CHICAGO — Driving down the interstate, I recently saw a large billboard that read, “Tall, outdoor type seeks long-term relationship.” Obviously the message was directed toward selling a billboard, but the underlying message has merit.As I reflected on this, I couldn’t help but think of all the people who come through the doors of our businesses seeking a long-term relationship. Often though, they find just another average business operator busy with daily challenges instead of an operator who wants to use this opportunity to adopt these orphaned customers.TAKING THEM FOR GRANTED?In an effort to build a profitable new laundry, we focus our attention on the “important details” of buying, building and managing a successful store. But with all the endless demands and pressures to succeed, let me encourage you not to forget your most valuable asset — the people you call your customers.Without the people who frequent your laundry, everything else will be fruitless. The store a customer chooses to use is often based on the experiences he/she or their acquaintances have had. The choices these people make will be your legacy of success or failure.People want and need to feel appreciated. The simple fact is that it’s the little things that personalize the experiences people have in your store. Not only are these “little things” remembered, they are what differentiate your business from your competition.The coin/vended laundry industry is, above all, a people-oriented business. Don’t diminish this fact. Instead, embrace and incorporate your customers in all your daily interactions, contacts and decisions. Make it a principle to always deliver exceptional service with personal satisfaction.Let this theme drive and motivate you when it comes to planning, making decisions and responding. Applied and conveyed correctly, it will definitely improve your store’s profitability. Make it your mission to see how creative you can be in caring for and resolving your customers’ wishes and concerns.WHAT ARE THEY SAYING?Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles outline some very good thoughts in their book, “Raving Fans” regarding identifying these “orphaned customers.” First, you must train your ears and eyes to hear and see what the customer is saying.Though your customer states one issue as a concern, they are sometimes reluctant to tell you directly what they want. Other customers will say “fine,” just accepting the situation, even though their expectations have not been met, because “it will not matter what we say, it won’t change anything.”Worse yet are the customers who suffer in silence. Although they are visibly disappointed, they quietly leave your business, mentally vowing never to return. Invariably, they’ll tell as many others who will listen about their experience.According to Blanchard and Bowles, sometimes identifying the issue requires “you start by asking more questions: sincere questions. Experience has taught customers that chances are you really don’t want to know what they think and feel.” Establishing that you have a credible interest in helping in this situation can require time and patience. “But if you take the time to get the conversation going, customers will sense you’re serious and will respond.”BRINGING THEM INBelow are a few of the basics that will begin to set the stage for people coming into your laundry. Whether the store is attended or unattended, consider these nine suggestions:1) Make sure that you and any staff member are easily identified by a uniform and name tag.2) Establish and exercise a policy of greeting each customer warmly.3) When a customer is coming in and/or going out, open the door for them or, better yet, install an automatic door.4) Provide them with a laundry cart (or access to one) and/or assist them with getting their laundry into the store and out to their vehicle.5) Let each customer know that should they need assistance, you (or your staff member) are there to help when needed. If your store is unattended, make sure to post a phone number for them to call in the event of trouble. Also, provide them with a refund request form and keep forms readily available.6) If you see a customer struggling to operate a machine, ask if they need some assistance. Politely and respectfully offer a solution.7) Let your customers know that if they have any problems, they are welcome to let you know so that you can correct them.8) If a customer has a complaint, first empathize with them. Acknowledge the customer’s complaint and tell them that you will do your best to correct the issue. Once corrected, ask if things were taken care of to their satisfaction. Then, assuming they were, thank the customer for their patience and understanding.9) Define and establish a written code of conduct for your staff and customers. Make sure it is simple, brief, concise and that it complies with the law. Review this code with your staff on a regular basis.FIRST THINGS FIRSTEarning your customers’ favor starts by treating them with respect and kindness. Not only is this what they should receive, but it also has a proven benefit to your profitability. Consider this: Every person (in some cases families) who comes through the doors of your laundry will easily spend approximately $600 to $1,000 per year. If one of these orphaned customers leaves dissatisfied, and he or she tells 10 others, you can begin to see the impact. The math can be painful.Value each customer as an individual first, but always treat them like the valuable commodity that they are. Chances are that you will develop not only a valued customer, but in many cases, a good friend. Go out of your way to make people feel welcome and appreciated, and you will ultimately benefit the most.