CHICAGO — It’s the age-old business adage: The customer is always right. Whether you agree or disagree with that statement, you still must deal with the people who come to your laundry ready to spend their quarters.When it comes to keeping your laundry in one piece, you have to think about the effect “problem customers” have on your store. Problems such as littering, “playing” with carts, overactive children, etc. can have coin laundry operators reaching for the aspirin.Distributors from across the country shared some ideas on how to deal with a variety of customer-related problems.THOSE LOVABLE TYKESAs much as you might want to daydream about the days when children were seen and not heard, that’s not reality. Keep in mind that children just don’t want to spend time at a laundry.Kids can get the run of the store when the parents are doing their laundry. You want to try to keep them out of their own mother’s hair as well as away from other customers. The simplest way to keep children busy is to have some coloring books and small toys on hand. This is where an attendant can come in handy. Have the attendant pull out the toys when he/she observes a “busy” child.Pacifying a child involves some tact. You, or the attendant, might say something like, “Let us know when you are going to come in, and we’ll have some coloring books or crayons ready.”The question of laundry design comes into play here. Do you have adequate space for the children, even if it’s not in the form of an established play area? Some distributors favor a play area with tables, a television and possibly some video games. For safety purposes, think about having heavy carpeting or padding in this area. If you go the game route, you don’t have to spend a fortune. An outdated Nintendo system, for example, may do the job. You may want to put an arcade game or two in this area, but make sure the games are the type mom won’t have any problem putting quarters into.While a play area may seem like the way to go for laundry owners, not everyone favors the idea. In this atmosphere, some believe that one child, for example, may hit another child, leading to a variety of problems.LAW AND ORDERThere have probably been times when it’s been easier to deal with children rather than adults. If you are not around, it’s up to your attendant and even the signage to keep things running smoothly.If you train attendants properly and trust them, then you need to give them the power to handle difficult customer situations. If attendants see customers misbehaving, have them speak to the customers. Instruct the attendant to call 911 when more serious problems develop, such as someone damaging a machine. Give them the power to eject a customer if need be. Yes, there’s always a chance that the attendant may jump the gun a bit, but this goes back to training and trusting your people. Have your attendant tell unruly customers that they must follow the store’s rules and regulations. By going this route, the customer may feel that the “warning” is not personal and that the attendant is only doing his/her job.If you are worried about losing the business of one or two unruly customers, think about the bigger picture. If an attendant doesn’t take charge when the situation calls for it, the other customers may feel uncomfortable and decide not to return. These customers will probably not voice their concerns. If that’s the case you may never know why they have stopped visiting your laundry.Keeping things under control in an unattended store is another matter. If you are dealing with vandalism or some type of mischief, a surveillance system is the best way to counter this. In addition to possibly deterring acts of vandalism, a surveillance system can prove helpful in legal matters. For example, a customer may sue you because his/her child was injured at your laundry. However, your surveillance system may have captured what really happened at the store.Other than a surveillance system, if you operate an unattended laundry there are a couple of things to think about. In the right situation, perhaps being located in a small town, you may be able to convince the police to stop by your store now and then. Handing out some free wash coupons at the police station couldn’t hurt. Also, make sure you have plenty of trash receptacles available. Customers may be less likely to leave a mess in your store if it’s in good condition in the first place.THE POWER OF THE WRITTEN WORDDo customers actually read signs? There seems to be some disagreement on this point. Some believe that signs won’t be read and that the people who tend to cause problems definitely don’t read signs. However, since you need signs, you might as well try to take full advantage of them. Here are some signage tips:• Don’t have too many words on your signs. Be precise.• Have one large sign emphasizing “house” rules.• Too many signs may diminish the importance of the key points, and cause customers to ignore all signs.• If you are in a “rougher” neighborhood you may need to have “firmer” messages.• Try to put a positive “spin” on your signage. For example, don’t tell parents to reign in their children. Use “For the safety of your children” on signs.Signage will never eliminate all your problems. However, besides educational value (how to operate the equipment), signage can play two key roles. It backs up your attendants, taking the pressure off them, and it lets the customer know what the laundry is not responsible for, such as clothes getting dyed.WASH, DRY AND SWINDLEIt’s hard enough to be profitable in this competitive industry without having to deal with customers trying to cheat you.There are laundry “pros” who will push you in terms of seeing how much cheating they can get away with. Here are some “cheating” examples that you may have encountered:• If you offer free drying on a certain day, watch for people bringing in their home-washed clothes to use the free dryers.• If your unattended laundry has a refund box, see how many times some of the names keep popping up. One distributor suggests that if the same name pops up three times, refund the money and ask that customer to leave.• It’s one thing to put a quarter in a dryer for someone who says the machine isn’t functioning properly. It’s another to do this several times for the same customer. If you encounter this, consider telling the customer, “It’s obvious that my equipment is not meeting your needs. Why don’t you use a nearby laundry?”It’s a shame that so few laundry customers can cause so many headaches.