Jan 25, 2016 | Customer Retention Strategies That Work

The Car Wash Project Management Triangle

David Kipke by David Kipke

The Car Wash Project Management Triangle (PMT) explains how to balance operational efficiency and customer service to earn max profits. 

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Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with hundreds of car wash owners and operators around the country. I mean literally, hundreds, to learn everything I can about how car washes interact with their customers — how to get more customers, keep customers, find customers, and, ultimately, sell more car washes.

Rather than keep all this knowledge bottled up in my brain, figured it would be interesting to compile the key obersvations in one place. 

The ultimate tradeoff for car wash project managment: operating efficiency vs. customer service

In building and branding their businesses, car wash owners fixate on two primary capabilities:

  1. to achieve a high level of operating efficiency
  2. to provide a high level of customer service

These capabilities seem to be intuitive concepts, rather than some realization that came after months of industry exposure. Essentially, put out a great product and make sure your customers are happy — isn’t that the core of all businesses in some way?

The case of these goals as it relates to car washes is particularly interesting for three reasons.

  1. For car washes, operational efficiency and customer service are often mutually exclusive goals — to get more of one, you need to give up the other. This concept of making tradeoffs makes car wash advertising particularly challenging. 
  2. It’s difficult to be sure whether or not customers prefer an operationally efficient car wash rather than one with exceptional customer service. There's a psychology behind why people use car washes, and how these people’s needs are served by both operational efficiency and customer service.
  3. Trying to pin down the profitability of emphasizing operational efficiency rather than customer service (and vice verse) can be tricky. Focusing on profit is crucial, but only when you can make decisions with certainty. 

To understand how to develop tradeoffs between operating efficiency and customer service, I want to highlight a model called the project management triangle.

The Car Wash Project Management Triangle (PMT)

The PMT is a way to frame the constraints of any project, and is highly applicable in virtually any and every business scenario. The three points of the triangle signify the three fundamental priorities for a project, to get something done: 1) well, 2) quickly, and 3) cheaply (both in terms of money and energy committed to the project). 

Intuitively, you can only pursue two of these priorities — it is impossible to choose all three. For instance, you want a project done quickly and cheaply, it would inherently not be done as well as possible. Similarly, if you want a project done well and cheaply, it’s probably going to take you a long time.

The reason that I bring up this triangle is because it highlights the inevitability of tradeoffs in any business. As a car wash operator, it is extremely hard to truly balance your emphasis on both operating efficiency and customer service (unless, of course, you are wielding a seven-figure budget — and even then).

Thus, there's a critical decision you must make at some point during your car wash's growth. Do you spring for the pay station that will meaningfully decrease the time a customer spends on your lot, or do you send a trained employee out to address each customer to develop rapport and create a friendly brand?

Obviously, as in all matters, there is a ton of grey area in these decisions. But here's one point often overlooked — those who want to prioritize both efficiency and service in different and meaningful ways have only one choice — find ways to personalize your customers’ experiences at your wash through technology and automation.

There are several different new technologies that allow you create genuine one-to-one connections with your customers while making their customer experience more effortless. So, if you're staring at your PMT looking to make a game-changing investment this year, consider technology and automation first. 


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