CHICAGO — Why does someone choose to use a certain Laundromat? Is it because it’s safe and secure, it’s clean, it has enough machines available? What about being close to home, with hours that fit their schedule, and offering sufficient parking? Where does vend price, or the availability of large-capacity equipment, or having an attendant on duty figure into the equation?
Actually, all of these factors might play a role in helping a customer decide where to clean their clothes. But what if the factors they find most important—say, machine availability, vend price and convenience, for example—are virtually equal between Laundry A and Laundry B? How does a customer choose then?
In cases like these, the manner in which they are served at A and B often becomes the tiebreaker. That’s right—it comes down to customer service.
And popular online review platforms like Yelp, Google and Facebook have placed even greater pressure on store owners to keep patrons happy or risk having their reputation sullied by an angry or disgruntled customer—whether the criticism is deserved or not.
American Coin-Op interviewed several store owners from around the country recently to learn how they go about providing customer service worthy of receiving a good review.
TRAINED TO SERVE
Cathy Neilley, owner of the fully attended Spin Doctor Laundromat near Trenton, N.J., offers a depth of knowledge that few store owners can when it comes to training her eight employees about customer service. Why? She teaches a for-credit course in customer behavior as part of the business degree program at Mercer County Community College.
“At least twice a year, I reserve a section of store staff meetings for learnings,” she says. “We have them do some of the same in-class exercises that I give the students, such as role play and ‘what would you do?’ scenarios. The training, much like in the classroom, is supported with real-life customer examples of how good and bad customer service impacts the bottom line.”
The manager and eight part-time attendants who work at Marty and Lynn Mullican’s 4,800-square-foot Owasso (Okla.) Express Laundry Center are quite familiar with the store’s training manual. Whether faced with a malfunctioning machine, bedbugs, or someone who is loitering in the store, the manual contains a procedure for handling it, designed to ensure consistency in customer service.
“The rule of thumb for us is, whenever we have a customer engagement, it’s not about that issue, it’s about the next visit,” Marty Mullican says. “Everything we do with a customer is about their next visit.”
Bill Norteman and various partners own four card-operated Laundromats in the Chicago suburbs of Niles, Elgin, Addison and West Chicago, ranging in size from 2,600 to 5,800 square feet. There are roughly 30 employees among the four stores.
Norteman uses the attendant training video produced by the Coin Laundry Association. From day one, there are technical aspects to training, especially in learning how the stores’ card systems work, he says, but he makes certain to emphasize the human element.
“I tell them we’re not in the laundry business, everybody’s in the customer service business,” he says. “There are plenty of laundries out there and if we’re not best at customer service, we won’t be in business. We build upon that, and try to show by example.”
Partners Brian Holland, Tyrone Akins and Ray Chamberlin co-own four Laundry Cafés in “deliberately underserved areas” of Philadelphia. All are fully attended, 24-hour stores that are in excess of 7,000 square feet. The men employ 34 people, many of whom work at multiple locations for them.
“We all come from senior positions in the pharmaceuticals industry. We’re proud of that heritage, and it also taught us some things about how people deserve to be treated,” Holland says. “Training starts with making people recognize the responsibility to make people feel welcome, respected, supported and comfortable.”
The men work hard to model the behavior they want their attendants to display and are known to be standing curbside waiting to carry a customer’s clothes inside for them, or are already inside welcoming the newcomers or mingling with others.
Akins says they’re planning to record best-practices video for handling drop-off service, customer care, etc., and Chamberlin adds that they’ll leverage digital media to make the training materials available on monitors in the store and even on an employee’s smart phone.
Glen Sheeley and his parents, Wayne and Addie, own and operate Wash Co., a new Laundromat and car wash in Middletown, N.Y., 15 minutes from the Pennsylvania/New Jersey/New York border. They employ a dozen people, including a store manager. All are cross-trained in both the laundry and car wash, plus Glen asks them to spend time being a customer themselves.
“I always request them to bring in their own laundry to do it themselves,” he says. “The best training is doing it on your own. You’ll get the questions that people are normally going to ask you when they come in for the first time.”
Ken Barrett owns three Washin stores in Alabama, with only one attended. The weight of supplying customer service at his unattended stores falls on him, but he does train a handful of employees on best practices.
“When I first hire somebody, we have probably a half-hour conversation, with me explaining the business and their part in it,” Barrett says. “It really kind of explains, ‘People don’t come here, you don’t have a job.’ … You just need to be nice to people, (is) a lot of it.”
Engineering manager Boyd Woodard owns three stores in Southern California and is in the process of building a fourth; they range from 1,500 to 4,500 square feet. The first two he acquired—one fully attended, one partly attended—are close to one another in West Los Angeles, where he employs five people shared between them.
“I’m hands-on with my attendants,” Woodard says. “I try to reiterate messages of what I envision for customer service. I keep things positive with my attendants as much as possible, so they feel they’re in a good place with their job. They know where I’m coming from, and know what’s expected of them. I believe that transfers into a sense of ownership into the store and the work that they do, so there’s a sense of pride and appreciation for what they do. There’s meaning to the work.”
Coming in Thursday’s Part 2: Connect with customers, in search of five-star reviews