The End of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Sell’

One reason entrepreneurs enter the drycleaning industry is to build meaningful businesses that grow into bigger and better enterprises. Add the freedom of “doing it your way and getting paid for it,” and they have a powerful motivator to take the risks.
Then, the reality strikes that things don’t always go exactly as planned. Since costs rarely shrink or go away, they try to hedge their bets by finding new ways to boost revenues. The logical solution is to sell more, but cleaning is, unfortunately, a need-based business.
In other words, you can only clean what people wear, get dirty and want cleaned, and there are only so many things a person wears in the course of a day. A customer’s needs are fixed—even in the best-case scenario, a person wears seven shirts a week and needs seven shirts cleaned. Running an eight-shirt special isn’t going to get that person to wear one more shirt.
Customers are the only profit center a business has. And the first thing to do to increase revenues is get more of them. But that has been the modus operandi for years in drycleaning, and it is no longer enough.
The second strategy is to expand operations into new areas. This works, but it is expensive and as risky as launching a new business. The third thing you can do is “buy” customers by buying out a competitor, which is expensive but not as risky. And the fourth (and best) strategy is to sell more to current customers.
Of course, one must have existing customers to be able to sell more to them. Elementary, right? But what I see again and again is operators who overestimate the importance of quality, convenience and price in the belief that’s all that’s needed to survive.
A well-known marketing expert calculated that drycleaners lose about 40% of their customers every year, and my experience in database marketing supports that estimate. Since customers are profit centers, you should try to keep more of them, and therefore more of your money. Invest in holding onto what you think you have—even before advertising for new customers.
Again, what’s more important than finding new products and services to sell is to sell more to existing customers, but the lack of selling is probably the single unifying weakness in the industry today. I can’t think of another public retail operation where the goal of the business owner is to get customers in and out as quickly as possible.
What other business has the goal of getting customers to fill bags, toss them in the depository and leave? Speed and convenience are important to many customers, of course, but there’s no opportunity for interaction. There’s no opportunity to build loyalty based on anything other than convenience. There’s no opportunity to sell!
We live in an alienated society. Cashiers don’t make eye contact and sigh like it’s your fault if they have to check a price. And the only thing they ask for is a phone number or a frequent-buyer’s card. That’s not selling—selling is giving the customer the opportunity to remember something else they may want or creating an impulse response.
The classic example is the “Do you want fries with that?” question asked at fast-food restaurants. If you get fries, the question becomes, “Do you need something to drink?” Next, it’s, “How about an apple pie?” I had never thought of getting an apple pie before, but now that I’m asked, well, sure, I do want an apple pie!
One of the first lessons in selling is to ask. If there’s no asking, there’s no selling.  Most cleaners don’t need to add more profit centers. They need to sell the ones they already have more effectively.
If a customer walked in to a plant of mine today, staffers would be trained to ask customers’ names first. At drop-off, they would ask anyone without a coat in their order to ask, “Are you planning to store your winter coat dirty this year?” At pickup, they would “remind” the customer of an upcoming or current special. “With the spring rains, you may want us to refresh your outerwear’s waterproofing. “Oh, you can waterproof coats?” they’ll say.
This is building awareness of something you do but rarely tell anyone about. Now,  you can clean and waterproof 20 coats this spring instead of cleaning and not water-proofing 20 coats—or not cleaning any. Unless you ask, you’ll be out several hundred dollars. And if the fast-food companies can train their people, why can’t you?
I don’t know of any cleaner that only does shirts and drycleaning. You know you do wash-’n’-fold. You know you do rugs. You know you do suedes and leathers. But do your customers know?
You could run a special on cleaning kids’ backpacks—what parent doesn’t notice how dirty they get? But if you never ask if they have kids in school, you’ll never tell anyone you can clean them. They may not want a backpack cleaned, but it might remind them of something else they wanted cleaned. “Oh, we do gown and uniform preservations here, too,” you’ll say. “We have a preservation service that handles your most precious items. Just let us know when you bring them in.”
Don’t offer something you can’t do, of course—selling is not lying. Selling is informing the customer and explaining the benefits if they have an interest.
For instance, I’ve never understood why more drycleaners don’t promote household packages in the fall. Customers want their holiday celebrations to be the best, and you can help by offering to clean a tablecloth, several place settings and napkins at a bundle price—“Cleaned Fresh & Spotless for Your Family & Friends.”
You can then go further, asking if guests are staying overnight during the holidays. “That can take a lot of time to get ready. Would you like us to do your linens and towels before you need them?” All at once, you show an interest in the customer, build loyalty as a company that cares, and build awareness of what you do. If the customer says no, that’s all that needs to be said.
Don’t be a drycleaner, be a problem-solver. Customers are focused on things other than drycleaning, and you must inform them about your life—your business—and how it can help them. Eschew the concept that all customers want to get in and out fast, and offer a respite from all the other, disinterested salespeople they’ll meet on this shopping trip. Give people a reason to slow down.
One good way to slow people down is to post a community bulletin board in your store. Locals can post information about team tryouts, parade schedules, or flyers from youths seeking yard or babysitting work. This helps make your counter area look busy—if everyone is in and out in five seconds, the store always looks empty. If you’re in a strange town, do you go to the restaurant with the empty parking lot or the one with lots of cars in front?
Too many cleaners think their clients know everything they do, and forget to sell them the extras. Always assume that customers—even those who have been using you for years—know nothing about what you do. If they do, miraculously, know a little bit about you and your services, offer them the equivalent of the apple pie. “I thought you cleaned such-and-such, but I never thought about doing it,” they’ll think or say aloud. “Now that you asked, cleaning such-and-such sounds like a great idea.’”


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