Keeping Them Happy

Mark Benson |

CHICAGO — In Chicago politics, there is a lot of vacancy in the gray area. People take strong positions for or against a single policy, person or philosophy. The two sides engage in a battle, and many are running battles that span entire terms for elected officials. Other issues pop up and are immediately smacked down like the “Whack-a-Mole” arcade game.Those on the losing side don’t simply lose, they get run over. Scandals are brewing everywhere, leading to two types of people: the vindicated and the imprisoned.But there is a lot to be learned from those who strive in this environment. They understand what voters care most about, what voters are willing to tolerate and what voters are not willing to tolerate.And when I say “what voters care most about,” I don’t mean what voters care about during the day when standing around the water cooler chatting with their co-workers about a hiring scandal, shady investments or misplaced campaign dollars. I’m talking about what voters care most about at the end of the day.In Chicago, that’s simple: public works. Did my trash get picked up? Was my street plowed quickly and effectively after that snowstorm? Did my train get me to work on time? Is the park at the end of my block clean?People forgive a lot as long as those basics are handled. But they forgive very little if those are not handled properly.IS EVERYONE HAPPY?We do some unique things at the World’s Largest Laundromat. We have a summer reading program, we raffle off White Sox tickets, we have an early childhood development/learning area, Santa always finds time to visit and TV crews are never strangers.All of those things give this place our character and personality. My father, the owner, and I share in our customers’ excitement during those fun events.But if our bathrooms were dirty, no customer would care that there’s a clown coming to make balloon animals later. They’d find another laundry fast — and then a circus, if they really like clowns that much.So here is a laundry list of public works issues that must be handled, or your customers will become their customers.UP AND RUNNINGYou need working machines. Sounds pretty basic, but you’d be surprised how many laundries I walk into with five, six, seven machines out of order. And these are stores with just 30 machines total. We have 300 machines, but if we had five, six, seven machines down at one time, we’d be in real trouble.The customers notice whether they get a working machine or not. “Did you know you have a leaking machine over there?” “Did you know that machine in the back is broken?” This is what customers tell me. It doesn’t affect their wash, since there are tons of other machines for them to use, but they wanted me to know that they noticed.If you have a mechanic, get him on it right away. If you hire an outside one, call him right away. I mean, you’re going to pay them to fix it whether they fix it now or later, so it might as well be now. Right now.This isn’t about running out of working machines, this is about showing your customers that you care enough to act quickly and effectively, and that you’re paying attention to detail.KEEP IT CLEANHave clean bathrooms. Let me be clear: This one is so important that I really debated making it No. 1 in place of “working machines.”People are used to public bathrooms being dirty, smelly and unkept. Surprise them. Make yours the most sanitary bathroom they use all day. This will depend on your store’s hours and how busy it is, but clean them more than once a day. Please.How annoyed do you get at a restaurant when you have to ask your waiter to refill your water? You shouldn’t have to do that, and your customers shouldn’t have to ask you for more toilet paper. That might be the worst thing that could happen.At our store, we’re packed day in and day out with families and little kids. Show the adults some respect by giving their kids a clean bathroom to use. Oh, and when cleaning, don’t forget about the smell. Mopping and wiping doesn’t make a bathroom clean. Air fresheners, everyone. Look into ‘em!Don’t be afraid to clean in front of your customers. I know that some stores will do the cleaning before or after closing. While this makes sense in that you can stay out of your customers’ way, I wouldn’t go out of my way to do all this after closing. Customers don’t mind stepping around someone cleaning the bathroom. They’ll be happy to see it being done.Think of it from their viewpoint: If I’m a customer that comes in twice a week at noon, and you clean your bathrooms the night before, then I never see a clean bathroom.AVOID EXTREMESMy laundry is 13,500 square feet, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it’s located just outside of Chicago. So you don’t have to tell me about the price of heating and cooling. This isn’t about simply heating to 70 degrees during the winter and cooling to 70 degrees during the summer. Anyone can turn a thermostat’s dial. This is a bottom line kind of issue: If your customers notice the temperature, then you’ve done something wrong.Customers don’t care how you do it or what it costs, just make the temperature unnoticeable. Use your air conditioner when needed, use your heaters when needed. But also watch the weather reports and know when you can kick the doors open for a warm or cool breeze.On a hot summer day, take full advantage of the cooling effect that may follow an afternoon thunderstorm. During the summer, if customers associate your store with sweating, they’ll go somewhere else.You need to look at the big picture. Look into green technologies, heat recovery systems, better roofs and insulation, for example. The rate of return on these systems is pretty good.For the most part, if you plan on being in business five years down the road, then the system has paid for itself. Most stores are too hot during the summer and too cold during the winter. Make yours the one that isn’t, and watch as your customers tell their friends.GOOD CHANGERS MAKE SENSEEverything I said about keeping your washers and dryers working applies to coin changers, too, but with added sensitivity because these directly affect your customers’ ability to do their wash.If that washer is broken, they’ll find another one. If the changers don’t work or don’t work properly, then they can’t do their wash.It’s one thing to pop quarters into a washer, it’s another to put a $20 bill into a coin changer and have it only give you $10 in quarters. Next time you say, “Oh, I’ll fix that changer later” or “The other changer is working,” ask yourself how you’d feel if someone stole $10 from your wallet. And think of the extra burden this puts on your employees. They’re going to end up in an extremely awkward position of having a customer tell them they just got ripped off.Most average employees aren’t empowered to give someone money because a) maybe they’re lying, and b) maybe they don’t have the key to the changer to check.So while you take the easy road by not being concerned by that yellow “service” light, your customers get mad at your employees and your employees, in turn, get mad at your customers and you. Coin changers are an artery, don’t clog them.DON'T FORGET TO LOOK DOWNSome stores have carpet, some stores have tile. Most stores seem to have a mix of the two. I’m sure your employees sweep and vacuum, and I’m sure they mop. But if you have carpeting, get professional cleaners to come in once a month or so to really freshen it up. And if you have tile, the grout shouldn’t look like tar. Get that cleaned out as needed, too. We had ours cleaned recently and I had forgotten what color the floor originally was!I’ve covered the general factors that affect every store, but you certainly have your own unique ones. For example, we’re located on a corner lot, so we have city sidewalk wrapping around half our building and an alley in the back. Is it the city’s responsibility to shovel? Yes. But are they going to do it faster than my employees can? No. So we send them out to shovel the sidewalks and paths to and from parking spots.Again, this is a bottom line kind of thing: Do your customers care whose responsibility it is to shovel? I love closing on a rhetorical question.Send your comments and customer stories to [email protected]

About the author

Mark Benson

World's Largest Laundromat


Mark Benson, manager of the World's Largest Laundromat in Berwyn, Ill., would like to hear any comments you have about the column, as well as any tales you have about the people who patronize your store.


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