By Bob Nieman | Jul 27, 2012
It's easy to underestimate the job that self-service laundry attendants perform. However, their duties couldn't be more significant. After all, if a customer has a bad experience with one of your business’ employees, he's had a bad experience with your business.
Your laundry attendants and store managers are the unsung heroes, crucial to the health of your self-service laundry business. You don’t want someone in your laundromat who doesn't know what they’re doing. After all, customers are going to ask questions about the machines, what hours the store is open, how long the dryers run and so on. And your employees have to be able to answer them.
Look at it this way: if your customers are worth $500 to $1,000 each per year, that’s a pretty significant amount of revenue that might just walk out the door – and it’s up to those on the front lines to keep that from happening.
What Do Customers Want
So, what do customers really want from a self-service laundry – and how do your store’s employees fit into that scenario?
“Customers appreciate a clean, safe, friendly environment – an establishment where they feel welcome and appreciated,” said Maria Griser, who serves as operations manager for Salem 22 Laundromat in Delmont, Pa. “The old adage, ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you,’ certainly applies here. Nobody wants to go into any establishment and be treated poorly. You must always keep that in mind. Always be friendly and respectful. If I see that a customer looks a little lost or is having a problem, I don’t hesitate to go up and help. I like to see that things are running as smoothly as possible.”
For Jenn Zampano, who works at Super Wash Laundry in East Haven, Conn., and has been in the laundry business for 18 years, she can tell how well she’s doing her job just by the looks on her customers’ faces.
“Customers want their task to be as easy and completely as fast as possible, and they want good customer service,” Zampano explained. “When customers are smiling, I know I’ve done my job well.”
Lisa King has co-owned LMARIES Laundromat in Bowling Green, Ohio, with her husband Duane for 10 years; however, she’s also been the store’s manager for more than five years, since leaving her position as a senior vice president for a medical manufacturer in Toledo, Ohio.
“Great customer service includes making our attendants easy to spot by wearing uniforms with the store logo on the back so that the customer knows who to approach,” King noted. “And good signage throughout the store is needed for when we are unattended.”
Attention to detail and flexibility also become critical for today’s laundry employees, according to Rose Corcino, an attendant for WSI Laundry Corp. in Gloucester, Mass.
“Customers really want machines that work properly and everything clean,” said Corcino, who was an embroidery supervisor before joining WSI just under a year ago on a referral from a friend. “You have to make sure even the smallest areas are clean, even if it means using a toothbrush. And be flexible in your routine when the store is busy.”
Theresa Lovins of The Wash House in Wake Forest, N.C., began working at the store on a part-time basis, yet soon became a full-time employee.
For the former motorcycle shop manager, her 11 years in the laundry business has taught her that most customers are interested in three things: “Cleanliness, machines that are working properly and hot dryers.”
“Be courteous and helpful, and treat the customers with respect – always go the extra mile,” she advised.
Freda Bennett, who has been the manager at Family Laundry II in Kansas City, Mo., since 1998, came to the industry later in life, after her husband had passed away and her children had grown. And she brought with her a lifetime of experience and people skills.
“When I was training newer attendants, I used to tell them that people will come into a clean laundromat,” Bennett said. “And I would tell them that every customer who comes through that door is your paycheck – and when they don’t come in, we don’t have a paycheck.
“I watch people coming in,” she added. “I try to greet them and acknowledge them when they’re leaving, and I’ll ask if I can help them with their laundry baskets or if they need help with something.
“Customer service entails a lot, and it’s kind of as you go; there is no set program for customer service. You just have to watch the people and see what their needs are. To work in a laundromat, you really have to be a people person because you’re going to run into all kinds of people. We’re all different.”
Darlene King received her coin laundry baptism in her early teens, working at the store of a friend’s grandmother on the south side of Chicago.
“Every day, after school, we would go and help out,” King explained. “If my friend wanted to go out and play, we had to help her grandmother first. We would wash, dry and fold other people’s clothes, as well as cleaning the laundromat.”
Her after-school “job” proved to be an excellent training ground. Fifteen years ago, after stints in foodservice and health care, King ended up back in the self-service laundry business – and these days she even gets paid for her efforts.
