By Don Desrosiers
I don’t write about customer service very often. I don’t talk about it much either. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important. Quite the contrary, in fact. It’s just that I don’t think it’s up for discussion. Garment care is a service business. That means we need to service our customers. We take care of their garments and we take care of the people who bring them in. Making customers feel special, remembered, and important are the things the best cleaners do to raise the bar.
Many drycleaners I have worked with give their best customers gifts during the holiday season. I’ve seen tiers of customers treated differently. The best customers get the best gifts. I heard the owner of a prominent Mid-Atlantic cleaner proclaim their unique strategy was to remember their customers with a gift on a non-traditional holiday like Flag Day or Halloween. What a great way to get your customers talking about you!
Great Customers Are a Treasure
We all want more great customers. When we identify them, we often treat them like royalty, or at least, how we think royalty should be treated. Every drycleaner has their share of whales. I have a client whose number one customer spends more than $20,000 per year. Unfortunately, they have no clue who it is. All they have is the maid’s name.
Big customers are often called “whales” or “big tunas,” but where do they begin? Where do they come from? I don’t think a Whale is a customer who used to be a bit player but, bit by bit, sent you more and more items. Eventually, they crossed the line to become a big customer. I don’t think so. I think there is a relatively small group of people who are “whales” by design, and we are, understandably inclined to coddle them and treat them very well when we discover them or obtain them.
But suppose a Big Tuna moves from somewhere else into your zip code? Suppose your home delivery driver, while casually knocking on a new door, stumbles upon what will turn out to be his biggest customers? The fact is, you too can stumble upon a new whale. Maybe today.
Forty-five years ago I was in High School. In my class, there was a very popular classmate named Henry. He had a flashy car at a time when half of his friends were not even old enough to drive. His father owned a business across town called Henry’s Tire Service. Probably all of Henry’s friends at school patronized Henry’s Tire Service. It was cool to visit Henry at his father’s business; seeing a classmate outside of the high school walls. Henry senior passed away a few years ago, well into his nineties. My friend Henry retired to Florida and his son Aaron runs the business now. I am still a customer. If I need tires or tire service, I go to Henry’s without a second thought. It’s as though he is the only game in town. He is not. Not at all. At a time, I was a Big Tuna to Henry. At that time I had many trucks on the road and they were all wearing out rubber and picking up road hazards, every single day.
One day, during that time, one of my personal vehicles needed a couple of tires. I was leaving on a business trip that afternoon but I had the morning free to deal with this personal errand of buying a right rear tire. I headed to Henry’s Tire Service only to find it closed at 8:15 a.m. Very puzzling. I sat in their parking lot for several minutes, bewildered. Suddenly, I realized that it was one of those holidays when not all businesses close; it was President’s Day, if I recall. By 8:30 I was certain that Henry’s Tire Service was not going to open that day. I headed to one of Henry’s competitors.
Unknown to them, they had the picture-perfect opportunity to impress a new customer
that they otherwise would have virtually no chance of ever attracting. Given a track-record of years of good service and quality, as well as patronizing a friend, I wasn’t going to drop Henry’s like a hot potato for a few bucks off on a tire. But today, through no fault of Henry’s Tire, I went to Sullivan Tire instead.
Now, before I tell you this story, let me remind you: some new customers are easier to impress than others. If Joe Doe comes to your counter for the first time because he is fed up with his regular cleaner after numerous failures, you don’t have to do a whole lot to win him over. If he is used to poor, your mediocre may look great. This story is going to be the exception.
So, I go to the new tire shop. I am the first customer of the day. There are two men at the counter. One is drinking coffee and the other is on the telephone. As I approach them, I greet them with, “Good Morning.” They do not reciprocate. Strike one. What, pray tell, is so hard about returning such a simple greeting? My guess is, if I had been a regular customer – someone they recognized – I would have received a cordial welcome.
