By Bob Nieman | Mar 09, 2012
Despite a feeble labor market and uncertain economic environment, many American workers are fed up with their work situations and looking to make changes.
According to recent surveys, nearly one in three employees polled was “seriously considering” leaving his or her job. What’s more, most of these respondents cited their sour relationships with their bosses as a main reason for seeking employment elsewhere.
As the owner of your coin laundry, you are the boss. And, as such, you alone are responsible for setting the tone and creating a positive and productive work environment. When bosses fail to do this, turnover increases, morale drops and hiring expenses skyrocket.
In a past article, the New York Times delved into Google’s “Quest to Build a Better Boss,” and the bottom-line results identified certain “good behaviors” that the best bosses have mastered. Here are the top three:
• “Be a good coach.”
• “Empower your team and don’t micromanage.”
• “Express interest in team members’ success and personal well-being.”
Of course, not everyone’s goal is to be a boss. But, by definition, the minute you opened the doors to your laundry business, you became one – like it or not.
“It's not a job that anyone has applied for, and it is way overrated,” said Dan Marrazzo, who employs 24 laundry attendants at his stores in and around the Philadelphia area. “Whenever you mix personalities, hormones and attitudes into any setting, you have a volatile mixture with little predictability. I think it is an absolute necessity to understand that, although most washers and dryers have basic principles of physics in which they all operate, employees are as individual and unique as you can imagine. What works well for one may be totally ineffective for another.
“You also need to be empathetic toward each employee. The fact that you may equate watching a Little League baseball game with watching paint dry may not be effective when considering a weekly work schedule that includes the mom of a star shortstop. Expecting people to treat your store with the same interest you do is a sure sign of walking eastward looking for a sunset. Adjust your expectations, but never your standards.”
Over the years, Marrazzo admits to making a few adjustments to his own expectations.
“I've become a bit more jaded over the last 23 years, and I realize that things may not go so well if left to the free will of the attendant,” he explained. “I've placed an expectations list in each store for different shifts. Now they can simply follow a list of what's to be done and check things off as the shift progresses.”
That said, Marrazzo also has given his attendants more authority to use their intuition in dealing with the public.
“They have the best understanding of who is having a problem and who is creating them,” he explained. “The senior members of my staff have the authority to ask a customer to leave in the event that they create an unsafe or unpleasant environment in the store. Because I value my time, I have given proven attendants autonomy to run the store in the fashion they see fit, with certain unwavering standards. Of course, cleanliness and customer service are non-negotiable. Over the years, I have found quality people and have trusted their judgment. Easing off the reins has been a difficult, rewarding and, at times, frustrating process.”
Another laundry owner who has loosened his grip on the reins is New York’s Conrad Cutler, who currently employs four attendants, along with a manager and a mechanic.
“When I first took the helm, I was entering my sophomore year at Syracuse University,” Cutler said. “With the heavy load of responsibility, I was in constant contact with each employee at all hours of the day and night. Operating the laundromat from a distance was a challenge and definitely took its toll.”
To keep customer refunds in check, Cutler would require his attendants to call or text him for approval of every single refund.
“I gave the employees very little freedom,” Cutler admitted. “Now that I am finishing my final semester – and with the assistance of technology and a better understanding of the business – I have changed my practices significantly. I invested in a POS system that provides me with detailed reports of refunds, payroll, OTC sales and wash-dry-fold.
“In addition, I employed a full-time manager to oversee any issues that employees might have so that I am not pestered when an attendant calls in sick,” he added. “I have the peace of mind knowing that someone will be in the store at all times.”
Over the last few years, Cutler has worked to get his employees more deeply involved in the operation.
“I run the business with an open-door policy, where I give everyone full disclosure to all statistics about the business,” he said. “I have found that this makes each employee truly feel they are a part of the success of the company, and they will work harder each and every time they come to work.”
For Florida multi-store owner Josh Prager, managing his stores’ staff works best when he puts himself in his attendants’ shoes.
“I learned, as an employee myself, that I was much happier when I was being treated with respect and when my opinions were being heard,” said Prager, who has seven employees. “I try to use this philosophy with my staff, and it has worked out well. As I accumulate more stores, I would say that I have developed more of a management role; I am more hands-off than I have been in the past, thus increasing the responsibilities of my employees.”
California laundry owner Ron Kelley has witnessed many changes to the coin laundry industry in his area since he opened his first store more than 20 years ago – and one of the biggest changes revolves around laundry attendants.
“Twenty years ago, there were no employees,” Kelley explained. “The stores opened with automatic door locks and there were timers on the lights. The janitorial company was responsible for making sure the doors were locked when they completed the cleaning after closing time. Today, attendants handle all of those duties, plus serving the customers.”
Perhaps the most important thing Kelley – who employs 10 attendants and a general manager – has learned since shifting to attended stores is that the attendant is “only the messenger.”
