Picking a detailer can be a troublesome task. With all the car wash jargon and seemingly endless options for services and businesses, how does a person satisfy their car cleaning needs without wrecking their paint or getting ripped off?
As you’ve likely experienced, the ambiguity of detailing terms is a huge problem in and of itself. Things like “detailing” and “full-detail” mean different things to different businesses. Even seemingly self-explanatory terms like “hand wax” and “polish” can be applied to a huge array of services. For this reason, it is important to understand some basics before embarking on the quest for your ideal detailer.
Ultimately, selecting the right business will depend on your goals as a customer. Are you looking for the cheapest car wash in town or are you looking to pamper your car with the equivalent of a weekend at the Four Seasons’ spa? Neither is necessarily correct; don’t worry, I won’t be telling you to go out and find the most expensive services imaginable. Instead, you’ll find some general tips and processes below that can help you find the right business for whatever goals you have in mind.
1. Identify Your Goals
Before you start looking, you must know what you’re looking for. This is what we do when we look for food and set filters on Google Maps. Select your cuisine, distance from current location, hours of operation, $ or $$$$, etc.
For car cleaning, the process is virtually identical. Identify what you want/need, how you want it (mobile or not), and how much you’re willing to spend. For example:
If you don’t know what you want/need, see our other car care articles or drop a comment below. We’ll help you figure it out.
2. Manage Word-of-Mouth Referral(s)
Most small businesses grow by word-of-mouth referrals. Most detailing operations are small businesses. Therefore, if you’re seeking a new detailer, you might ask someone who s/he uses. Better yet, you might have a weird, car-obsessed friend that will, unprompted, rave about a “great” detailer they’re using.
When referred, focus your attention first on the referrer, not the detailer(s) they refer. Evaluate the person you’re talking to. Does this person care for their things as you care for your things? How experienced are they with cars? Perhaps most importantly, ask yourself, “What does the car they drive look like?” If it’s covered in swirls with dirty wheel barrels, understand that your car will likely end up the same.
With your answers to those questions in mind, proceed with research of your own.
3. Research, Reviews, & Digital Presence
Websites, Instagram, Flickr, Google Maps, whatever - in the modern world, we often turn to internet research before we spend money on goods and services (or, in this case, services for our goods).
Of course, when I say “internet research,” we both know that what I’m really talking about is looking at pictures and (maybe) reading a couple reviews. Whoever has the flashiest photos and the most 5-star ratings often wins our business.
The problem with skimming a business’s reviews is the same as that of receiving a referral from a friend. Who wrote that review? Are their goals the same as yours? Do they care for their car to the same standard you do? To answer these unknowns, look for specifics mentioned by the reviewer.
If speed and low price come up frequently, you’re likely looking at a volume detailer. If “my car looks better than brand new after 4 days of work” is mentioned, understand that you’re probably looking at a Four-Seasons-spa-type-situation.
As with reviews, skimming images can be misleading. A wall of exotic cars might look awesome on a screen, but you know nothing about the condition of those cars’ paint. Again, look for specifics and photo captions than indicate expertise. If a business posts before-and-after images of their paint correction results, you know two things. A) They understand what corrected paint is. B) Their cleaning services are likely designed to minimize the need for paint correction.
Likewise, a caption that explains a photo can provide huge insights into a detailers’ overall competence. As an example, let’s take a look at this picture of a badge covered in soap and the ways it might be captioned.
Caption A: #FOAMFRIDAY bayyybeee! DM or call us at (555)-555-5555 to get your super foam FULL detail today!
Caption B: New-car detail underway! Despite what you may think, new cars are covered in imperfections right from the factory. There’s no better time to address them than before hitting the road. Step 1: a strip wash with a high-pH (alkaline) soap. This chemical removes most waxes and/or sealants that may already be on the car. This ensures our polishes and pads will work as expected and that the protection we’ll add later lasts longer.
I’m sure you can guess the post I prefer. Caption B, however, will not point you to the cheapest wash in town. It’ll likely land you with a $100+ inside & out detail with boutique chemicals. If that’s not what you want for your leased daily-driver, go with the business that posted Caption A. They’ll roll up, douse your car in foam, rub it down, and be on their way in 45 minutes or less (there is, indeed, beauty in speed).
