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The Art of People Management

Howard Scott |

It’s tough to talk about people management, because everyone has their own style, and results aren’t readily quantifiable. You can’t say John is a better people manager just because his Laundromats are highly successful, as there are many factors that go into success.But having managed 17 employees for 12 years in my own business, and having considered what I did right and what I did wrong, I offer you my insights on getting the most out of your employees.BASIC PRINCIPLESAs a starting point, employees are human beings. Human beings have needs. One is sustenance. They want enough money to pay their bills. Another need is to take pleasure in their work. A third need is ego satisfaction, in that they want to feel valuable, if not important.Always remember these needs in your dealings with staffers, and keep in mind that they vary from staffer to staffer.Keeping this framework in mind, I will discuss my four principles of people management.First, be direct, above-board and no-nonsense. Don’t beat around the bush. People like to work for straight shooters. If someone doesn’t know where he stands, that’s cause for concern. He’ll be an insecure worker, always looking over his shoulder. Such a mindset reduces a full commitment to the job.For example, if you feel an attendant is responding in an overly gruff way, point out the problem. State the consequences — namely, that some customers are put off, and some of those people will look for another Laundromat to patronize. Then show what you mean by being more pleasant.This might take repeating, because individuals are used to doing things their way. Naturally, the person will not like the criticism. But here is where your forthright approach comes in handy. You might say, “This is the way it must be, and if you don’t comply, we’ll go to the next step,” without saying what the next step is. In time, they will respect you for insisting on what you believe in.HARD WORKThis may be obvious, but demand hard work. No one admits that he loves to work hard, but in truth, that’s exactly what a person wants. To be busy, to have the day go by quickly, and to feel productive are the hallmarks of a successful job experience. So, demand that your people put in a good day’s work. They are part of the team, and they want your self-service laundry to succeed for no other reason than the fact that success ensures their continued paychecks. And they will be doing whatever it takes.Thus, they can be expected to do anything, from getting down on the ground to try to identify a washing machine leak to cleaning out the bathroom. They can be expected to get involved with difficult customer problems. If overtime is required, they will, when possible, comply.On the other end of the spectrum, when there isn’t enough work to keep a staffer busy, don’t be afraid to add additional tasks. For example, if 4-6 p.m. is the slowest part of the weekday, and the attendant has little to do, you might provide a list of evening tasks, such as washing the floor, cleaning a specific piece of equipment, making calls to customers about drop-off orders, etc., just to give the staffer work.Just remember: Working hard is the basis of self-respect, and you will not go wrong demanding diligence.SHOW APPRECIATIONWhen your people give you their all (or most of it), and when they seem to really care about the business as much as you do, show appreciation. It’s not enough that you provide people with a living wage and keep them employed. Perhaps signing the weekly paycheck is completing your written obligation, but it’s not completing your unwritten obligation. You must do more.Having good, reliable employees who have helped you grow your laundry means that you are indebted to them. Even if you would do a better job than every staffer (after all, it’s your money that’s on the line), you understand that you can’t succeed by yourself.Repaying this indebtedness can take several forms. Say “thank you” from time to time. Approach a staffer and tell the person you saw how they treated an irate customer, and that they really did a fine job. When a staffer picks up his or her weekly paycheck, tell them that they merit high praise for doing a variety of things, such as watching over the equipment, keeping customers happy, and solving other problems. If your manager handles a personality dispute between two employees, compliment him on a job well done.Another method is to use cash. If everything goes wrong one week, and your staffers manage to wade through the issues without blowing up every day, hand a crisp $20 bill to each of them. When you feel someone has really put forth extra effort, be generous with out-of-pocket compensation. When I was in business, everyone was on salary, so when someone worked overtime, I would hand out cash from my pocket. It was always more than what he would have received if he were paid time-and-a-half.A third way to show appreciation is the obvious: a promotion. This may be possible at some of the larger Laundromat operations. Every key person should start off at the bottom.NO ONE IS PERFECTYou should make yourself vulnerable. Let your humanity show, so that you engender sympathy. This is a hard notion to embrace. It’s counterintuitive. On one hand, I tell you to be a direct, no-nonsense, hard-nosed manager. And on the other hand, I suggest that you be a softie. This isn’t exactly contradictory advice. You should be clad in armor, but there should be an Achilles’ heel, so to speak. Such humanity will make your staff work hard for you.My Achilles’ heel was that I was a lonely bachelor. Somehow, this drew support, allowed my staffers to obey my commands, put up with my occasional outbursts, and give an honest effort day after day. Perhaps you’re not lonely. You can still be a vulnerable human being. Perhaps your father left your family when you were a child, and this left a terrible scar. Possibly you grew up dirt poor. Maybe you’re not comfortable in your skin. Whatever it is, let the hurt show. If there is one reason managers fail, it’s not recognizing this principle.Now go forth and manage. 

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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