work.”

The reason that this way of thinking is fatal is that it is just not true.

Almost everyone in the detail business today, chemical suppliers, their distributors and the detailers themselves are somewhat informed on most technical aspects of the trade. All of them have been doing things the same way for years. If a dealer wants to change things, these people are certainly not whom you would talk to for information on “how to change things.”

But there is still this mindset among dealers who want have a better body shop or detail shop to feel that all you need to know is the technical aspects of the trade. This mindset is always lurking in the wings.

When the dealer himself/herself —  or someone they give the responsibility to investigate upgrading the detail shop — begins research, it is typically from a technical point of view. What equipment do we need? What is out there to do a better job?

Little time or attention is given to things like projected vehicle volume through the detail department; do we want to sell to the public; facilities, do we have enough space to process the expected volume; can we expand; how should the facility be laid out. What kind of equipment will make us more efficient?

Recently I received a layout for a proposed detail shop that a dealership in Florida was planning. The drawing had been done by an architectural firm who had designed dealership service departments, and with little or no knowledge of what is done in a detail department, they laid out a 12,000-square-foot building.

After reviewing the layout and discussing with the dealer what they wanted to achieve, we were able to give them sufficient used-car detail bays, new car POI bays, wash bays and space for an automatic conveyor-like carwash — all in 5,000 square feet.

So, what to do?

Now that you realize that your technical instincts are not the proper criteria to use when planning to establish a new or upgrade an existing detail department, we can turn to the other resources necessary to address this issue.

Assuming that a dealer wants to upgrade their detail operation to increase efficiency and production, we find there are several resources to consider: facilities resources, equipment resources, materials resources, manpower resources and management resources.

Facilities resources

This is the physical building(s) where the production will take place. As critical as this is to an efficiently operating detail department, very few dealers, or even anyone in the detail business, gives it the consideration that is required.

You must allocate sufficient space to the detailing department to allow for an efficient layout and design to insure maximum production.

Equipment location, traffic flow patterns and careful attention to things like space organization, lighting, air quality, heat, air conditioning and noise are just some of the important layout and design considerations.

Nevertheless, facilities, resources and the expectations of the layout and design are often overrated. There exists a belief that facilities and equipment, for that matter, hold the key to efficient production. Many dealers, even after spending HUGE sums of money on facilities and equipment, eventually realize that emphasis on these resources aren't the only answer. But that is what the “technician mentality within” wants to hear.

Equipment resources  

Looking at a detail shop in any dealership, or anywhere for that matter, one can see the need for better equipment and tools. You may not know what, but it is clear that there has to “be a better way.”

In any technical trade, the right equipment and tools to do the job is critical. And today, with increasing wages it is even more critical than any other time in history.

However, the existing mentality in the detail business among detailers themselves, shop owners, and among dealers is that we do not need much more than a few plastic squeeze and spray bottles, a 10-pound electric buffer a shop vacuum, and a few rags to get the job done.

Some others are looking for a new-fangled gizmo that will cure all the ills of the detailing department. For example, portable soil extractors for cleaning carpets and fabric upholstery have been on the detail scene for years, yet “experienced detailers” do not understand how this machine will replace the primitive hand scrub brush and bucket of carpet shampoo. The extractor is part of the solution, but not all of the solution to carpet and upholstery cleaning.

Yet many dealers will invest $2,000 or $3,000 in one machine for a department that has five detail bays, believing that this is the answer to all their problems. So, five bays and a minimum of five detailers and one machine — not very efficient.

You will have 4 detailers standing around waiting for the one extractor.

For the dealer and even the detail shop owner this is just the age-old art of throwing money at the problem. The fault here is to think that this piece of equipment will solve more of the problems we have than it was ever designed to fix, or is capable of fixing.

Materials resources

It is generally accepted that you cannot detail vehicles without the right chemicals to do the job.

There is no argument about the correlation between having the right materials and efficient production. Once again, there is a tendency here for the technical aspects to overwhelm the decision-making process.

But the answer for most dealers will be found closer to the base of the production pyramid, the resources of personnel and management.

Manpower resources

The manpower resources are the employees used in the production process. Nothing happens without qualified employees. Even recognizing the importance of people, most dealers go about the solution in the wrong way.

First and foremost we go after “experienced detailers.” If you do not like what you now have, why would you hire the same type of personnel? Here it is again, “doing what you have always done, getting what you always have.”

What you are trying to do is change the way your detailing department has functioned in the past. You can improve facilities, install the latest equipment and technology and utilize the finest chemicals, but if you hire the same type of people as you have had before they will soon have this monument to efficiency, operating at the same level as you had before.

You must hire personnel, not with good skills, but people with good values and potential and teach them the skills.

While detailing does require some skill training, it is not rocket science, and the skills can be taught in a matter of a few days. I have personally trained people in foreign countries who could not speak English, and who had no prior knowledge of detailing how to detail in three days, including high speed buffing.

Another mistake that is made that is an extension of this thinking is to believe that if you offer a higher pay scale you will attract a better grade of detailer. While I might agree that you could get a better detailer, the bottom line is that you still have a detailer whose experience is only good if you allow them to do what they have always done. See the point?

Management resources

These make up the foundation of the production pyramid, because without a clear understanding of this resource, the time, attention, and money that were spent on all the other resources will be for naught — absolutely worthless.

Management resources relate to the level of organization, administration, discipline, and control applied to the business of reconditioning vehicles.

As much as a dealer knows about the importance of good management in the operation of their dealership, they seem to deny their importance when it comes to the detailing department.

Whether they directly, or someone in the dealership directly manages the operation of the detail department, there is a tendency to hang onto the “technical aspects” and as a result, the tendency is that if we have good “detail technicians” we don't need to manage them.

Consequently, the detail department is soon back to where it always was.

Some of the areas where management resources must be effectively utilized are:

  1. Cost analysis and a clear understanding of what is required to detail a car and how much this costs in labor and materials
  2. Ongoing performance standards and measurement
  3. Clearly defined goals and objectives for the department
  4. Clearly defined management philosophy
  5. Systems and procedures that are applied to the administrative and production management process
  6. The hiring, motivating, and retraining of employees
  7. Delegation of responsibilities
  8. Well defined accountabilities

What do you want to know?

At the base of the production pyramid is what most dealers do not want to know about operating a successful detailing department.

As important as these 8 points are, it is rare to find a dealer, service manager, body shop manager, or whoever in the dealership is responsible for the detailing department, that spends any time and energy on the management resources related to the detailing department.


An electric buffer, plastic squeeze and spray bottles, a shop vac, an extractor, and a few chemicals detailing skills, will not make it anymore. Many dealerships have detail departments, but they are not really doing a neither a professional, nor a profitable job of detailing the vehicle.

Why? Because the dealer has not allocated an equal amount of time, effort, and money into all the production resources.

If you want to discuss how you can apply all the Production Resources to your dealership's detailing department me. 1-800-284-0123 or [email protected]



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