Know Customers or No Customers?

Howard Scott |

PEMBROKE, Mass. — You’ve heard the expression, “Know your customer.” But what does it mean? How do you practice the art of knowing your customer when you’ve got machines to fix and commercial orders to get out? And maybe it’s a stupid statement anyway, because the customer is the one who puts the quarters in the slot. Of course, you know him or her.

Let’s talk about knowing your customer in the context of running a Laundromat, whether it’s a busy shop, a few stores or a chain. It means knowing what type of people your customers are, and why they come to you instead of your competitors. It means understanding their spending constraints and what could make them stop coming to you. It means getting a sense of the ethnic diversity of your customer base and their lifestyle preferences. It means getting a sense of what makes them tick.

So how do you do this? One option is to never be around but ask your staffer what types of people come in your store. But this method won’t work because your staffer won’t know what to say.

Another method is to be there all the time, talking and chatting with the people who stop in. This won’t work too well either, because simply talking is not gaining insight. Besides, you’ll use up all your time in customer relations and have none left to devote to management.

Yet another option is to be there every day processing work while keeping your eyes and ears open. This will work somewhat, but it won’t expose you to their truths because only half your attention is focused on them. Personal interaction leads to much more insight.

The right way to know your customers is, whenever you’re there, to interact in a professional manner with them for a half-hour or hour, and then return to your tasks.

Speak to them and get a sense of their needs. You will banter about day-to-day matters, certainly, but find a way to ask questions. Your goal is to get them to talk about their laundry experience. Maybe, in the course of the conversation, they will reveal something worthwhile:

  • “I wish so many of your machines wouldn’t break down so much.”
  • “If you go up in your prices again this year, I’m going to another Laundromat.”
  • “It’s so hard to park around here.”
  • “The place is so dirty, I wonder if my clothes are getting clean.”
  • “It’s too crowded on the weekends.”
  • “I wish you were open late at night.”
  • “It’s not right that there’s no one here at night to open the bathroom.”
  • “None of my friends come here at night because the neighborhood is too sketchy.”

Such insights would give you calls to action. For instance, if you heard that last concern enough, you could hire an attendant to work the store at night and walk every appropriate person to his or her car. You could counsel the staffer to talk about how safe the neighborhood really is, install extra fluorescent lighting that makes the place really bright, and install parking lot lighting. You could get involved in community activism whose aim is to make the community safer, as well as hand out posters in nearby neighborhoods that feature the convenience and safety of doing laundry at your store.

Be hands-on with customers. If a customer complains about a machine, even if you’re dressed in a suit, take off your jacket and see what you can do to fix the problem. At minimum, make a note and see that the issue is taken care of promptly. If you have the customer’s address, send a note to that effect. Customers love the personal service, especially when the boss is involved. Furthermore, such hands-on activity shows staffers that you are really concerned with customer service.

Learn and remember names. If you are there only briefly to check on matters, and you spot a familiar customer walking in, continue with your work. But before you leave, walk over and say hello to this person. Call him or her by name. Ask about what’s new, and if they’re satisfied with your service. Listen to their answer carefully. If you have trouble remembering names, make a mental note of a person’s unique characteristic and pair it with their name. For example, the “green sneaker guy” is named Garry. If you can’t do this, write down names in a notebook until you are able to commit them to memory.

Even if no one familiar comes in, after you finish work, go out among the customers. Tell them that you are the owner and ask for suggestions. Listen to what they say, then scribble down a note as well as their contact information so you can get back to them. Again, customers love the boss to be involved, and you’ll probably learn something. This activity is called “working the floor,” and a skilled owner can do it masterfully. I’ve seen it done.

Hang up a picture of yourself. Make a show of laughing at yourself. Underneath the photo, print your “title,” such as CEO in Charge of Clothes Washing. Or how about a string of titles, something like Owner, Proprietor, President, Chief Cook and Clothes Washer? Or there’s Man Who Has the Most Gray Hairs Because the Buck Stops at His Desk. Make light of your situation, and the world will laugh with you.

In the quiet of your office, think about your customer and his or her needs in the light of what you have recently learned. Approach the task of laundering from his point of view. Ask yourself how you could make his or her life easier. What little thing would brighten his or her day?

I’ve always thought that restaurants that offer a free piece of candy with the bill do a little extra to make their customers feel happy about the eating experience. What candy-bit equivalent can you offer your customers?

Meet your customers where they are. You’ll soon understand what makes them tick and know how to make sure you see them again and again.

About the author

Howard Scott

Industry Writer and Drycleaning Consultant

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant. He welcomes questions and comments and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359; by calling 781-293-9027; or via e-mail at


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