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Back-to-School Time for the Drycleaning Industry

Everett Childers |

At the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau, Alaska, there’s a sign that brings a chuckle to most everyone who reads it. The sign says, “If our food, drinks and service are not up to your standards, please lower your standards.” Most service businesses could post the same sign and get a laugh — if it weren’t so close to the attitude they have.
How often do you go to a grocery store, fast-food restaurant, auto mechanic or convenience store and encounter clerks who can’t hold a conversation that totals more than four words? How many times have you been to a nice restaurant where the first thing the waiter or waitress says is, “How are you guys tonight?” and half the “guys” are “gals?”
Where’s the civility? Who still offers that pleasant smile? Does anyone still know their merchandise, their job function and the answers to common questions? And how guilty are drycleaners of failures in these areas?
Operators often set store hours to suit employees and themselves. We set the length of time we hold customer garments, and often charge extra if that time doesn’t fit our schedules. We tell our customers what we will clean and to what extent we’ll actually clean it.
If we have an expert spotter on staff, we often limit their capabilities by telling them how much time to spend on each garment and when to slap a “Sorry, but...” tag on it.
How many times do we hire someone to work the front counter and give them no training other than “Here’s so-and-so, your fellow employee, and she’ll show you what to do.” We usually hire the first warm body that’s able to slouch through the doorway.
Our excuse for hiring untrainable people is that “nobody wants to work.” Maybe it’s because we don’t want to pay much more than the minimum wage. Minimum wage means minimal skills; can we really afford to hire the least experienced people available and put them in our most important customer-relations positions?
When there are customer-service seminars and classes, only the plant owners and managers attend. I often wonder how much information they actually absorb and take back to their employees — and if they do take the information back, how well do they present it to these employees?
Unfortunately, there are few people in the industry who can travel to individual plants to teach customer service or technical topics, or just visit and tell the owners how to make their plants more profitable and efficient.
I wish I could tell the industry to bring itself to a level of customer service that people would point to as a good example and help counter all of the negative perceptions that have been hurled its way.
It would help if more people concentrated on the technical aspects of drycleaning and strived to put out the best product available; instead, we only pretend we’re doing a great job at everything. Only when we get really good at cleaning, removing stains and delivering great customer service can we concentrate on marketing and profitability.
There are a couple of schools where employees and owners can attend a class, but they aren’t always convenient or cost-effective for a business. In the past, community colleges and trade schools offered classes in drycleaning; almost all are gone except for those in correctional facilities.
There were once private schools that taught drycleaning and related subjects to those in the business or going into it, but they are also almost extinct. There simply wasn’t enough interest to keep them open.
I’m not sure whether there are classes to learn good customer-service strategies and ways to work with customers and fellow employees. One would think that job-related training would offer courses in this greatly overlooked aspect of business.
Courses in customer relations are probably more necessary now than they ever have been, since children learn from an early age that it’s okay to make phone calls, send text messages and play electronic games on their computers for hours or days at a time, avoiding face-to-face social interaction. Then when it’s time to get a job, they have no skills except gaming and listening to music.
Maybe we need to assume that it’s up to us to educate staffers in social interaction. But even if we take on the task, there are no guarantees that those employees will work out or stay with us.
I was once under the impression that our public school system was established to educate children and prepare them to enter the workforce. Today, that may be a false assumption, and some schools get by because we, as parents, allow them to turn out students who are not equipped with even the most basic skills they need to enter college or the marketplace.
Some colleges and universities have initiated remedial courses to bring high-school graduates up to the levels at which they can actually pass college courses. The classes are in basic math and reading, and the excuse is that high schools need more money to pay their teachers better. Until we demand that schools produce hirable or trainable people, education will only get worse.
The cleaners of the future will need their own training and teaching facilities, and need to be a repository of industry-specific and general knowledge. Some information must come from the manufacturers of the products and equipment we use.
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, members of the industry had access to unbiased training materials that promoted easy learning and long-term retention. Perhaps today’s industry can compile similar materials for everyone to learn and use, eventually raising the standard for all drycleaners.

About the author

Everett Childers

Childers & Associates

Industry Consultant and Educator

Longtime industry consultant and educator Everett Childers is the author of the Master Drycleaners Notebook.

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