By Bob Nieman | Jun 29, 2009
Attendant training. It’s high on everyone’s list of least-favorite things to do. Most laundry owners would probably rather clean their store’s floor drains with their bare hands than deal with schooling the new hires.
However, if you’ve taken the time to hire a good employee, it would be terribly shortsighted not to take the time required to train them well. Either train the person yourself or have one of your best employees do the training. Just make sure you like the employee/trainer’s way of doing things, or you’ll end up with two attendants doing tasks in a manner that you don’t want.
Make sure you allow plenty of time to train your new attendant to do the best job possible. Even if the person has previous experience in the coin laundry business, you no doubt want your business run your way, not the way the previous employer does.
Also, be certain the new attendant knows whom to call in an emergency, as well as how to handle customer complaints. These two areas are crucial – and often overlooked by many laundry owners.
Greg Fuhrman, who employs six attendants at his two Colorado self-service laundries, feels a store’s staff should be an extension of its owner.
“There is nobody who should know more about a laundry business than the owner,” he explained. “When you’re talking about training those employees, you want them to perform in such a way that you would do it. The owner is the one with the vision for the laundromat. Therefore, you have to educate them as to what your vision is and how you see the store. And one way you do that is to lead by example.”
“If they don’t know what’s expected, then they can’t possibly know when something’s not to standard,” concurred Louise Messano, who co-owns Wash Day Laundry in Oak Hill, Texas. “If you’re not clear on what you expect from them and you don’t show them the systems – ‘Here’s how we fold, this is what our definition of punctuality is,’ etc. – they can’t read your mind.
“For me, if someone is supposed to start work at 8 a.m., I expect that person here at quarter to 8,” she added. “This is how I define being on time, because you need to get yourself together once you get here. Show up on time ready to work. There have to be standard operating procedures. Everybody must understand them, because you can’t just assume that the way you do something is going to make sense to somebody else.”
For Gabi Felter, who oversees four part-time attendants at her Southside Laundry in Tiffin, Ohio, maintaining consistency from employee to employee is what makes training imperative.
“The service should be consistent between all of the employees,” she said. “If one person is doing something one way and another person is doing it another, I don’t think that gives off a professional image. For example, on our drop-off accounts, my attendants all fold and iron the same way. It doesn’t matter who did it.”
The Elements of Successful Training
“The first thing we believe is really important is to consistently demonstrate and model the behavior we expect,” Messano explained. “That might be dress, grooming, how customers are greeted. Your employees are a reflection of you. That’s the first thing we train. We train by modeling.”
At Wash Day, Messano and co-owner Jamie Bishop give new hires a 90-day trial period, providing a lot of feedback during that time.
“I’m a big believer in giving feedback right after an incident occurs,” Messano said. “‘Did you notice the expression on the customer’s face when you said that? Maybe a good way to have worded it could have been…’ And give consistent feedback. Don’t wait until the end of 90 days and then say, ‘Well, you just weren’t cutting it.’ Continue to give feedback during the entire period.”
Messano – who created a standard operating procedure manual using “bits and pieces” of other documents found online and then tweaked to fit the Wash Day business model – also believes strongly in teaching according to each attendant’s personality.
“We teach according to how she learns,” Messano explained. “For example, I’m not going to read a manual. You can tell me all day long to read the manual, but I am not a manual reader. I like to be showed. So, figure out what a person’s learning style is and make sure you’re teaching them that way, because it doesn’t do any good to give someone a manual if that’s not the way they learn.
“People are not going to change their basic communication style or method of learning. So you really have to know the employee and ask them how they would like to learn the material.”
Messano added that attendant training needs to be conducted on an ongoing basis. “You don’t just train someone for their first 90 days and that’s it,” she said. “You’re constantly raising the bar. And, once you add more employees, you put those experience people in the positions of training, because the best trainers are the ones who have done the job.”
