CHICAGO — I got in Friday morning by 6 a.m. My primary purpose was to deal with the anticipated line of angry and confused customers. Surprisingly, I didn’t get a bilingual cursing out, instead I heard “thank you” and “gracias” all morning.Whenever you get responses like this, an explanation is in order.The night before: By all accounts, the flash from the alley behind our store was almost blinding. Customers inside the building spun around and headed out to the doors to see what had happened. But before they could leave, the automatic doors had shut down — along with the lights, nearly all of our 160-plus washers and most of our 140 dryers.Not exactly how you want things to happen on a Thursday night at 8:30 p.m. when the store is packed with more than 200 people.The flash? An electrical transformer popped after the cables were blown out of it.This could have been serious trouble for us. The timing was far from perfect. The store was packed and I was in a movie theater with my cell phone off. My father, the owner, was in the middle of dinner at a restaurant on the north side of Chicago — at least 40 minutes away.The stage was perfectly set for a dramatic collapse of business, organization and civility.COMING THROUGH IN THE CLUTCHWhen all looked bad, the employees stepped up, utilizing the philosophy my father and I have instilled within them (see July’s column). Armed with confidence and a “customer first” mentality, they took it upon themselves to make sure the blackout was our time to shine.There were three types of customers... those in the wash phase, those in the dry phase and those who hadn’t started either yet. The power company hurried over and was able to determine that the cables needed to be replaced, and that would require shutting down all of the power for several hours.So, the plan was hatched. By 9:30 p.m., the store that never closes was closed, everybody out. You don’t have to go home but you can’t wash here.Every customer provided us with a list of what machines held their clothes, and that sheet also contained a.m. contact information for the owners. The cataloging system accounted for more than a hundred loads of wash, with only two or three “mystery” loads, where people simply left the store without their clothes and without telling us who they were.It’s odd to see a bustling, 24-hour store suddenly empty except for five employees under emergency lighting. But mostly, it was quiet. The 16 TVs were silent, the machines were down, even the birds in our aviary took this all as a sign that it was past their bed time.Before the power company shut down all of our power, the employees used the handful of working dryers to finish the loads. The clothes were folded, labeled and stacked behind the front counter. At 1 a.m., all the power was shut off and the electric company went to work.BACK TO WORKBy 3 a.m., all the power in the building was restored. The clothes in the washers were washed from scratch, dried, folded, labeled and stacked behind the front counter.By 6, I was at the front counter, standing by a massive stack of cleaned and bagged laundry. We had told the customers the night before that 6 a.m. was our target re-open time.Promptly at 6, they started coming. And there was a consistent and dramatic reaction when they came in the door. It was like a kid coming down the stairs and getting a glimpse of what was under the tree on Christmas morning. They were in awe.They heard us when we told them we’d have this cleared up by the next morning, but most came in with detergent and quarters ready to finish their loads. We took their names, found their bags and walked them out to their cars. In, out and back to their busy days.Two hours later, when every single bag was claimed and every single customer left with a smile, it was my turn to feel awe. This is what happens when you trust your employees and manage by teaching them to be your ambassadors when you’re not there.Sure, we spent a few of our own quarters that evening. But we got all of our customers back, and even an increase in our money-making drop-off service.It took a power outage to really show us how powerful our business model is.KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERSIf you don’t know your customers, companies will claim to know them for you. I think of that basic philosophy every time an equipment manufacturer tells me I need to get rid of my top loaders. “Those are outdated and problematic,” they tell me with ease.“Well, actually,” I respond, “those are our busiest machines. During the evenings and weekends, we always have to make announcements to get people to hurry and remove their clothes promptly when the cycle is done, because there’s always someone waiting to get into those machines.”Our senior citizens would riot if we dumped those oldies-but-goodies.“You still run on all coins? You need to switch to cards,” another salesman will say. Cards are a godsend in many stores, but we know our demographics, so we can turn them down with confidence that comes only from knowledge.This also happens with a lot of advertisers. People want you in their newspaper, in their mailings, in their catalogs. These salesmen are good at their jobs, so they make a good sales pitch. But knowing your customers is part of your job, and if you aren’t good at that, you’ll spend a lot of cash on ads that won’t reach the people you need to reach.Marketing is part of your job as the owner/manager, and you owe it to yourself to understand who is using your store, where they live, why they like it. Once you have that information, you can look for other areas near your store that match those demographics, and then target them in an advertising campaign.DOG DAY OF SPRINGOne of my favorite security camera videos came about recently. A couple of our employees spent about 20 minutes trying to catch a dog that had wandered into the store at about 6 a.m. This dog was having fun, playing with and maybe even mocking my slow-of-foot employees. (To their defense, though, they had been working since 9 p.m. the previous night.)Then my mechanic wandered into the store. He saw what was happening with the dog, and decided it looked friendly. He got a rope and was able to corral it. After about 10 minutes hanging out in the back storage room, another employee made the amazing discovery on the public bulletin board in the middle aisle of the store: “Lost dog.”The picture was a perfect match and the dog responded to the name on the sign. We made the call, and 10 minutes later an overjoyed woman came to claim her missing pal.A CLEAN APPEARANCEI just wanted to give a quick “thank you” to the many of you who I got to meet at the Clean Show in Las Vegas. I enjoyed seeing the new products and hearing the various opinions on the direction of the coin laundry industry. The show was truly a credit to the industry’s people.Here’s hoping that the next show in New Orleans two years from now will see an even greater number of renewable energy and eco-friendly products and services for sale.Mark wants to hear from you. Send your comments and customer stories to [email protected].