“Being friendly and helping are keys to this job,” said King, who is the manager at Sel Dale Laundromat in St. Paul, Minn. “Everybody has a different attitude. I manage to deal with people even if they come in with a bad attitude. I don’t get mad. I just deal with it. You have to stay happy. You have to have a good attitude and always ask them to ‘come again.’ You try to fix a customer’s problem as best you can, regardless of the attitude. You can’t have an attitude along with them – that just doesn’t work.”
Jestine Mathew, who oversees 15 laundry attendants at eight stores for the Sunshine Laundries chain in Florida, explained that attendants need to view their positions with an entrepreneurial eye.
“With my employees, I tell them to treat their job as if it’s their own business,” Mathews said. “And that seems to work. If you’re in the store, you’re in charge of your business.”
The former convenience store manager added that laundry customers often call upon a store’s attendants to draw on skills that have nothing to do with washing or drying clothes.
“Sometimes you just have to lend an understanding ear, because a lot of customers come in and they just need someone to talk to,” Mathews explained. “So, you have to have a listening ear – just stay quiet and let them talk. Believe it or not, they feel so much better when they leave here. I make sure I acknowledge and speak to the customers – either individually or in a group.”
Marcelino Pavon honed his customer service skills as the manager of a Mexican restaurant. And, now, in his fourth year at Giant Wash in Minneapolis, he pointed out that customers more than ever want convenience from a laundromat, as well as any other service business.
“Coin changers, credit card acceptance and a good mix of equipment that’s all running,” Pavon said. “And, above all, you need to be nice to the customers when they ask questions. Be ready for any questions.”
“Customer want to be able to walk into a store, feel safe and know that when they walk up to a machine that it’s going to work,” said Joe Roberts, who serves as a maintenance engineer for four self-service laundries in Minnesota. “It really irritates them when machines go down in the middle of what they’re trying to do.”
Running a Clean Show
There’s no getting around the hard facts – a major portion of any laundry attendant’s work day is spent cleaning and then cleaning… and then cleaning some more. After all, customers patronize your store to get their clothes clean. You’re in the business of “selling clean.” (Hey, the industry’s biennial convention and trade exposition isn’t called The Clean Show for nothing.)
“Customers want it clean,” said Julie Hernandez, an attendant at Giant Wash in St. Paul, Minn., for the last seven years. “The vend prices can go up, and our customers will still come here, because they’re comfortable here and they know us – and they know the store is clean.”
Leo Ruiz, who manages nine laundry attendants across three stores for the EZ Coin-Op Laundromat chain in California, trains his employees to pay attention to detail.
“What’s the perception of the customer?” he asked. “Is the floor clean? Are the machines clean? Are there any burned-out light bulbs? All of those things affect the perception of the customer.”
Your store’s employees will perform more effectively if they know exactly what is expected of them. Here is a list of the duties for which most typical self-service laundry attendants should be responsible, according to the employees we interviewed:
• Assist customers with their laundry.
• Teach customers how to properly use the machines.
• Empty the trash cans.
• Sweep the floors.
• Remove large debris from the floor (anti-static sheets, trash, etc.).
• Refill empty dispensers (soap, paper towels, toilet paper).
• Clear carts from the aisles.
• Clean countertops, folding tables, washing machines and dryers.
• Check the store for graffiti.
• Mop the floors, when needed.
• Sweep and remove all the trash from the parking lot.
• Clean the restroom and refill the dispenser.
• Clean the customer sink.
• Sweep the parking lot (morning/evening).
• Clean the lint screens in the dryers.
• Wipe down all of the frontload washing machines.
• Clean the tops of the bulkheads.
• Count the laundry carts (beginning/end of shift).
• Scrub the floor tile and wash down the restroom.
• Conduct detail cleaning on all of the topload washing machines.
• Clean the wheels on all of the laundry carts.
• Clean the lint off the tops of the dryers.
• Clean out the bottoms of all of the frontload washing machines.
• Wash the windows.
“We continually clean more than once a day,” Lovins noted. “We also have a professional cleaning service each night. Personally, I think to myself, ‘What if my mother had to come here to do her laundry?’ So, I make sure it would be clean enough for her.”