At the Washouse, which is the newer of Fuhrman’s two laundries, one of the first aspects of training is to have new hires go through the technical manuals that have been provided by the manufacturer the store’s equipment – to make sure they understand what those machines do and how to operate them.
“We also train on our computer, because we’re able to start machines directly from the computer,” Fuhrman noted. “And they’re also trained from an up-selling standpoint – from the coffee machine to the soap machine.”
Also, Washouse attendants are trained to walk a new customer through the store and teach him about it – give a tour and walk him through the pricing.
“It’s very customer-service intensive,” Fuhrman said, “because that’s the way that I want it to be. The training itself takes a week to two weeks to get someone fully up to speed, depending on how many shifts they work during that period.
“Again, it’s not just training them on how everything works but what it is we are selling and how to up-sell it. The other thing that I’m training my employees to do, which I find to be very critical – and is a key component to our customer retention philosophy – is to make sure that people get into the right-sized machines, not just the biggest machines. It’s very common for us to move people to smaller machines. All of our employees are trained on what my philosophy is in business, which is we are in business to make money, not take money. Being ethical and retaining a high degree of integrity is important.”
Felter uses “job shadowing” at Southside Laundry to make sure her new attendants get up to speed.
“I like them to be able to spend time with each of my current attendants, if possible,” she said. “That way they can receive input from everybody. After all, we’re all different people.”
Felter also requires beginning employees to complete an ironing demonstration, because her store has become known for the stellar ironing that is included with its wash-dry-fold services.
“If they can’t iron, I really don’t want them,” said Felter, whose training programs typically takes a week or so to complete. “I also watch to see how they fold clothes without me saying anything, just to get a sense of where they’re coming from.”
Like Felter, Mark Murray, who employs a staff of around 20 at the Image Center in Adrian, Mich., is also a fan of job shadowing as a way of finding and training potential new employees.
“We conduct about three to five shifts of shadowing,” Murray explained. “During that time, we ask them to greet customers. That’s the only thing they have to do. If they can learn to do that with some energy, then we move them from the job shadow into a training program. We tend to stretch out the job shadow period, because we want to get a real sense of their ability to fit in, move, hustle and think.
“They have to learn to greet customers,” Murray stressed. “I don’t care if they can clean; we can teach any of that stuff. But if they can look a customer in the eye, smile and think, ‘Hey, there is a glorious, supreme, God-given human being in front of me, and I’m thankful that they’re here in front of me in the store – they happen to have a wallet and if they open the wallet and give us some money then I get to eat next Tuesday.’”
Keys to Creating a Winning Team
For Messano, the cornerstones of successful training program include modeling the proper behavior and then reinforcing it when it has been done correctly.
“Modeling is key,” Messano said, “because people learn by watching. We believe in working along side the employee as part of a team. You should do the work of an employee, not just the work of a boss. That earns respect. When we opened our laundry, I was just this ‘corporate’ woman. I was an unknown to our attendant. And I remember what I thought of my corporate boss.
“So don’t ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do. Don’t ask them to clean the toilet, but not be willing to clean it as well.”
Messano also suggested that laundry owners be careful not to micromanage new employees, as well as not to worry too much about attendant mistakes, especially during the early stages of training.
“For instance, when we were learning the card system here, we were all making mistakes,” she said. “Don’t expect perfection. When you expect instant perfection, people become intimidated.
“When you think about it, we’re doing brain surgery. What’s the worst thing that could happen? You could ruin a load of clothes. It’s not a life-or-death situation. Allow people to make mistakes, and don’t make a huge deal about it.”
Fuhrman added that a winning training program required, above all, listening – on everybody’s part.
“Number one, they have to listen,” he said. “Number two, I’ve got to listen. It’s give and take. I know what I want them to focus on, but they may be telling me what they think we should be focusing on also. My laundry is far from a democracy, but at the same time, if you’re not listening to people who are there every single day, you are missing the boat. They know what’s going on in that laundry better than you do, even though you have a better big picture of what you want.
