CHICAGO, Ill. — Many days at the laundry can be broken down into simple terms. There are customers you know who smile when they walk in the door. There are customers you don’t know who will make you smile by the time they leave. And there are customers who can ruin your day were it not for the previous types of customers.
As a store manager or owner, your business card could have about 100 titles on it (sales manager, repairman, advertising director, etc.). The experiences tied to most of these roles fade to the back of your mind by week’s end. What sticks in your mind are the joys and frustrations brought about by your customers.
Let’s see how many of you can relate to a normal week of dealing with customers.
LOVE THOSE NEW CUSTOMERS
Very few things cheer up small-business owners more than the realization that new customers are coming in the door. Several of our employees have been working at the World’s Largest Laundromat since long before my father bought it in 1999.
We love to hear Bobbie, our most experienced employee, say, “Thee are several people in here today that I’ve never seen before.” That’s a wonderful feeling, but it gets even better when you know they’ll go from newcomer to regular customer.
“My friend told me about this place long ago, but I just kept going to my usual laundry,” one newcomer said. “But boy, I should have listened to her sooner. You’ve got a great place here.”
End Result: Go ahead, take a deep breath, and exale. Smile.
Oh, great. They’re back again. It’s that group of three or four guys and gals in their 20s who spend more time in the store than some of our employees. They take up seats, get in people’s way and annoy the hell out of the staff and customers, of which they are not.
Not eager for confrontation, we were maybe a little too patient with them. Finally, it was decided. They had to go. Enough.
We let them down as easily as we could, but they weren’t happy and they were far from gone. They were back a day later, sitting in their usual spot. This time they got a stronger reminder. A day later, they learned that it was easier if they came back after I had gone home.
Now the staff is empowered to give them the boot. After four straight days of coming in and being told to leave, only two of them returned. This time not to sit. No, this time they wanted something.
The woman walks up to me at the counter and asks for paper plates. “What do you need plates for?” I ask. “We’re gonna warm up our chicken in the microwave over there,” she replies.
Four days in a row of being kicked out, and now they want plates? I don’t have children, but I felt like I was repeating myself like a frustrated parent. “No, you can’t have a cookie. I said no cookie. Put the cookie back!”
End result: My faith in humanity begins to wane.
THE LITTLE ONES
It’s a dull afternoon and I’m minding my own business. Then...suddenly...INCOMING! My office is filled with the sounds of children laughing as two wee ones bolt in and run laps around my desk, trying to outrun the counter woman.
They run behind the counter, past my employee and now are desperately running to keep their rebellion alive. Back at the front counter, mom is laughing as my employee finally catches them and scoops them both up, one in each arm. Laughing and drooling a bit, they are returned to their mother.
End Result: Great entertainment! I “wish” that would happen once a day.
“Mark, have you seen this?” The employee asking the question is staring at the windows behind the counter. There is a small bullet hole. Maybe just a pellet.
The outer glass has been pierced, but whatever the object was, it was stopped short of making its way into the store. We don’t know when it happened, sometime overnight probably. Our neighborhood isn’t the best. There’s plenty of trouble and a fair share of gangs.
Whether it was a bullet or pellet, whether it was on purpose or just some type of ricochet, the cops need to know. I answer their questions, they file their report and the episode is over.
End Result: The police in this town are great, but I wish I had less contact with them. Hopefully, no one was aiming at us. And hopefully, they don’t up their artillery.
THE BUDDING GYMNAST
“Careful. You need to hop off the folding table, it’s not meant to hold a person’s weight.” Of all the times I’ve spoken those words, I can’t even fathom how many times my cleaning crew on the floor must have issued that warning.
I warned this guy at about 2 p.m. Ten minutes later, I was back in my office and the stars aligned perfectly. I happened to glance at the computer monitor with the security camera images just in time to see the table topple, with the guy hitting the floor. He was fine and so was the table. Yes, I know I shouldn’t laugh at that, my apologies. He won’t try that again.
End Result: Things are starting to look up.
As you can image, the late-night hours are when the strange characters come out. When I arrive in the morning, I start to hear the stories. When one of my employees says that she was being harassed by some guy during her shift, I take notice. But when she says she is scared and is nervous about doing her job, action needs to be taken.
Security cameras are checked and, working with the employee, I’m able to get a clear picture of the accused. This guy floats in and out of the store, rarely doing any laundry. Frequently he does odd and annoying things. I don’t want this person around, but if I kicked out every person that irked me, I’d never get any work done. I have been waiting for an excuse to go at this guy, and now I have what I need. Part of my job is to make it easy for my employees to do their jobs. If an employee is uncomfortable at work, action has to be taken.
End Result: I’ll feel uneasy until my employee feels better.
SUCH A DEAL
Vendors, vendors everywhere! If you’re doing your laundry for a couple of hours it’s likely that you’ll have the chance to buy CDs, DVDs, socks and even health insurance from wandering vendors. We tolerate them, but keep a close eye on how they do their business.
One nice DVD vendor is a regular since he lost his job. He’s a union tradesman without a gig. When he finally landed a job, he came to the front counter and gleefully announced his good fortune. We were important to him. That feels good.
End Result: A nice guy, but for his sake, I hope I don’t see him again with DVDs in tow.
“Somebody stole my clothes out of the dryer while I wasn’t looking!” While the employees help her look by the dryers, I check the security cameras. After turning back the clock a few minutes, the mystery is solved.
An older woman went into the dryers that the other woman was using and cleaned them out. My father approaches the woman, trying to settle the problem. This older woman is still folding “her” clothes. The woman denies any wrongdoing, saying she’s just doing her daughter’s laundry. The women decide to check out the tape. After a moment of confusion, she acknowledges the mistake and they attempt to sort out the clothes.
Simple? My father asks me to check the cameras again, the woman is still missing about seven pairs of jeans. No other thieves are seen, but the older woman — before we called her on it — took all the jeans out of the dryers and stuffed them into garbage bags and brought them to her car. After another fight, she admits to taking the clothes outside. We start the sorting process again.
That should be it. No, the wronged woman is with the Cook County sheriff’s deparment. She calls for backup. The older woman is now being questioned and asked for ID, which she can’t produce. She also doesn’t speak English.
I don’t know how this ended. However, a simple mistake may have ended up with someone being deported.
End Result: Every part of this incident erodes another part of my hope in human decency.
HOW ABOUT A SNACK?
You don’t want to end this column on a down note. We have boosted our traditionally slow Wednesday business by giving away free pizza. Two hours later, the pizzas are gone except for two slices. A little kid, barely tall enough to see over the counter, waddles up to me and says, “Please,” reaching out his hands. I hand him the plate with the pizza and he walks away. He gets about five steps away before running back, looking me right in the eye and saying, “Thank you, mister.”
End Result: I’m speechless.
I can hardly wait for next week.