CHICAGO — Believe it or not, the last days of the fourth quarter are approaching. The holidays are right around the corner. The clothes are getting heavier and take longer to dry. For many laundry owners, the clinking of quarters in your machines is getting louder and more frequent.You know what that sound means? It’s time to allow yourself a smile, one that many small-business owners go most of the year without. It always astonishes me this time of year when I read stories about the day after Thanksgiving sales, where most retailers finally get in the positive for the year. That’s a lot to have hanging over your head all year.And while survival may be what small-business owners spend most of their time thinking about all year, now is the time to reach for that next rung on the ladder. Now’s the time to think about ways to improve your store, your staff and your bottom line for the next fiscal year.’Tis the season to be planning.So, let’s see here. How can I make this clever and get you in the holiday spirit? Hmmm, 12 ways to improve your store, like the 12 days of Christmas? Eight fixes, like 2008? Twenty improvements, one for each pound of fat most of us pack on during the upcoming holiday season?I think I’ll go with 10. Why? Well, because that’s all I’ve got. Genius, pure genius. Did you really think I was going to try for 20? I mean, I’ve got a store to run people!I don’t want to overwhelm you, so I’ll start with five ways to improve in 2008 in this column, and give you five more ways in the next column. If you need New Year’s resolutions, now you have them.SURVEY SAYSDo a customer survey. Sit down, write out some questions for your customers. Need a hand? How about “How far did you travel to get here?” and “Is there a folding table when you need one?” Ask whatever you would like to know. We do them every year here at the World’s Largest Laundromat.We have one of our employees walk around and ask. Then, we punch the results into an Excel file and get solid data. One thing you need to do is have whoever is conducting the survey walk around at different times on different days. If you only talk to weekend customers, the numbers will be skewed.Here’s the most important part: Don’t just read the results, react to them. If folding tables are a problem, add some. If it turns out you have too many of a particular size of machine, invest in the right kind. And then, when you’ve done that, post a letter to your customers in a public area thanking them for participating in the survey. The letter should also say what steps you’re taking to address their needs. Our last survey pointed out the need for more folding tables, so we’re adding them. In our letter, we tell people that help is on the way.AT YOUR SERVICEGive your regulars something new to be excited about and give non-customers a reason to consider you the next time the wash is piling up. This can be anything from adding free coffee for your customers to a drop-off or delivery service. I can’t give many suggestions here, it’s very personal to you and your store, given what you already offer and what you can afford to do.Something new tells your customers that you’re here, you care and you’re trying to give them a better place to spend their time. And this leads to...SIGNS OF THE TIMESUpdate your signage. Whether you do something new or not, update your signage, especially outside your building.I love looking at all the small-business marquees up and down Cermak Road in Berwyn. “Go Bears,” one reads. It’s football season, right? Well, it works now but it didn’t work in July when it was still up from the Super Bowl. “ATM” another reads. That has said “ATM” for years, telling passers-by that nothing is new there. Also, the marquee is big, with several lines for several words. Just putting up “ATM” is wasting space.My father recalls a store where the sign said something to the effect of “newer, better machines.” If you have those, that is a fantastic thing to advertise. However, that store’s “newer, better machines” were there for a decade.If you don’t have anything new, who cares? Advertise something about yourself that might draw attention. There’s no shortage of laundries, so you need to find little ways to stand out. Your sign is your chance, and you’ve already paid for it, so use it.TOOLS THEY CAN USEUpgrade the things your employees use. As a manager, I believe that a fundamental part of my job is to enable my employees to do their jobs well. Ask them what they need. Are the mops, brooms and vacuums worn into the ground? Do the cleaning sprays do the job or should you try another brand?Improving these things helps your employees improve your store, and it shows a proper level of respect. It’s disrespectful to give someone a task without giving them the equipment to do it well. My employees are incredibly hard workers and they are very proud of what they do. Help facilitate that.NOW IS THE TIMEFix that problem. You know the one. You walk by it every day. You wince and tell yourself that it will get done eventually. Don’t take that problem into the New Year.I’m talking about that torn carpet. That botched paint job. The toilet that hasn’t worked in months. The missing tile from your drop ceiling. I’m talking about a facelift. Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Thought so, here’s the bad news: Customers notice this stuff. The good news? They also notice you fixing it. Get on it, or get someone else on it.Send your comments, marketing questions and customer stories to [email protected]. Mark wants to hear from you.