“Most attendants hesitate to call me because they don't want to be the bearer of bad news,” he said. “Often, they apologize for bothering me. Yet, it is extremely important to continually reinforce that I want to hear from them, and that I am always available to help with whatever arises.”
For Donna Christopulos and Julie Grillakis, who employ six attendants at their card-operated store in Massachusetts, their staff is like family.
“We are very open with our employees,” Christopulos said. “We make it a point to talk with them, and ask them about what’s going on in their lives and the things that are important to them. It’s not just about us. We feel they’ll do better for us if they know we care about them. We’re always accommodating to their needs.”
Christopulos and Grillakis also make it a point to hold quarterly staff meetings (which include lunch) to review duties and bring up any specific points they feel need to be stressed.
“Attendance is mandatory, and we schedule it for a day we know everyone will be available,” Christopulos said. “At that meeting, everybody gets a chance to voice what they think are concerns, and we encourage our employees to speak to us about issues within the laundromat. Then Julie and I will go over any issues we want to bring to their attention, such as a new promotion we may be starting.”
Eliminate Employee Frustration
If there is one thing laundry attendants hate, it’s being held accountable for something they don't know how to do. And these frustrations naturally can bleed into the workplace atmosphere and begin to upset the culture.
Here’s the secret: Teach your employees something new. Training your attendants is the best way you can become a better boss. That doesn’t mean “be sure they get training.” It means you should train them. Here’s why:
When you train your employees, they learn to trust you. If you know enough to teach your attendants a new skill, they will begin to trust that you have the ability to guide them and set the right direction for the business.
Teaching is the highest form of learning. Spending time teaching your employees a new skill might sound like a hassle, but you’re likely to learn something from the process as well. When you personally teach your attendants, you're going to hear exactly what they are struggling with. They will ask questions about certain things. Pay attention to those questions, as they will give you further insight into what they need help with.
Taking the time to teach shows employees that you care. You will gain a lot of respect when you take time out of your schedule to help the people your business depends on. If you're holding them accountable for their performance, the least you can do is make sure they have what they need to perform.
Show your employees you have their back. Show them you are competent and that you care. Take 10 minutes each week and teach them something new.
Beyond failing to properly “coach” your attendants, a negative attitude toward your customers may be holding you back, according to Kelley.
“The biggest mistake I have seen owners make is to allow attendants to see them displaying an attitude that customers are dishonest and always trying to cheat and steal from them,” he noted. “Whether it is simply a refund or perhaps someone getting $5 in quarters from a change machine, the owner needs to portray to his attendants the attitude that the customer is number one and always right. After all, if the owner treats customers poorly, the attendant will feel that it’s OK to treat them as if they’re wrong and only trying to get a refund for no reason.”
And while complacency may breed contempt, it also can do a real number on your laundry business if you’re not careful.
“I think complacency can breed most of the problems found by most managers,” Marrazzo explained. “Mix things up whenever possible. Send a friend into your store and see what you can learn.
“After summer camp when my son was involved in Boy Scouts, most of the families brought in their sleeping bags and camping gear for a good washing. Most had not seen the interior of a laundry since their undergraduate years – and, when I saw them next, they offered very candid opinions of both the store and the person running it. A new broom sweeps clean, and you can learn from changing around your attendant schedule.”
Lastly, most successful laundry operators (or any small-business owners, for that matter) will warn against the urge to micromanage your team.
“Micromanagement will breed a bunch of mind-numb robots that are afraid to make a decision,” Marrazzo said. “Find good people, set an agenda – and get out of the way.”
A slight twist on The Golden Rule may be the best advice an employer can receive.
“The adage that dictates you should treat your employees as you would want them to treat your best customer is spot on,” Marrazzo said. “If everyone understands the cash flow and where it comes from, they will be more inclined to make it work.”
Along those same lines, don’t ever hesitate to let your attendants know you think they’re doing a terrific job. And be specific in your praise. It goes a long way.
“The key factors in keeping your staff motivated are thanking them for their hard work, complimenting them when things are done correctly, acknowledging their accomplishments and reinforcing how important their job is to the success of the operation,” Kelley explained.
“We expect a lot from our attendants,” Christopulos said. “To show our appreciation, twice a year we give them a Visa gift card; and during the holiday’s they also receive a gift card to a local grocery store. It’s just to show them that we know they’re doing a great job.”
Of course, commissioned sales also can be a great motivator, according to Marrazzo.
“Earning a percentage of wash-dry-fold income will motivate everyone to take in more and move it to a finished product sooner,” he said. “When someone can earn a bonus check at the end of every month based on performance, it gives them a sense of control, as well as inspiration.”
Then again, according to Prager, it’s not always about money – it’s about a harmonious business as well.
“My employees are my first line of communication with the customers,” he said. “They were customers themselves at one point, and their friends are customers at my stores now. Treating my employees well and being a good person in general will help pass my good reputation through my employees to my customers. Customers like doing business with people they like.”
And isn’t that reason enough to strive to become a better boss?