CHICAGO — As a small-business owner or manager, you take on hundreds of tasks seemingly at once. You’re a budget director, PR representative, mechanic, human resources manager and customer relations director, just to name a few.
And to those who excel at their business, you like to feel in complete control of all of those tasks at one time.
Congratulations, you are probably doing a great job of that.
Unfortunately, you can’t always be on top of everything all at once. And it seems that when you get a little behind with your regular tasks, that’s when something out of your control invades as icing on a tasteless cake.
If these are internal matters, then you can just deal with them in your own time and pick them off one by one. But when they are matters that impact your customers (and, thus, potentially your bottom line), you need a show of force — sometimes literally, as I’ll describe in this column. You need to let your customers know that you know there’s a problem. You won’t always have an immediate solution. You won’t always be able to wipe away the problem as if it never existed. You may even be up against something of a wall with no room to move.
But it’s at these times when you have to let your customers know that you see what they see. This harkens back to an earlier column, where I recommended owners or off-site managers spend an entire week, 9-5, inside the store to see what your employees see each day and make a face for yourself with the customers.
Here’s scenario #1: We have 301 machines at the World’s Largest Laundromat. On a recent Sunday, we walked around and saw that at one moment in time, 298 of those machines were moving. Two hundred and ninety-eight! That’s fantastic! Can’t wait to count all those quarters on Monday.
Our success is playing into one of our trouble spots, though: folding tables. We knew we needed to add folding tables, and this busy time of year really exploits that. The jockeying for tables can sometimes lead to arguments, and both the jockeying and the arguments are the types of things that may cause customers to shy away. And they are the types of things that really drain our employees.
We knew we needed more folding tables. We could tell even on normal days that there was a need. But we also did a customer survey, and the need for more folding tables came up time and time again.
So, we ordered more. But there was going to be a delay before they were to be installed, so we announced their impending arrival. We put up signs telling our customers that we’re being responsive to their needs (and their survey answers) and working to fix this problem. That tells shaky customers that they shouldn’t go in search of a less-hectic store. They should hang around because hope is on the way.
A few weeks later, the tables arrive. The employees are reporting that they’re seeing a lot of new people in the store. That’s not because of the new tables, but it means that those new customers are more likely to become regulars if their first impression of us is good. Retain the old, grab and retain the new.
That scenario underscores the benefits of communicating with your customers. In making that simple change, we communicated directly with our customers in several different ways and times. We did a survey, we posted follow-up signs and then we showed them the results. And while I literally don’t speak the language of many of my customers, they appreciate seeing me and my father roaming the aisles keeping an eye on things. This all goes hand in hand.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
That brings me to scenario #2: Our neighborhood has some really wonderful and charming people, businesses and features. Salt of the earth people raising beautiful families. Upstart businesses trying to grab a foothold in an area with an incredibly dense population. This neighborhood is diverse and dynamic.
This neighborhood is also home to the Latin Kings street gang. These ever-present kids move up and down the blocks in our surrounding area, many of them living just across the street from us here. They congregate outside the store, they wander in to use the bathrooms and they wander in to see if there’s anything worth stealing. All in all, it’s a daily battle that requires a lot of my attention.
Our customers know who they are; you can see the tension in their faces when these people are around. We’ve taken steps to ID and watch them. They don’t come through our store without at least a tail from me or one of my employees. If they are grouped together on the corner, we call the cops to go and break them up. We’re on a first-name basis with the anti-graffiti guy and the gang task force guy here in town.
This, unfortunately, is what we have to deal with. I remember following one of them inside the store a month or so back and watching him go out the door. As I stood in the doorway a minute later, I watched as he pulled out pliers and started going to town on a bike lock across the alley from the back of the laundry. Broad daylight. I called the police. Joined by about 10 customers, I watched him from the window for about three minutes until he was caught and taken off in cuffs. (He was back wandering the streets the next evening.)
This, as I said, is the norm. But scenario #2 led to a gang fight. A three-person brawl started on the sidewalk outside the store. The pushing and shoving activated the automatic doors in the front of the store and the combatants literally tumbled into the store. It was a two-on-one, with one of the “two” working the “one” over with a club. Customers in that part of the store scattered, grabbing their kids and carrying them away.
It lasted a minute. The “one” hung around to catch his breath and talked with the cops when they arrived.
That was enough. We spent the next day calling the police chief, mayor’s office and council members. Our customers had seen the gang’s show of force, now it was time to see ours. We now have regular police walk-throughs throughout the day. They come in, talk to our employees, smile, talk to customers, high-five the kids. (And yes, on occasion, they grab a donut.)
We also have a direct line of communication with the gang task force, and when our number pops up on their caller ID, they come and come fast. With their blessing, we now work more of a zero tolerance policy here. Where before we watched them as they used the bathroom and left, now they know that the bathroom is for customers and that another visit will bring the police.
The message to our customers is clear: We’re on it. They don’t expect their local laundry to take down a street gang, but they expect us to keep them safe while they’re within our walls.
They’ve seen our show of force; we’ve had nothing but huge (even record) sales since the fight. Customers see our attention to this problem, and feel empowered. Where before I saw only tension and fear when these gang members were around, now I see some resolve. They come up and point the kids out to me if they’re hanging around. “That kid by the vending machine, he’s a gang banger and isn’t in here doing laundry,” one told me, only about 15 feet from where the kid was hanging out. I gave the kid the boot and thanked the customer for her help.
The police have our back, and our customers know we have theirs. And that, my friends, is hard to put a value on.
So, have you taken any of the 10 steps I gave you to improve your store in 2008? I want to hear your stories of what you’re doing to ramp it up this year. It’s still young, so get to it.