The guy with the coffee ignored me while I waited for the man on the phone to get through with what was obviously far more important than a customer. If you wish to defend them and argue that perhaps the coffee man wasn’t trained to wait on customers and the phone man was on some kind of high-level corporate, heavy-hitter tele-conference, I will counter with this: Every customer needs to be recognized at once, even if it’s just an up-pointing index finger indicating “I’ll be with you in one minute.”
Pretending not to notice a customer is gross. The coffee guy left and I finally reached the top of the phone guy’s “to-do” list after a minute or two. I told him I had two flats. He said it looked like I needed two tires. He went out to the car to see what kind of tires they were to “see if he had them in stock.” I was already taken aback. How does he already know I need tires? “Can’t you just fix them?” I asked. Maybe this guy was clairvoyant. I got the feeling that he was a crook. I told him to install two new tires because I want my car to be safe but I doubt this was my only option. I politely indicated I was quite busy today and fast service would be appreciated. I certainly didn’t feel like I was asking for anything much. There were no other customers.
I went next door for breakfast when I was told that the car would be ready in 30 minutes. After breakfast, I still waited more than an hour. It took over 90 minutes total. While waiting, I watched my car being serviced through the observation window in the back. It was annoying. The guy doing the job wasn’t working. He was talking with a co-worker. My car was on a lift. His apparent inattentiveness caused him to mount the spare tire on the front of the car rather than on the tailgate. The rims are quite different and I feared I would be presented the car this way. I wasn’t. He realized his error and fixed it, all while I waited. As I said, I suggested I was in a hurry. Management obviously could not wave a magic wand to replace my tires but you’d think a hapless employee, too busy with friendly conversation to work at normal speed would be within the power of management to correct. They remained clueless. I sat in the seating area and read a magazine. This lounge was a failed attempt to make waiting customers comfortable. Its existence cannot replace careless employees and incompetent management. The only time a got a cordial tone of voice was when I was asked for a check for $199.25 and then was thanked for it. I never got mad. I never got agitated. But I left with reasonable certainty that I wouldn’t return. I have not.
Poor Service Turns Customers Off
Surely, you see my point. This same thing can happen at your store and maybe it will happen today. The two guys at the tire shop probably thought they did just fine. I came to their store, they took care of me right away, they charged me. I paid them.
My perspective is quite different, of course. I never felt comfortable in there. I was in unfamiliar surroundings. I needed help to feel comfortable. The phone guy and the coffee guy ignored me because they didn’t recognize me. They would have greeted someone they knew, I firmly believe. Henry’s son Aaron greets me cordially every time I go there. I am no longer a big tuna. I am just a customer who goes there about twice a year to get a flat fixed.
When someone comes to your counter with five shirts that need to be done quickly, you may do it for the guy who comes in every week. If it’s someone you don’t know, you’re more likely to scoff at the idea of bending over backward, when in fact, he could become a “heavy hitter” customer. Maybe, this is your opportunity to show him what you’re made of. It just may be the guy you’ve never seen before is exactly the guy you should impress. He could be your competitor’s regular customer. Okay, so you can’t greet him by his first name, but you can greet him. Making this guy feel unimportant will get you nowhere. Making him feel important and welcome might get you somewhere. There is nothing wrong with “might”.
Personally, I am never more offended as a customer than when I am ignored at the counter. I’m not alone on this am I?
The lesson, of course, is to treat all your customers like royalty. If that person is not a Big Tuna in waiting, he/she might be well connected to someone who is. Every customer is royalty. Treat them all that way.
Don Desrosiers has been in the drycleaning and shirt laundering business since
1978. He is a workflow engineer and a management consultant who provides
serves to shirt launderers and drycleaners in the United States, Mexico, and
western Europe through Tailwind Systems. He is a member of the Society of
Professional Consultants and the 2001 recipient of DLI’s Commitment to
Professionalism Award. He can be reached at 186 Narrow Avenue, Westport,
MA 02790 or at his office by fax (508) 636-8839; by cell (508) 965-3163;
or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has a website at
www.tailwindsystems.com. The author’s views are his own and do not
represent official Drycleaning & Laundry Institute positions.