CHICAGO — So you’re new to the business. Welcome. Jump on in, the water’s fine (usually about 120 degrees). I congratulate you on making that first step into the unknown.
The fear of the unknown has a well-documented place in the history of man. It has been the basis of wars and protectionism, strangely enough. It’s the primary reason so many who are capable of so much choose to do so little.
Before I joined the coin laundry world, my comfort zone was journalism. I spent the better part of a decade as a Page 1 editor and designer at a number of papers. Despite issues I had with the industry and the issues we have with certain co-workers and systems, there was nothing more comfortable to me than the experience of sitting in my chair with tomorrow’s blank Page 1 staring back at me with people swarming around me and the clock ticking. When I finished, I was ready to repeat the process the next day.
That was comfort, and it came from confidence. I was great at this, but I can recognize a good opportunity when I see one. And that’s what I saw when I joined the family business as the manager of the World’s Largest Laundromat a couple of years ago.
I knew many of the employees — I did a few hours there a week just to help out — but this was far from my comfort level. And finding that comfort level is important, because it’s the difference between having a managerial job and running a business. Anyone can get a managerial job, but not everyone can run a business.
I came in confident. I’m a college grad, a smart guy. No Laundromat was going to beat me.
When I started, learning the nuts and bolts was the first priority. Employee scheduling, filling changers, placing vending/equipment orders and writing checks were common tasks. I referred to these things as “moving money.” “Moving money” was the quick way to refer to collecting quarters from washers and pouring them into changers, sorting the paper money, making a deposit. Mastering this is mastering the managerial job, and I took to it quickly.
When you start running a store, your basic functions — money management, keeping changers full, keeping washers and dryers working — need to be under control. Basic fatal flaw kind of stuff.
Once I got this down, I felt pretty good. But I shouldn’t have. Running a business was next. This means dealing with people and identifying problems before they arise.
This store sees more than 5,000 people a week, and they all want something different. In general, they want good service and to not get ripped off. But that can mean different things to different people. It can be as simple as “that machine won’t start,” more complicated with “your machine damaged my clothes,” and even “back off or I’ll slit my throat.” Yes, the last one just happened. She eventually left the laundry unharmed.
This represents the wide scope of people you deal with. And if you’re just a numbers person, just a business person who’s good with the books, you better spend your first few weeks being social, because you’re going to need those skills. Circle your store and start conversations with customers. Get used to talking to a wide variety of people. Talk about your store and the neighborhood. And get used to listening.
Now, when a problem arises, you are not a deer caught in headlights trying to relate. The best-case scenario is when I have chatted with a customer who later comes up with a problem. They are easier to deal with because they know you, like you and expect the best, as opposed to those who come to the counter angry expecting the worst.
You also have to keep your eye on the bottom line of every situation. The dumbest situation that we regularly deal with is customers arguing over folding table usage. It’s so stupid to stand and listen to two adults yelling. All I hear is “Mine, mine, mine!”
What’s the bottom line? What do they each want? They want a place of their own to fold. You need to block out the arguments, resist the urge to yell back and have an employee help one of them get settled in at another folding table.
The bottom line of each situation must be your guide to the finish line when dealing with people.
Seeing a problem before it arises is the hardest thing to do, but it comes with the simplest advice. We can’t predict the future, but we can make an educated guess. But let’s be very clear on this. I said “educated guess.”
How do you make an educated guess about your business? Know it better than everyone else. Know every corner and every crack, know your books, know your customer and budget trends. Walk around the store and see what’s happening inside and out. Talk to each of your employees. If you do this, you’ll be able to make an educated guess as to what is going to happen so you can react to it first.
A success story: When my father bought this business, he put in a ton of hours. He did everything I mentioned. From this, he was able to learn that the area had its troubles with crime and gangs. So he made it a point to establish a good relationship with the police. Sure enough, the neighborhood’s bad apples made their presence known. And sure enough, the police have been extremely responsive and on the ball when dealing with our store. When we literally had a gang fight tumble into our store, they responded with on-the-hour patrols for several weeks.
A miss: We have a few customers who come in with wheelchairs. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they come in with helpers. But I should have been able to make the educated guess that eventually someone in a wheelchair was going to come and do their wash by themselves. So when one such woman came to me the other day asking for a folding table low enough for her to use, I was caught unprepared. Next time she comes, I promised her, we’d be all set for her. But that’s something I should have been ready for.
Know what’s happening at your business, and you’ll probably be able to tell what will be happening at your business in the future.
These are the challenges newcomers face. Put in a lot of time and use even more common sense, and you’ll be just fine. Good luck, and welcome to the industry.