Still, a “fire” feed doesn’t tell the whole story. Remember, detailing as an industry falls in the category of manual labor and services. Last I checked, that awesome air conditioner repair company you use doesn’t have 37.2k followers and the “sickest feed on the ‘gram, bro.” They just do great work. In other words, some great, veteran detailers might not be into the #carswithoutlimits#foamcanon#handwashonly version of detailing we often see on Instagram.
4. Observe Tools & Chemicals
To be clear, taking dirt off of a car is not a difficult thing. However, there are a lot of ways to do it. As a customer, you’re not expected to know all the components of a detailer’s chemical arsenal. You can, however, get an idea of the type of business you’re working with based on the chemicals and tools they use.
At the professional level, most detailers buy chemicals in bulk. This goes beyond the “value-size concentrate” you’ll find at the auto parts store. We’re talking gallons - even 5-gallon containers - of chemicals designed to be used at dilutions as high as 1800:1. That’s serious stuff.
I’ll simplify this by claiming the following: Professional detailers use chemicals from one of two broad camps. One camp contains chemicals you’ve never heard of. The other camp contains chemicals that are simply unheard of. The difference here is more significant than you might imagine.
Chemicals you’ve never heard of are from boutique brands. You will not find the vast majority of these in regular retail stores (although some retailers are beginning to carry top-sellers from high-end brands as DIY detailing becomes more popular). These brands have large followings within the detailing community and are known to produce quality goods. Modesta. Shine Supply. Gtechniq. Gyeon. Sonax. Swissvax. Colourlock. Look any of these brands up and you’ll be surprised just how much 8 oz bottles of some of these chemicals cost.
This cost is unjustifiable in high-volume detailing. Therefore, if you’re working with a business that uses these chemicals almost exclusively, you’re, again, looking at a Four-Seasons-spa-type-situation. This business uses the best of the best because they aren’t interested in compromising paint perfection for the sake of price. Get ready for your paint to get a whole lot shinier and your wallet to get a whole lot lighter.
Conversely, chemicals that are unheard of are usually specific to small, local detailing supply stores. These chemicals are not inherently terrible, but blends and brands can vary widely between locations. This is a lot like buying store brand ketchup instead of Heinz. Whatever your local supermarket sells is safe to eat and looks like ketchup, but does it taste like Heinz? Substitute your own example here if you’re not a ketchup fanatic. You get the point.
Low-cost car washes require making certain compromises. Time and chemicals are almost always a detailer’s biggest expenses. Cutting back on both makes that $25 wash you may be looking for possible.
Ultimately, you’ll find perfectly legitimate and highly successful businesses using chemicals from both of these categories. The question here is not “are they going to clean my car?”. It’s “how well are they going to clean my car?”
5. Seek Repeat Business (Maybe)
If you use these tips to find a mobile detailer that does a one-hour exterior wash and interior vacuum for $25, that’s all good. You may have the following concerns/inquiries:
“I’m happy with my detailer and my car is pretty clean, but I want something more. What do I do?”
Answer: See step 1.
“Oh no! I’ve been getting quick washes for 20 bucks. Have I been hurting my car?”
Answer: Your paint can answer that. If you’ve had your car polished in the past and it’s covered in spider-web looking hazy stuff, your car has been silently suffering. If your paint looks pretty good (as determined by your personal standards), keep calm and carry on.
If you use these tips to secure yourself a wheels-off $2,500 monster detail, paint correction, and ceramic coating, that’s all good too. You may have the following concerns/inquiries:
“I don’t want to pay $2,500 every time I need a car wash. What do I do now?”
Answer: No one should ever pay for back-to-back paint corrections. Even annual paint corrections should not be necessary if your car is being properly and regularly washed. That said, the next step after going big on a full-blown detail is that you should maintain it with a high-caliber, niche service (possibly offered by the very person that did the $2,500 thing). Expect to pay at least double the cheapest rates in town to ensure your car is maintained properly. If you pay for an expensive detail only to have all the work undone by someone solely pursuing speed, you’ve wasted your money. That initial $2,500 investment in great paint will literally be destroyed before your eyes.
“You said DIY detailing is becoming more popular. How do I get into that?”
Answer: Stay tuned for a future article.