“Listening and being interactive is important. I don’t care if it’s Bill Gates or the guy who parks my car, they both can have equally good ideas on how to succeed or how to improve something. I find that listening is absolutely critical.”
For Fuhrman, one of the biggest obstacles to effective attendant training is trying to do too much too soon and having an unreasonable expectation that, in a very short period of time, your new attendants are going to know as much about the store as you do. All owners need to set their expectations accordingly, he advised.
“It’s difficult to get them up to speed in one shift,” he said. “Even if you teach them a bunch of stuff, you have to take into consideration the human factor that they’re going to forget 40 percent to 80 percent of what you tell them. You can’t force-feed them or overwhelm them with information.”
“Consistency” and “ongoing coaching” are buzzwords that Felter lives by when bringing along new charges.
“My laundry isn’t that big, so I like to be very visible with my people,” she said. “And I like to show up at different times of the day keep them guessing – be visible and be ongoing.
“Also, it’s important when giving instructions that the employees repeat it back to you. You may think they’ve heard what you said, but if they don’t say it back, it could be wrong. You’re avoiding many pitfalls by having them repeat it. We often assume too much.”
Murray leans on today’s digital video technology to aid in his employee training.
“We conduct DVR reviews,” he explained. “We don’t spy on people, but we take a chunk of time and we evaluate it. When the owners and managers are not on the property, we evaluate the attendants’ priority position placement, which indicates where the people are supposed to be and when they’re supposed to be there.”
And when a new employee is not where he’s supposed to be? Nine times out of 10, Murray will look in the mirror and fault his company’s training.
“We are stunningly foolish when we bring these people on and expect them, through telepathy, to figure out what’s going on when we don’t go through the basic procedures,” he said. “The tendency is to always blame the employee: ‘Oh, they screwed that up. Boy, they drove that customer out.’ In my mind, it’s always a systems failure and a training failure. There is rarely a time when an employee comes in and says, ‘I’m going to screw this thing up today, and I’m going to drive this customer out of here.’”
Train… Then Retain
Once you've hired and carefully trained your team of attendants, the trick is to retain them. Should you be concerned about the morale at your self-service laundry? The statistics say: “Absolutely.”
“Experts estimate that nearly 85 percent of employees are not fully engaged and motivated,” said Sara M. Roberts, founder of Roberts Golden Consulting and the co-author of “Light Their Fire: Using Internal Marketing to Ignite Employee Performance and WOW Your Customers.” “That’s a lot of people to be merely ‘phoning in’ their work. And when you think of lost business and the cost of training new people – because, yes, dissatisfied employees do tend to leave – you realize this is a very expensive problem to have.”
An employee’s needs are very similar to those of a spouse or a child. The first and foremost need is the need for recognition. People need to be told and shown that they are appreciated. They need to be recognized for what they have done. It may be difficult to do this on a continuous basis, but it is important that you work toward this goal.
Most entrepreneurs don’t consider recognition a central part of their management practices. But perhaps they should.
Do you budget an extra 3 percent on top of your payroll costs for employee rewards, awards, celebrations and gifts? Many large companies do just that.
Is this merely a luxury for fat-cat firms that can afford to blow money? On the contrary, there are several profitable returns from an emphasis on employee recognition. In fact, it probably costs you money if you’re not doing it.
Trainer and consultant Alex Hiam, who authored “Motivating & Rewarding Employees: New and Better Ways to Inspire Your People,” points to four key areas of employee recognition:
1. If you recognize and make a bit of a fuss about the good things employees do, then you will find yourself spending a lot less time worrying about the bad things they do. They will do less of the negative, and they will strive to do more of the positive things you are recognizing. It is far easier to lead people to improved performances by thanking them when they do it right than giving them grief when they do it wrong.
2. There are important milestones and accomplishments in the life of your business. Mark them. Have a party. Take a moment to celebrate. Recharge your own and your employees’ batteries. It is too easy to get so caught up in the daily struggle that you never stop to recognize the good work you and your attendants do.
