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Poor Communication Skills Can Hurt Your Laundry Business

Howard Scott |

How many times a day do you hear the word “huh?” Is “Say what?” a common phrase around your store? How often do you believe your attendants are asked to repeat their words? Probably quite a few times, if your store is like the majority of self-service laundries I visit.The problem, as I see it, is that Americans are not articulate speakers. And, following our lead, there are many non-native speakers who don’t practice English enough to have a firm command of the language. This really hits home in a business environment.I thought about this after a trip to Iceland, where 98% of the population speaks English, along with Icelandic and a few other languages. I had no trouble understanding them. Never did a “Huh?” or “Say that again...” come out of my mouth.While the small country (the population is less than 400,000) is experiencing some problems today, it’s enjoyed a high standard of living, which, I think, is due in large measure to the fact that a huge majority speak in pitch-perfect vernacular. You often can’t tell that the individual is not speaking his/her native tongue. I’m not touting Iceland as a place to visit; rather, I’m suggesting that well-spoken English is an asset.PLENTY OF BAD EXAMPLESIn this country, young, female attendants seem to be the English language’s worst enemies. Some sing out their sentences in a silly “valley girl” intonation, bouncing up and down with each phrase. They often resort to the same words and sayings, demonstrating that they lack confidence. Eye contact is a rare occurrence. Sometimes, attendants seem as if they don’t want to be bothered. Or, if the lips move, it’s to chomp on gum.Have you ever seen an attendant ignore a customer in order to finish a cell phone conversation? Not good for business.Sometimes it’s appropriate to have an attendant who’s native in another language in order to best deal with a diverse laundry clientele. However, they too may have less-than-desirable communications skills. Of course, they have a good excuse — namely, that English is not their native tongue. But it seems to me that they could try to make themselves understood by practicing common dialogue. Unfortunately, some people aren’t motivated to do this.I believe poor verbal skills in this industry are a problem. Again, not good for business.It’s up to you, the laundry owner, to reintroduce clear speaking into your store. First, set a good example. Concentrate on speaking plainly, and enunciate your words by carefully mouthing them. Pause at the syllables. Deliberately slow down the pace. Make sure your voice is loud and clear. Avoid annoying verbal tics. Think before you speak, so that your explanations are succinct and to the point. Avoid excessive blabbering.Does this mean you can’t talk to your attendants informally? Not at all. But good speech usually means eliciting others to speak. Good speaking is really good listening.Every so often, mentally stand above your conversation, and evaluate your performance. Ask yourself the following: Did I do 80% of the talking? Did the other person find this encounter pleasant? Did I draw him/her out? Did I make myself clearly understood? Do my explanations get over-convoluted? Do I stop when I finish a thought? Did the other person need to say, “Excuse me?”A HELPING HANDNext, train your attendants to speak clearly. It’s not that difficult, but it may be a bit awkward. You don’t want to say, “You’re so unclear that no one can understand you.” Rather, frame your request to speak clearly in a positive way. You might say: “Our employees speak clearly, more clearly than attendants at other Laundromats. We never want the customer to say ‘Huh?’ or ‘What?’ We want to be crisp and direct in our communication.”Review the basics with them — careful enunciation, slow cadence, strong pronunciation, sufficient loudness, appropriate gestural hints, strong eye contact, brevity and conciseness. Have the attendant give out some directions and evaluate the communication.After practicing for a bit, announce that you will be listening in on some of their conversations with customers. If someone is not clear, count the number of times the customer asked the attendant to repeat himself/herself in the encounter. More than twice, and you have a problem employee on your hands.Evaluate the conversation with the attendant. State that the customer had to ask for clarification three times. Identify the problem. Suggest that the person slow down.You might even want to role-play, redoing the conversation. Keep re-enacting the conversation until the staffer reaches your level of acceptable communication. One attendant at a time, improve your workers’ speaking ability.Non-native speakers may need extra work. You will have to prep them on English pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure. They might have to modify their accents. You could prepare a list of common sentences for them to repeat to you over and over. It can be a frustrating experience. However, you simply can’t let a poor level of communication be the norm in your laundry. It hurts business.As far as offending egos, it must be said that you’re the boss, and you have the right to demand clear speaking, even if it means modifying usual speech patterns. But you might say something like, “Look, I’m not trying to change you. I like you the way you are. But I also don’t want to be known as the Laundromat with the unintelligible staffers. I want to stand out as the operator whose people speak clearly. It’s a preference of mine. So please, make an effort to be super-clear when you work here. If I hear otherwise — from customers, from co-workers, from the manager — I won’t be a happy camper. In fact, I will say this: I will tolerate mistakes much better if you make a special effort to speak clearly. So it’s in your favor to bend on this issue for me.”Make your laundry stand out in the crowd by turning your staffers into clear communicators. 

About the author

Howard Scott

H&R Block

Industry Writer, Drycleaning Consultant, and H&R Block Tax Preparer

Howard Scott is a longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant, and an H&R Block tax preparer specializing in small businesses. He welcomes questions and comments, and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359.

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