By Bob Nieman | Jul 28, 2010
Working remotely… working off-site… absentee ownership…
It all boils down to one thing: Working fewer hours in your laundromat. And isn’t that the type of work efficiency and personal flexibility most laundry operators strive for?
“I don’t spend a whole lot of time at the stores,” said Brian Brunckhorst, who owns four coin laundries in northern California. “In an average week, counting all of the stores, I’m there no more than 10 to 15 hours a week – on a bad week, it may be more like 20 hours.
“We have systems in place,” added Brunckhorst, whose stores range in size from 1,200 to 3,000 square feet. “When you have staff handling most of the operation, it doesn’t require a lot of your time. We work out of our home office, where we spend some time on the payroll and bills that have to be paid. However, between my wife, May, and I, we spend two to five hours a week working remotely on the business. That time is spent going to the bank, signing checks, reviewing store performance and so on.”
For laundry operators who are only at their stores an hour or two a day, several current surveillance systems offer remote viewing capabilities, which means that the owner can dial up his self-service laundry anytime anywhere – and view exactly what's going on at his facility.
Furthermore, some systems will allow you to save video images through the Internet, and the higher-end systems feature built-in CD or DVD burners for offloading surveillance video. Some systems even support pan, tilt and zoom cameras, which allow a live operator to actually manipulate the camera within the store.
“Each store has its own video surveillance system, which can be monitored remotely,” Brunckhorst explained. “In fact, in our office, we’ll have a monitor up that will have the cameras to all four stores on one screen – it’s live feed. We can view the cameras from our laptops, so whenever we are online the cameras always seem to be up.
“However, we try not to spend too much time doing that. When we first started ‘backing out of the business,’ we were watching the cameras a lot more. But after a while that gets boring. And, besides, it’s all recorded anyway.”
Another nice feature of certain surveillance systems these days is increased compression formats. Basically, the more you are able to compress the images recorded by your cameras to your computer’s hard drive, the more recording time you have.
This can very helpful. For example, it could take weeks before you identify a problem. If there is a slip and fall, your attendants may not always bring it to your attention. But, a month later, you’ll get a summons in the mail because there’s a lawsuit.
In the past, if the incident occurred a month ago, there was a good chance that video had been overwritten – gone. But higher compression formats will let you have twice as much elapsed time. Some initial systems gave only weeks of recording time, but there are systems out there now with six months’ worth of recording time.
And today's security systems don't stop there. Certain systems can automate an entire coin laundry – locking and unlocking the doors at designated times, as well as automatically turning the alarm system off and on. Some security packages can even be programmed to control the lighting, the air conditioning, the heating, the boiler, the signage and so on.
In fact, most security companies advise their laundromat clients to purchase systems that are expandable and upgradeable. Security technology is changing quickly, and you don't want to be stuck with equipment that's obsolete.
“We have eight or nine cameras in each facility, addressing areas where somebody could fall,” said Tod Johnson, who owns three laundries in Washington. “It’s mostly a safety issue and letting people know that we’re paying attention to the activities that are going on, and we have the surveillance monitors in the stores themselves so people can see they’re being monitored.
“Those are all hooked to the Internet, where we can monitor any location off-site,” added Johnson, who spends seven or eight hours a week in his stores.
Of course, no matter what kind of technology you decide upon, if you have a security system in your store, don't keep it a secret. Hang prominent signs and stickers so that everyone entering your store will know that your business is under video surveillance and that they are going to have their photos taken. Don't wait until after a crime is committed to provide a deterrent.
Most security companies from which you purchase your camera and alarm systems can provide you with such signage. Also, perhaps hang signs stating that you will vigorously prosecute anyone who breaks the law in your facility.
Video surveillance is not foolproof. Here’s a look at some common mistakes to avoid when designing or utilizing your system:
• Never aim a camera toward a window or door. It’s the same philosophy as with taking photos of people – you never have them situated with the sun behind them. Otherwise, everybody becomes a black silhouette, like an alien encounter with glowing halos behind them.
It’s the same concept when you aim a camera into a window. Cameras can be aimed along windows and perpendicular to doors, but never just straight into a door.
• Don’t install a system and then neglect learning how to use it. A lot of systems are so plug-and-play now that the owners just turn them on. But when they need to retrieve the video, many of them have no idea how to do it. They’ve never taken the time to read the manual or get instructions from the manufacturer. The problem that arises with digital systems is that they overwrite themselves after a certain period, and you could lose the information forever.
• Never use your surveillance system to demean or belittle your attendants. Camera systems can effectively deter poor employee behavior or lazy work habits – but only if you use them in the right way.
