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Dealing with Angry or Difficult Laundry Customers (Part 1)

Taking time to listen to their concerns improves resolution chances

PLANO, Texas — You’re in a service business—even if it’s technically a self-service business—and you’ve made it your mission to provide your local community with the ability to do laundry.

While many patrons will be pleased with your service, there will be times that, no matter what you or your staff do, a dissatisfied customer will grow angry or become difficult to deal with.

So what’s the best way to handle a situation like that and successfully resolve it to the satisfaction of everyone involved?

Dave Hilton is a conflict resolution consultant, coach and mediator for his company, Resolution Stream. As a young man, he was working in operations for a group of popular radio stations when he discovered he was ill-equipped to lead his team through the conflicts that arose as they fought for ratings and the ad dollars that go with them.

He took another job with a different set of stations, this time in management. Still conscious of his workplace shortcomings, he enrolled in dispute resolution classes­ at Southern Methodist University—and loved them. He earned a graduate certificate and then a master’s degree, ultimately making dispute resolution his full-time profession.

During the course of an average week, a small-business owner or manager is responsible for meeting a wide variety of operational demands. Laundry operators might be surprised to find out just how much time they may have to devote to conflict management in terms of dealing with angry or difficult customers, as well as staff.

“Whether you’re talking about dealing with employees, whether you’re talking about dealing with customers, the average owner or manager spends more than 40% of their time dealing with conflict and dealing with these situations,” Hilton says.

He estimates that in 90-95% of complaints, the cause stems from the customer’s expectations not being met. That could mean their favorite machine is out of order, all of the laundry carts are in use, they lost change in a vending machine, you name it.

“When you think of something that’s happened to you and why you got mad or why you got frustrated, it’s because whatever you expected to happen didn’t,” Hilton says.

Now, whether those expectations are realistic or not, that’s an entirely different conversation.

But before conflict even arises, Hilton believes it’s possible to pick up on signs that a customer may become difficult or angry if things don’t go their way.

“We all have that unconscious ability to notice or be able to identify people who might be an issue,” he says. “You might get what I call the ‘Spidey sense,’ after Spider-man, you get that sense that something’s just not quite right.

“I’m sure business owners in the coin-operated laundry industry are well aware—especially over time—they see this person is going to be a really good customer and this person probably not.”

When customers act out in your laundry, there are times it’s caused by something completely unrelated to washing or drying, Hilton says.

“Even your best customers could have something that happened to them externally. Could be a family thing, a job thing that just has them on edge, and that could cause a really good customer to become an irate customer at the drop of a hat.”

Has the coronavirus pandemic and the long periods of isolation that it’s caused made laundry customers more prone to becoming angry or difficult when a situation arises?

“It does seem, just over the last year, that people tend to get more upset about expectations,” Hilton says, and this includes things like having to wear masks while indoors.


When approached by a customer who appears angry or disagreeable, the first and most important thing to do is to listen to them, he advises.

“Listening and understanding isn’t agreement. You can listen to and understand somebody’s problem or complaint that they have but it doesn’t mean you agree with them. But just the small thing of listening to it and acknowledging the fact” that you understand their position will go a long way in helping you resolve the matter.

When it’s your turn to speak, do so calmly. Raising your voice will only invite your customer to do the same.

“People don’t want to seem foolish. If they continue to yell while you’re being calm, they’re going to start feeling embarrassed,” Hilton says.

Check back Tuesday for the conclusion!