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Being Customer-Friendly (Part 4)

Do attended stores automatically have an edge? Should you poll patrons on friendliness factor?

CHICAGO — Everyone of us is a customer. We buy goods from big box stores and neighborhood groceries. We dine in elegant restaurants or grab a bite from a fast food drive-thru on our way home. We try to burn off those calories during trips to the gym. And the list goes on.

So, when you visit one of these businesses, are you more likely to have a good experience and plan to return in the future if Company XYZ is a) warm and welcoming or b) cold and indifferent.

Indeed, stores that are welcoming, bright and secure draw more business than their dark, dank competitors.

American Coin-Op reached out to several industry experts and asked them to share what they think it takes for a self-service laundry to be customer-friendly through and through.

Q: Does an attended store automatically have an advantage over an unattended store in being customer-friendly? If so, how?

Tod Sorensen, vice president for distributor Continental Girbau West: Absolutely, especially now that it’s dark at 4:30. It’s all about customer service and security. Which laundry do customers want to enter at night? One that’s attended, or one that isn’t? They’ll pick the attended laundry every time.

Steve Bowie, national sales manager for equipment manufacturer Speed Queen Commercial: Technology is helping unattended stores gain traction in being customer-friendly. Some of today’s systems are allowing owners/managers to perform tasks they previously needed to be onsite to do, such as issue refunds, diagnose machine problems and remote-start machines.

Kevin Hietpas, director of sales for equipment maker Dexter Laundry: Attended stores do have an easier time of being customer-friendly, but they can also more easily be unfriendly. With an attendant comes an expectation for some level of customer service. As long as your attendants are trained to provide a level of service, I believe that store will be perceived as more friendly. If they aren’t, that store immediately falls into the unfriendly category. The middle ground probably belongs to unattended stores simply because the expectation matches the experience. Where an unattended store can “move up” is by reallocating some of the savings of not having an attendant to other aspects of the business that will add to the overall pleasantness of the experience.

Randy Karn, global service manager for equipment manufacturer Whirlpool Corporation Commercial Laundry: While attended stores have an advantage of having more face-to-face time with customers and hearing first-hand from customers, today’s technology allows unattended stores to be carefully monitored and managed as well. For example, owners are able to adjust pricing and rates through machines with remote connectivity capabilities. In addition, this technology allows owners to modify cycles or provide credits from a computer, tablet, or smartphone, and it can deliver real-time data, which helps owners remain aware of how machines are running or if a machine is down. Tools such as these provide owners with the opportunity to concentrate customer service, no matter if they are onsite.

Michael Mastorides, owner of Electrolux distributor Masters Laundry, and a multi-store owner: Yes. If you give that employee the ability to interact with the customers and generate money either for themselves or for the store, it really accentuates the whole experience. We’ve tried unattended laundries and it just doesn’t ramp up, it doesn’t maintain the numbers the way an attended store does.

Kathryn Rowen, North American sales manager for equipment maker Huebsch: Not necessarily. The unattended store has to find indirect ways to make sure their customers know they are appreciated. Keeping the store clean and inviting is paramount in importance. With attended stores, that attendant will, by default, be the “personality” of your business, so it’s important that you hire and incentivize those individuals appropriately to embody your businesses’ values and interact with your customers exactly as you want them to.

Q: Should a store owner poll his or her customers to determine what they like or don’t like about a store? If yes, how often should they approach customers, and in what way(s)?

Hietpas: Store owners should solicit feedback in whatever way they are comfortable they’ll get good information. Periodic surveys would be one way to do that, comment boxes would be another, but the one I think works best is to actually just spend time in your store talking to customers.

If a customer is a regular, they might know that you’re the owner, but that shouldn’t really matter. With regard to how often, the process should start from the very beginning (of your store’s operation) and it should be an all-the-time thing. If a store owner waits until a competitor has moved into the area, feedback can probably help them make some improvements, but it’s probably also too late to prevent some loss of business. With the cost to open a new laundry not getting any cheaper, most new investors are careful in selecting their locations and most of those individuals are looking to compete with weaker stores with less-engaged owners. Engaged owners rarely show the signs of weakness that competitors looking for an easy mark find attractive.

Karn: Customer feedback can help determine what is working and what isn’t within a store. Leaving comment cards behind for ongoing feedback is a good way to incorporate customer satisfaction within the owner’s strategy. Consider tailoring questions to focus on areas where customer feedback is most important: cleanliness of the facilities, seating, equipment wait times, and amenities.

Mastorides: As much as possible. They’re a world of information. We posted “Email the owner” in all our stores. If they have an experience with an employee, with a machine, or just a suggestion, the feedback they give us. We appreciate them taking the time … some of them are detailed about what they like and don’t like about the store.

Rowen: Absolutely. Always. The best businesses have some sort of customer feedback loop to enable continuous improvement. It doesn’t need to be overly scientific. Identify several customers whose opinions and business you value and simply ask their opinion. Make sure they know you want to hear the good and the bad. Once given, provide some type of reward for their time and feedback and let them know their opinion is always welcomed. Many Laundromats have also put comment boxes in their establishments and “impactful ideas” have a chance to win $10 worth of free laundering, or a like prize; be sure to post the winner(s).

Bowie: A suggestion box is always a good idea and helps businesses improve. However, owners that want to go the extra mile should visit with customers on a regular basis and inspire the same behavior in employees. Simple, open-ended questions such as “Are we missing anything?” or “Are there any areas where we can improve service?” can elicit great feedback and also make customers feel valued.

Check back Thursday for the final installment of Being Customer-Friendly!