If you’re calling the store all the time, intimidating your attendants by watching them in a way that’s degrading and belittling, the system will work against you. You want your employees to know that you’re watching, but it can be a destructive format if used incorrectly. It’s a matter of putting a twist on everything so that it is positive and constructive, not negative and demeaning.
• Never leave the recorder in plain view. If the recorder is in plain view in the office, it’s a target for thieves. If you want to have anything to look at later as evidence, hide the recorder.
• Never use fake cameras. If a customer slips and falls in your store, the first thing that person’s attorney is going to do is subpoena your video footage. If you've got fake cameras and no video evidence, the lawyer may argue that his client went to your store because she felt safe, due to the fact that you said you maintained a record of what occurred in your facility.
• Don’t expect too much from a surveillance system. The biggest mistake is to have too high of an expectation of a camera system. Some laundry owners think a surveillance system will prevent people from stealing. Yes, it’s a deterrent. But, at the end of the day, all it’s really going to let you do is watch the crime in action.
“I have cameras in each store and a card system for each, which allow me to track activity in the stores and keep an eye on the money situation,” said Matt Hurley, who spends approximately 10 hours per week in his two laundries in the Fresno, Calif., area. “I am ‘connected’ to the stores approximately five to six additional hours per week off site. In addition, I have a remote monitored security system for the entry doors and the money areas.”
Building a Successful Staff
For those who wish to keep the time they spend in their stores to a minimum yet still run attended (or partially attended) operations, employee training and retention needs to go to the top of the to-do list.
After all, if you’ve taken the time to hire a good employee, it would be 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.
“We have developed a task card system,” Johnson explained. “Each day, as a task is completed, a card is turned over to a different color. Each card delineates a specific task that has to occur, whether once a day, once a week and so on – and the color determines the frequency. This way, I can walk in, glance at the board, and see what’s been done and what hasn’t – everything from cleaning to small repair and maintenance.”
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.
“Three of our stores have attendants, and one uses a janitorial service,” said Brunckhorst, who employs 15 staff members overall. “We promote one of the attendants to store supervisor, and the other attendants report to that person. In turn, that person serves as a buffer for us by handling most of the employee issues at the location. In addition, we have an assistant who works in our home office that we have trained to answer the phones to all of our stores, so we no longer answer our own phone.
“Also, the supervisors will call her if there is an issue that they can’t deal with. She handles the scheduling, the hiring, the firing and the training – like a manager of all four stores, like our ultimate buffer.”
Of course, 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.
Compensation doesn’t revolve strictly 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.
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 drop-off profits after expenses. Others give their attendants all of the profits after expenses.
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. 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. Manage to their strengths and away from their weaknesses.
A lot of frustration on the part of attendants and laundry 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.
Above all, try to hire and train the person who could ultimately replace you and who has an owner’s mentality. 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.
Keeping the Customers Happy
Customers are the lifeblood of any self-service laundry business. In every instance, they need to be treated with the utmost respect and professionalism.
In stores where the owners are rarely on-site, systems and policies should be put in place to help care for the customers – and these customer-service philosophies should be passed along to all attendants.
“We explain our refund policy to the staff, and our policy is very liberal,” Brunckhorst said. “If a customer is complaining about something, just refund their wash or move their clothes to another washer and pay for it. We almost never refuse to give a refund. We just ask that the customers fill out a refund slip, which asks who they are, their address, what machine they were using and what the problem was. And the staff takes care of all of that.
“When I’m at the store, once a week or so, I collect all of the refund slips, give them to our assistant who puts them into a spreadsheet, and we keep track of every single refund every customer has ever had,” he added. “If a customer is going to put $700 a year into your business, why lose them for two bucks. Take the customer at their word, be apologetic and make them happy in the end. That’s the philosophy we pass along to our attendants. We always take care of the customer.”
For unattended laundries, customer care can be a bit tougher – but not impossible.
Bob Frandsen owns six unattended stores, with a seventh currently under construction.
“We have two or three cleaning people come in everyday for about two to three hours,” said Frandsen, whose stores are spaced widely from Minnesota to Wisconsin. “They also do a walk through in the middle of the day.
“In addition, my manager and I carry cell phones with us at all times, and that number is posted at all of our stores. That way, if a customer has a problem, we can take care of it right away. We also have refund slips for customers to fill out, and we send out refunds twice per week.”
Although Frandsen and his manager spend only about four hours per week in each store, they also spend quite a bit of time on the road, traveling the 150 miles that the six-store chain reaches.
“We put about 80,000 to 90,000 miles per year on our vehicles, going to the stores,” Frandsen admitted. “So we each drive a Toyota Prius. The 2009 model gets 40 to 45 miles per gallon, and the 2010 gets 45 to 50.”
