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Not Your Father's Customers

There’s been a lot of talk about change lately — especially among the politicians competing to represent us. And for many years, industry leaders have been saying that drycleaners need to “change with the times.” But what does that mean?
Doesn’t it mean your customers have changed? But they haven’t, have they? They still wear clothes, make them dirty, drop them off, pick them up and start the cycle over again. Nothing has changed — or has it?
The truth is that customers have changed. The ones you had 20 years ago lived through the Great Depression and two world wars. They trusted authority, respected the rules and followed a chain of command. They valued loyalty and returned it to those who earned their trust.
Many of these people have now retired. They may have moved to a warmer climate where they can golf all day, play bridge with their friends, and rarely get dressed up to go out for a night on the town. At best, they want their golf shirts pressed and a couple of nice suits to wear on special occasions. They may have been your best customers 20 years ago, but they won’t keep you out of the poorhouse now.
Today, you have new types of customers. Some grew up with traditional values and are used to wearing business clothing. They’re good customers and may hold senior-level management positions, if they haven’t been laid off. They are your present, but they have an eye toward retirement.
Then there are younger customers who may have little in common with you. These customers grew up with computers and the Web. They educate themselves and have high expectations of service providers. They know that they’ll have multiple jobs or careers in their lifetimes. They often multitask, even texting while driving.
The younger these people are, the more technology is integrated into their lives — from social networks to bill payment. They have never known a world without color TVs, cell phones, the Internet, global warming, college educations, individualistic values, and credit and debit cards, just to name a few.
Not only are these customers 20 years younger than the ones you lost, their experiences are different. They see the world through a different set of eyes than their parents and have different expectations of service. They even select service providers in different ways — which has a big impact on drycleaners wishing to win their patronage.
How do they find a drycleaner? We once believed that most customers saw a drycleaner’s sign as they drove past and stopped in. Signage was the No. 1 way customers found a store when they moved into a new area, with referrals a close second. Is the same true now?
Today’s customers spend most of their waking hours on their computers and mobile phones. The Internet is their biggest source of information. Looking for a restaurant? Check the Net. Want to get to a friend’s new house? Use your GPS or map it online.
Many people sit in front of computers at work, get on the phone during the commute and check e-mails at home. They book travel arrangements online and blog about their hobbies. Locating the closest drycleaner is the next logical task.
These are not your father’s customers — they’re your customers. They approach the world with different tools and different priorities. You can’t assume that what was true of your customers and their needs 20, 15, 10 or even five years ago is still true today.
Once found, what do these customers want? Of course, they want good work, on-time delivery and good customer service. This is the basic level of expectation; some customers want more — much more.
Environmental issues have grown significantly in the consumers’ minds. They now look for cleaners who share their beliefs, and factor it into purchasing decisions. They want to know that the businesses they patronize are socially responsible.
Are these most of your customers? Probably not yet, but their numbers are growing. Can you wait until this factor becomes more significant? Sure — just like you might have waited until customers tried to find you on the web and couldn’t. Don’t fall behind and then try to catch up with limited resources.
Others are looking for good communication and customer service. These may be people who work or have worked in customer service themselves, and know what “good” service is. Are a lot of customers willing to change cleaners to get better service? Maybe not a lot, but some.
Do your customers want home delivery? You have loyal customers who have never asked for it; some want it once they’re introduced to it. Are you at a competitive disadvantage by not offering it? Definitely. Will it hurt counter sales? Yes. Do you have to do it? Not necessarily — but you may be giving up on a few more customers.
What should you do? First, understand who you are. Know what you believe to be true about your customers and their needs. Then consider whether your beliefs about your customers are actually beliefs about yourself or the customers of yesteryear.
Next, look at working young adults today. How much time do they spend on their cell phones and in cyberspace? Examine the level of service to which they’re accustomed in the restaurants and clubs they frequent. Realize that they have a variety of interests, priorities and preferences. You can’t fulfill them all, but it’s a start toward recognizing the spectrum of customers you might have — and only then you can decide how best to serve them.

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].