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How to Better Operate the Detail Department

In most dealerships today, the responsibility for the management of the detail department is problematic because the detail department is, in most dealerships, the one that nobody wants to claim.

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Bud Abraham is the founder of RL "Bud" Abraham & Associates.

In most dealerships today, the responsibility for the management of the detail department is problematic because the detail department is, in most dealerships, the one that nobody wants to claim. The used car manager, service manager, parts manager or whomever really does not want the job and, in fact, does not even really know how to manage the department.

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But most dealer-principals, general managers or other management-level people in the dealership would like to think that they know how to operate a detail department because, “I started in the automobile business working in the detail department.”

The reality is, few in the dealership — including the detailers themselves — do not know what is necessary to operate an efficient and profitable dealership detail department, and as a result most of the dealerships face the same problems: high labor costs, production to labor costs ratios are out of line, high chemical costs, poor quality of work, slow turn-around time and inability to sell profitable detail services.

There are various reasons for these problems and they continue to plague dealerships because either those in charge do not care and simply accept them as “part of the cost of doing business” and/or they do not know what can be done.

Here are my “Principles of Production.” You can use them either as a yardstick to evaluate your current department or to set up an efficient operation from day one. 

Management 

The detail department manager should be someone who understands how to hire, train and motivate people — and not just the detailer who has been in the department the longest time (that is a formula for disaster). This person should have the same management level as the parts manager, the service manager, etc. They should set up operational standards for the detail department and their performance measured on these standards:

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• Labor costs
• Production-to-labor ratios
• Chemical costs
• Turn-around time
• Quality of work
• Maintenance of the equipment and facilities
• Quality and morale of employees

The second level of detail department management would be the department foreman, who is charged with ensuring the above standards are met on a daily basis.

Personnel 

To establish a well-managed department, I recommend what may seem like a strange and harsh statement: hire personnel with absolutely no detail experience. 

I’ve found that an experienced detailer’s experience is only good if you allow them to do what they want, but then who is in control of the department, you or them? Try to change their methods of detailing, the equipment they use, the processes they follow and the time they take and you will likely meet with strong resistance or outright rebellion.

Experienced detailers who are good, are working. Those who are not working, well, there’s likely a good reason for it. Look for an individual who wants to grow with the dealership and grow in the industry. Someone with good values and good character, who is looking for a long-term job, a career, not just work.

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Once selectively hired and interviewed, they must be trained, motivated, monitored and reviewed. Without this process in place, even the best employee will falter. 

You may be thinking, “It is easy for him to say, but how do these good people with no experience get trained? I don’t have the time nor the expertise to train them.” There are several excellent trainers who can come to your dealership and conduct a detail training session for inexperienced people and have them detailing in a week. 

Facilities 

While dealerships put a great deal of thought and planning into the showroom, little if any consideration is given to the detail department. 

Even when a dealership has an automatic car wash, there are no accommodations for a wash bay. The car wash will wash the outside of the vehicle but what about cleaning the engine or hand cleaning the wheels, wheel wells and door/trunk jambs — all critical parts of a full reconditioning of a used vehicle? 

Some say, “we’ll do it in front of the carwash.” That is possible, but that can result in grease, heavy dirt and grime going into the wash water reclaim system. Also consider that prepping a car for a reconditioning can take 30 minutes or more, which will hold up any basic washing that is needed to be done for deliveries, service customers, demo cars, body shop cars, etc.

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Estimate the current volume of new and used cars that go through the department as well as any other vehicles that would need some form of detailing or new car get ready, etc. Add to that an estimate of potential growth and selling detail services to the public when allocating space for the detail department.

Once you have determined your space, the layout becomes your next most important decision. Consider how to reduce the movement of the vehicles to prevent accidents. A dealer once told me that every time you move a vehicle there is a huge chance of it being damaged.

If possible, install a drive-thru bay that is at least 15 ft. wide x 25 in. deep. Install lighting that not only hits the tops of the vehicle, but the sides and interiors as well.

Equipment

The equipment used by most detailers today is primitive at best or in short supply. 

The typical technology used in most dealerships today are: portable gasoline pressure washer; shop vacuums that are not built for daily, regular use; a heated soil extractor; 10-lb. electric buffer(s); brushes; and towels.

Proper cleaning of vehicle carpets and fabric upholstery requires the use of a heated soil extractor to remove oily soil and shampoo residue. If not removed, the carpets/fabric upholstery will be left with a sticky residue.

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Suffice it to say, there is so much more technology available to detail today’s vehicles, which can reduce the time to process the vehicle, saving labor and ensuring better results and less employee fatigue. 

Chemicals & Supplies

Chemicals used to be “king” in the detail department. Detailers are often extremely loyal to certain brands. To avoid chaos in the detail department with a multitude of all types of chemicals, you’d be wise to commit to a brand line with rules about use, dilution and proper labeling. 

Use these guidelines to setup an in-house detail department or to evaluate and improve your current department. 

Click here to view more solutions from Bud Abraham and Detail Plus.

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