The two used to drive Chevy Tahoes, and the savings on gasoline alone, versus the Tahoe, is about $600 per month, according to Frandsen. “That really adds up fast,” he said. “They are very nice cars to drive, and being hatchbacks, they hold all the tools, parts and vending supplies we need to carry.”
Kevin Beggs owns 11 unattended laundries throughout Massachusetts, ranging in size from 1,600 to 3,000 square feet.
“We have a toll-free number posted in all of our laundries that goes to a 24-hour answering service, so we’re always available,” said Beggs, who typically works five to 10 hours per week in his stores.
Like Frandsen, Beggs also provides refund cards for his customers, and sends out refunds twice a week.
Keeping the Equipment Running
A key to keeping your customers happy is keeping your equipment running – another challenge for laundry owners who choose not to work in their stores.
“Machines out of order are going to happen,” Johnson said. “But probably 40 percent to 50 percent of the time the staff can resolve the issues there, unless there’s a mechanical breakdown.
“We have a full set of factory manuals on site,” he added. “We have alarms codes that come up on the equipment, and they can check it with the manual to see what the issue is and how to correct it.
“The attendants and all of the owners are mechanically inclined. If they can’t solve it themselves, they call me immediately. We seldom have machines down for more than three days.”
Brunckhorst meets the maintenance challenge with a comprehensive equipment log that attendants are required to fill out. Whenever a machine goes down, staff will write down the specific problem, providing the store owner with a complete maintenance history of each machine in each of his stores.
“When a machine goes out of service and I’m in the store, I’ll spend a minute or two just trying to see what’s wrong with the machine,” Brunckhorst added. “If it’s something I can fix in 10 minutes or less, I normally will fix it right there on the spot – a coin jam or something simple. However, if it’s going to take a long time, I don’t even bother. That’s what the repair guys are for. I make note off what it is and the machine number, and I call one of the five different service guys I use.”
Collecting the Stores
Collecting is a task most laundry owners – even those looking to spend as little time as possible in their stores – wisely refuse to delegate.
“It’s one of the few things I still do mostly myself,” admitted Brunckhorst, whose stores are all coin-operated. “People think you can’t possibly be working as little as I do with a coin store, but you absolutely can.”
Brunckhorst has done a number of things to speed up the collection process. In his remodeled stores, he installed equipment that not only keeps track of how much money has been put into each machine but also sends him a daily e-mail, telling him how much money each of those machines has generated.
For some machines, he’ll have to physically extract the information from them through a wand or similar type of reader device. And, for others, Brunckhorst will have to actually collect and count the machines individually.
“Once all the quarters are processed, we keep track of how much each machine has made,” Brunckhorst explained. “We make a spreadsheet for each store, and the spreadsheet’s broken down per machine per day for each month. That’s how I can track how each store is doing on a monthly basis. We try to streamline everything as efficiently as possible.
“For me, I might spend one day out of the week and go to all four stores and, in six or seven hours, everything is done. See you next week.”
Johnson owns one coin-operated laundry and two card stores.
“The coin store is much more rigid, taking the coins out of the machines and putting them back into the changers,” he said. “That takes about an hour every three days. Of course, the card machines don’t require that type of oversight. We still collect the money every day or so in every single store – so as not to encourage anybody to damage the equipment.”
“Card operations are easier,” agreed Beggs, who currently owns nine card-operated laundries and two coin stores. “With card systems, we’re five minutes in the store, opening two exchangers and then that’s it. In 10 minutes, we can be out of the store completely.”
In fact, Beggs hopes to have one of his two remaining coin-operated laundries converted to a card system by the end of the year.
For many laundry operators – and entrepreneurs, in general – a key hurdle to spending less time physically working in their places of business is a personal fear of giving up control.
And, for Hurley, it’s a healthy fear to have.
“One should never lapse into complacency by allocating too much responsibility or discretion to an attendant on owner issues,” Hurley warned. “Cover all of the bases with each visit, and arrive each time expecting that something has occurred that you are unaware of. Make lists of follow-up items and then be sure to actually follow up.”
But loosening your grip on the day-to-day minutia is necessary, Brunckhorst responded.
“My thinking was always that nobody was going to care about my business as much as me,” Brunckhorst said. “I realized that control becomes a trap, because in order to have control, you have to exercise that control and that takes time.
“If you’re willing to give up control over the little stuff and let somebody else handle it, all of a sudden you get a lot more time to create marketing strategies and to spend on higher level tasks, which will generate more income. But you have to be willing to conquer the fear of letting go.”