Room for Improvement
As frontline employees who are at their stores day after day, many laundry attendants today have fresh ideas of their own as to how their bosses’ businesses might be enhanced. Here are some of the things that our panel of attendants suggested for their places of employment:
• “Spread out our coupons into different towns.”
• “Offer a special where, after a certain number of washes, customers receive a free wash.”
• “I wouldn’t mind having a little coffee shop in here, especially during the winter.”
• “Get our supplies in sooner.”
• “I would organize the store a little bit differently – a lot of stuff is cluttered here. I try to get it together, but when I’m there by myself, it’s hard to do.”
• “I would make the back area larger.”
• “I would open up a nail salon inside the laundry.”
• “I would set things up a little differently in the front of the store, just some minor changes.”
• “I would run more specials on slower days during the week.”
• “I would have something free for customers – coffee, cookies or something.”
• “I would switch from quarters to tokens.”
Of course, every new idea can’t be implemented. But, if you’re not at least seriously tapping into your employees’ knowledge, you’re likely missing out on some money-making, money-saving, customer-grabbing gems.
‘What Happens at the Laundromat…’
Other than perhaps bartenders and police officers, probably no other group of workers has better on-the-job tales than laundry attendants – and most of these stories revolve around the customers:
“A few years ago, a homeless man came into the store,” Griser recalled. “It was very cold outside and he wanted to wash his clothes. So, he went into the lost-and-found area and put on a pair of shorts. He then proceeded to wash his clothes while he took a ‘bath’ in our restroom.
“While he was in the restroom, we figured he could use something to warm him up, so we left him a cup of coffee on the table outside the door so as not to embarrass him. Once his clothes were washed and dried, he changed, put the shorts from the lost-and-found back in the pile and left.”
“When someone stole our ‘Slippery When Wet’ sign, we saw who did it by reviewing the security cameras,” Lisa King said. “So, my husband added a message to the thief’s laundry card that appeared the next time he checked his account balance. The message stated that this person’s balance would be returned to his card when the sign was returned. We watched him on our cameras as he tried to slide it under the office door.”
“A lot of people have never used a washer or dryer before,” Darlene King explained. “We’ll have people putting their dirty clothes into the dryers, rather than the washers. A lot of them grew up with their parents washing their clothes for them all of their lives. So they’ll come in asking a lot of questions.”
“The customers often confuse their washers with other people’s washers,” Ruiz said. “Last week, a customer came up to me and was very upset: ‘I’m in a hurry and the washing machine, rather than deducting time, is adding time to the load. It’s gone from 16 minutes to 29 minutes.’
“I told the customer that I had never seen this happen before but that I would see what I could do. Then, I realized he wasn’t even looking at his own washer. His machine was on the other side in the next aisle.”
“Just the other day, a guy walked into the men’s room and came out dressed as a woman,” Roberts shared.
“I had a customer come into the laundromat and put their collard greens into a frontloader,” Lovins recalled. “After the full cycle, they came out clean and spotless. I really wonder how they tasted. But I tell my customers all the time, ‘What happens at the laundromat stays at the laundromat.’”
What It Takes
It requires a special type of person to work in a laundromat. And, first and foremost, you must have a good attitude, according to Griser
“A friendly smile goes a long way when dealing with anybody,” she explained. “Secondly, understand the equipment that you are working with; that way, when something breaks, you know what to do, how to fix it or whether you have to call for repairs. Above all, take pride in the fact that you have been placed in charge of this laundromat; therefore, it is a direct reflection upon you and your abilities.”
For Hernandez, it’s important for attendants to try to put the customer first.
“I’m like everybody else, I have my problems,” she said. “But when I’m coming to work, I have to leave my problems at home and be good with the customers.”
“Being friendly and observant are the best qualities to have,” Lisa King added. “Then, I make sure to train them well. When you find a good attendant, you need to pay them a fair wage and treat them well, as they represent your store.
“A bad attendant can push customers away.”
However, a good one can become an important part of the fabric the holds a community together.
“With repeat customers, you kind of get to know them and their lives and their families,” Bennett said. “We’ve had customers where I have watched their children grow up and graduate from high school. It’s a good feeling.
“And when I go out in public, like to the grocery store, people will say, ‘Hi, Miss Freda,’ or ‘That’s the laundry lady.’ It’s definitely a good feeling.”