Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Everett Childers |

People often compare drycleaners and airlines in terms of service and competition. Both industries make a profit on how well they price their product in a highly competitive marketplace, and both benefit from providing quality service.
Both industries also deal in safety — airlines keep people safe from accidents by building redundancies into every system. Drycleaners keep customers’ clothes safe while they’re in their custody for renovation.
An airline will get you from Point A to Point B and back. A drycleaner will give you back your garment clean, pressed and ready to wear — sort of the “Point A” of a garment. And the two industries are alike in another way: They used to offer their customers a much more pleasurable experience.
I’m old enough to remember when flying was elegant, hassle-free and even relaxing. The service from the ticket agents, gate agents and flight attendants (they called them stewardesses then) was beyond reproach. Even the cockpit crew would thank you for flying their friendly, exotic skies. In the event of bad weather or a mechanical problem, they would communicate the problem and reassure customers that the flight would arrive safely, as close as possible to its scheduled time.
Can anyone remember when drycleaners were pleasant places to take your clothes to be cleaned — when a caring counterperson routinely, courteously greeted you? You were then assured that they would do their magic on your clothes and get them back to you when promised.
As a consumer, you knew they would care for your clothing and take as much pride in having them cleaned and pressed as you would in wearing them. They might have had the occasional delay, but someone would talk to you in person and tell you that a particular stain was difficult to get out, that they would take care of it, and that they were very sorry for the inconvenience.
Airlines used to sell tickets over the telephone or from a ticketing office — a very personal experience. Today, most people buy tickets on the Internet or pay an extra $20 for the privilege of talking to a live operator. A decent in-flight meal is rare; pillows and blankets are a thing of the past. The airlines’ most recent “innovation” is to charge for checking the bags one needs to travel.
If you buy a ticket and need to change your flight, it may be cheaper to buy a whole new ticket than it is to pay the penalty and make the change. Airline customers are starting to rebel, reporting planes that sit on the tarmac for as long eight hours before the flight  is cancelled or returns to the gate.
Since deregulation, several airlines have gone out of business; more have gone into bankruptcy while slashing the things that once made them great. Even the oldest, most respected airlines are scrambling to stay afloat by charging for in-flight soft drinks, pillows and blankets. One even considered charging to use the toilets.
Amid the bankruptcies and mergers, respect for the airlines has hit an historic low. On-time performance has suffered due to layoffs. Most airlines have downsized by cutting routes and frequencies, and retiring aircraft. Airline management has made it more difficult, expensive and inconvenient to fly, and the government charges almost as much in taxes on every ticket as the fare.
What the airlines now have is a service that is overpriced, unpleasant and inconvenient. It has surly customer-service people, long lines and inconvenient boarding procedures thanks to too many carry-on bags. Layoffs in maintenance mean that sometimes the windows are so smudged, it’s difficult to see out of them.
There are a couple of airlines that stand out from the rest. They have clean airplanes, friendly employees and a level of service that’s at least close to pre-recession levels. Even though people are traveling less, when they do travel, they flock to these operators.
Is the same thing happening in drycleaning? I’m afraid the answer is yes. Since the recession began, we’ve seen plants go out of business or go bankrupt. We’re faced with similar challenges as the airlines as consumers tighten their belts — increased operating costs and fewer customers.
Like the airlines, many plants have curtailed wages to the barest minimum. Some have cut a day of production each week in order to save on payrolls — or eliminated entire positions. (A better strategy is to reduce everyone’s hours instead of making layoffs; it makes employees think of themselves as a team, rather than wonder whether they’re next.) Employees stay not because they’re happy, but because jobs are so scarce — and the service they provide suffers.
We hire a new person at the lowest wage possible and immediately put them at the front counter to take care of our prized customers. Most drycleaners don’t have a dress code, so whatever the employee wants to wear is what the customer sees. Even the airlines train their customer-service people.
We tell customers when their orders will be ready, but too often, an excuse is pinned to them when they get them back; it says we were too incompetent to remove even the simplest stain. We try to cut costs by reducing distillation, and residues and odors stick to customer garments.
We delay equipment upgrades, maintenance and upkeep. We let management issues slide and let finishers dictate quality, never inspecting garments before pickup. We reduce finishing itself to steaming and bagging, and think we’re really efficient.
To survive, you must reduce expenses, but never take away from what’s necessary to produce a quality garment. Use the downtime to upgrade employee skills. Maintain a cheerful atmosphere in your plant and a good value for the price charged. You’ll soon be one of the better cleaners — one that soars through the downturn.

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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