Rolling with Mobile Detailing

Dec 3, 2009

The American lifestyle, and all the hustle and bustle that inherently goes along with it, is putting an ever-increasing premium on a vehicle owner’s time.

Today’s drivers often have the financial resources to own great vehicles and maintain them, but many simply lack the time to wait for hours while their car or truck is detailed. Thankfully, vehicle owners now have options, one of which-mobile detailing-brings all the skill and service of a traditional detailer to their front door or office, saving them both time and hassle. And customers are often willing to pay a premium for the convenience.

For mobile detailers who provide such a desirable service, low startup costs are making the mobile detailing game just as much of a win-win situation on their end.

Stephen Powers, owner of San Diego-based Rightlook.com, says that it only makes sense that mobile detailing would be gaining in popularity.

“Nowadays, everyone is concerned with convenience and has limited time,” he says. “So, the ability to take a service like automotive detailing right to someone’s home or work and provide on-site services has, for obvious reasons, been growing in [popularity] all over the country.”

Right to Your Door

Powers says the process-which generally includes a mix of hot water extraction and interior deodorizing, protecting and dressing vinyl and leather, trim detailing, a full exterior wash, engine cleaning and dressing, and a multi-step polishing and waxing process-is catching on quickly, and is proving an effective launching point for up-selling customers on other mobile reconditioning services as well.

“[In mobile detailing] you’re making the car look great, so if it needs some of the other work like PDR, headlight rejuvenation, wheel repair, odor elimination or whatever else, it’s easy to up-sell the customer on these additional services,” he notes.

Jeff Hasselbach, owner of West Hills, Calif.-based Detrailers, says that even in places that have seen a substantial increase in mobile operations in recent years, new techs are using the aforementioned conditions in the market to their financial benefit.

“Even in Southern California, arguably the one place in the country that could be considered a saturated market, there’s a dense population and a large number of cars on the road, there’s still plenty of work to go around,” he says. “You can have a competitor down the street from you, and you’re still going to have plenty of work.”

And the higher ticket averages in comparison to other mobile services makes it a bit easier to stay profitable, he says.

“A guy can have three customers a day that pay $125-$150 for a detail, and he’s got a $375-$450 day,” he notes. “When you subtract your material cost per job, gas and insurance, the profit margin is great.”

Getting started is fairly simple, notes Hasselbach. He says the first step for many operators is to determine whether to focus on high-end full details or higher-volume work doing express details [which is essentially a full service wash and wax, with paint, wheel and tire treatments] and mobile vehicle washes, or some combination.

Those focusing on full details will generally perform two to four services per day, while those focusing on washes will shoot for about 10 to 15 per day.

The decision regarding what market to target might also have an effect on what equipment and chemicals to purchase, he notes.

Today, a complete system could cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars for an entry-level package including basic cleaning solutions, polishes, waxes and dressings, as well as brushes and towels and some sort of orbital polisher; to well over $10,000 for an entire business package including a mobile detailing trailer with a pressure washer, air compressor and generator, as well as complete training.

Fully stocked trailers of all sizes, skid-mounted units that fit into pickups or vans, and any number of other configurations are available in various price ranges.

Commercial Opportunities

Once a business plan is determined and a rig or system is obtained, the next step is finding customers.

Nick Vacco of Detailking.com, Pittsburgh, says that while there may be slightly more business to be done for retail customers, commercial accounts can be lucrative and pose the same opportunities to up-sell the account on higher-dollar services.

“On the commercial end, there are companies that want a simple wash for their vehicles weekly, and that is obviously a good amount of ongoing business,” he says. “And then the detailing entrepreneur can go in and wash maybe 15-20 fleet vehicles, and as he does those washes, he can also create an evaluation form on each vehicle that suggests other services that could be part of a full detail. The vehicle might have a dry interior, heavily soiled carpets, paint chips, faded trim or cloudy headlight coverings. That could result in [additional detail work] that ends up being in the $250-$300 range at times.”

For those techs looking to focus on retail customers, Vacco suggests they try to target owners of high-end luxury vehicles like Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Porsche models, as those drivers often have more disposable income and might be more likely to have their vehicle detailed on a regular basis.

“You can even sign up people for VIP plans, where you’re returning for a wash every week, monthly mini-details, and bi-monthly full details,” he says. “A cosmetic maintenance program like that is very well-accepted in that high-end niche.”

Detrailers’ Hasselbach notes that, while word-of-mouth advertising runs rampant with this service, more traditional forms of advertising are equally crucial when luring in high-end retail customers.

He suggests in many cases that techs bypass the standard Yellow Pages ads, which can be costly, in lieu of local keyword search engines and online directories, for which companies can pay for desirable placement.

“The Yellow Pages will always be popular with some people, but the [detailers] I’ve talked to who are doing [online advertising] are doing well, and many aren’t even bothering to advertise in the local phone book anymore because it’s that expensive.”

While each mobile detailing business will undoubtedly have its own unique needs, both in terms of equipment and experience, one thing that all of our sources agreed upon was the importance of proper training for every detailer.

Most suppliers in the industry offer such training in some form, ranging from monthly two-day seminars covering the basics, to comprehensive multi-day programs that are held a few times a year in locations around the country.

These training sessions generally blend varying amounts of hands-on detail instruction with business basics like marketing and advertising, professionalism, pricing and promotion, how to prospect customers, and up-selling them to higher-ticket services.

Established Professionals

This business-related information can oftentimes be the difference between an operation that thrives and one that washes out, says Detailking.com’s Vacco.

“Most detailers are not, unfortunately, great businessmen right from the start,” he says. “We train them on how to be better at those parts of the business.”

Vacco says the training courses also make suggestions on what local organizations to join [like the local chamber of commerce or other networking clubs], how to speak with customers over the phone, and how to determine costs and profit margins, among others.

Rightlook.com’s Powers says that most training classes will offer some sort of recognition for completion, which can then be used by the trainee in promoting his or her business. That, he says, matters greatly in the eyes of customers.

“It’s just like getting your hair cut-you’re not going to go somewhere where the people didn’t go to cosmetology school,” he says. “Too many of the guys out there working on $50,000 cars have never had a bit of training, so if you have, it’s going to establish you as a professional.”

Training courses also include information about two of the most important issues affecting any new mobile detailing company: insurance and environmental compliance.

Most will suggest that techs contact their local government to ensure that they are properly insured and compliant with local laws pertaining to water containment, as some state and local ordinances address collecting wastewater when chemicals are involved.

Depending on how the business is structured-either as a sole proprietorship, a limited-liability corporation or as an S corporation-different rules may apply.