3. Praise and recognize your star performers. Some of your recognition budget should certainly go toward spotlighting role model performances and role model employees. This makes them feel good, encouraging them to stay on board and keep trying hard. And it gives everyone a bit of inspiration and a clearer idea of what you want employees to shoot for.
4. Recognize good effort, not just results. When employees have had a tough week, throw a mini-party for them. Bring in some pizza, a cheesecake or whatever inspires you, and share it with your team. Or try writing a personal thank-you card for each attendant – perhaps picking out a different design for each and having some fun recognizing individuals in your selection.
When you take the time to write something down, you clearly value it. This makes the praise even more meaningful. When appropriate, copy the employee’s manager on your praise letter. Sharing the praise with management lets the employee know you support his or her success within your business.
“You help the marathon runner the most by offering encouragement and nourishment along the track, not just by waiting at the finish line with a trophy,” Hiam said. “Recognizing effort has a bigger impact than giving a prize at the end of the race. The same goes for employees, who are in a race every day.”
Rewards on a Tight Budget
Earmarking 3 percent over and above your payroll costs may still seem extravagant. Fortunately, many ways of rewarding your attendants are relatively inexpensive, according to Scott Miller, vice president of Kirk Miller & Associates, Inc., a management consulting firm:
• Personally thank an employee for a specific job. Specify what was good about it and why you appreciate it, which tell the employee you do pay attention. For example, say, “Thank you, Sally, for organizing that project so well. You made it very clear what should happen, when and why.”
• Provide as much information as possible about the business. Share as much as you can about how the company is doing, where it’s making money, where it’s losing money, how its services are doing in the marketplace, what new programs are being considered and why, and how the attendant can best contribute to these efforts.
• At every opportunity, include your employees in the decisions you make. In many cases, your employees understand a side of an issue that you may not. If you need to create a more efficient commercial drop-off system, ask your drivers how they would improve the current system. If you want to improve wash-dry-fold workflow, discuss the situation with your attendants who are responsible for the store’s wash-dry-fold business. Use their ideas, and give them credit for them.
• Give employees the opportunity to learn as many new skills as they are able to. Most people like to learn, to grow, and to improve their marketability, and the more skills you enable your employees to learn, the more they will value their position with you. Cross-train whenever possible so that employees know each other’s jobs. An added benefit is that employees who understand the realities of one another’s positions are more willing to cooperate and feel more like members of the same team.
• Provide free time and flexibility. Set aside an hour here and there for employees who have delivered an extra level of work. Make it clear that the free time is a reward for a specific accomplishment. Alternately, you can reward all of your employees together, for example, by letting them leave an hour early to miss rush-hour traffic on a day of expected heavy traffic, while you man the store. Give extra time for lunch to an employee or team who has worked through lunch to deliver something to a client. Allow time off for personal or family responsibilities.
“Admittedly, these rewards are not entirely free,” Miller said. “They require time and energy to implement, and sometimes a few dollars for doughnuts. However, your investment will be rewarded by happier, more dedicated employees who make it their job to make you and your business more successful. It’s a classic win-win situation.”
A happy, well-trained and motivated attendant will go a long way toward the success of your business. However, to have a happy employee, you must start with compensation. No employee will be motivated, no matter how good your training is, if they perceive that they aren’t being compensated fairly.
Of course, compensation doesn’t only revolve around wages. There are other incentives and benefits that can enhance a low-wage attendant’s position, even at a smaller laundromat. It does, however, start with wages.
“If you pay somebody minimum wage, you’re going to get what you pay for,” said Fuhrman, who starts his attendants at $8 an hour. “I personally believe in paying in excess of minimum wage because I feel like then there are fewer alternatives for my attendants to leave me for. If mine is a minimum wage job, they might leave for another minimum wage job. Of course, if I’m paying more than that, I expect more from them. Treat them like professionals, and they will behave like professionals.”
Typically, coin laundry owners offer their attendants salaries that average between minimum wage and a few dollars above that state-mandated rate. Most attendants work 30 to 40 hours per week. Also, many operators have discovered that a couple of full-time employees, along with several part-timers, offer the most flexible coverage for their stores. What’s more, several laundry owners name one of their full-time attendants a manager, which usually means that this work will receive a higher salary.
But salary is just the beginning. Here are other forms of compensation you can offer your attendants:
• Wash-Dry-Fold. The most common added incentive revolves around wash-dry-fold services. Most laundries offer this service, and many of them allow their attendants to participate in the added profits of this program.
Some laundry owners give their attendants a certain amount of money per pound of wash-dry-fold business they handle, while others provide their employees with a percentage of the w-d-f profits after expenses. Others give their attendants all of the profits after expenses.
“We pay them a commission on the wash-dry-fold,” said Messano, who pays $475 a week, plus the drop-off commission. “I come from a sales background, and I don’t know any other way to do it. We came up with a 5 percent commission on wash-dry-fold every pay period. As our business grows, everyone will be incentivized; it may be to different degrees, but everyone will have a piece of the pie. After all, you’re not going to succeed without your employees – you have to have that mentality.”
Compensate your attendants for the wash-dry-fold they do, but remember that you're in the business of turning a profit. Give your attendants the incentive to push this profitable business to customers, and provide them with the opportunity to make more money without costing you more.
• Counter Sales. Another incentive some operators offer their employees is a certain amount for every laundry bag or box of soap sold through the store's service counter.
• Benefits Package. The compensation doesn't always have to deal directly with money. There are a lot of other things that are part of an entire employment package, such as paid vacations after an employee has been working for you for a year. Perhaps give holidays off with pay. Or, if you're open on holidays, pay your attendants extra (perhaps time and a half) if they work those days.
In addition, offering flexible work hours can be a big help to mothers with young children at home. Another employee benefit might be to allow your attendants to do their own laundry, when they're not working, either for free or at a greatly discounted cost.
• Health Benefits. If you have several laundries, you may consider investigating a health plan, paid for by the employees and taken out of their pay. Or, for key employees, you could contribute to their health plan. The added benefit of this is that you may be able to get better insurance for yourself at these group rates as well.
• Training. Yes, a big part of employee compensation that most employers neglect is ongoing attendant training. If an employee has a clear understanding of what's expected of him, he will do his job better and will be more productive.
Training should not only include proper use of the washers and dryers, and practical tips on working in a laundromat. It should also involve what hours attendants are expected to work, who they report to and other details.
For example, there may be 20 different ways to fold a shirt, but you have to teach them how shirts are to be folded at your store. You attendants can't guess how things are supposed to be done. You have to train them. They have to know how and when you expect them to clean the equipment, how you expect them to treat the customers, how you expect them to handle complaints, how you expect them to wash the floors and counters and so on.
“The most important thing is to make sure that you respect your employees as people because they are going to be the ones who are going to help your business succeed,” Fuhrman said. “Manage to their strengths and away from their weaknesses.”
A lot of frustration on the part of attendants and store owners could be quickly cleared up with some simple communication. Of course, regular employee evaluations are an important tool in retaining attendants. Your employees should be evaluated twice a year.
And – together – with your attendants, you and your business will succeed or fail, based strongly on how well you've been able to discover, attract and retain solid, loyal, quality laundry attendants.
“Above all, try to hire and train the person who could ultimately replace you and who has an owner’s mentality,” Messano said. “That really is the best scenario. If you hire that type of person, the training will fall into place.”
Remember, the right employee helps earn money for you while the wrong one can waste money, time and even lose customers. So time spent training and retaining a good employee is well worth every penny.
(Looking to jumpstart your store’s attendant training program? Purchase a copy of the Coin Laundry Association’s “Attendant Training” DVD at coinlaundry.org.)