Saving Face at The Front Counter

Howard Scott |

CHICAGO — Your store’s front counter is its primary point of customer contact. What your customers think about your business is mostly formed there, through interactions with your staffers. You should do everything you can to make sure these encounters go smoothly.
For example, if you have a British-accented, educated and attractive young woman who understands drycleaning thoroughly at the front end, customers will be bowled over. They’ll come in with extra orders just to have a conversation. They will forgive her (rare) mistakes because one tries to be polite to a lady. They will tell their neighbors, coworkers and anyone else within earshot to visit your operation, ranting deliriously about how great the service is.
Never underestimate your counter help. But do assess their capabilities from time to time. How would your staffers handle the following situations?

  • A woman brings in a dress that appears well-worn and has several stains on it. It has been cleaned recently, and the customer wants the stains removed without recleaning the garment.
  • A customer says she was charged a different price the last time her dress was cleaned.
  • A customer is angry that the shop charges more for a laundered women’s blouse than for a men’s shirt.
  • A customer brings in a raincoat for drycleaning and asks if it should be waterproofed.
  • A customer picks up a completed job, points out a stain and says, “That wasn’t here when I brought it in.”
  • A set of buttons on a garment dissolves in drycleaning.
  • A customer comes in saying you screwed up on the last two orders. He hands you a new order and says, “This is your last chance.”

Would they pass your test? You already know how to handle the above situations, and can at least be convincing in what you say to satisfy the customer. But you shouldn’t be the one who handles all problems. What will your counter staffers do to remedy these delicate situations?
If your front-counter people are as good as the refined woman in the second paragraph — the recent Harvard grad with the beautiful smile and impeccable diction — they will smooth over any controversy with aplomb. She might say something like, “Well, yes, we do make mistakes, but that only shows we’re human, don’t you think?” That would placate the angry/frustrated/perturbed customer. But is there anyone like that at your front desk? 
The next-best thing to innate ability is training. Rote learning (“Here’s what you do when X happens) will not work. Instead, you must teach counter staffers to think like drycleaners. Given employee turnover rates and actual training time, it’s a tall order, of course, but a vital one.
Let’s take the situation in which the buttons dissolve. The customer is understandably mad that the error wasn’t caught in inspection and fixed. The customer is also angry that production didn’t prevent the problem altogether.
A counter person must anticipate potential problems like these. When bringing out orders, he or she should glance at them to see if there’s anything amiss. If something is wrong, the staffer should identify the problem before the customer can.
If your staffer doesn’t catch anything and the customer discovers the melted buttons, he or she should be contrite. He or she must act surprised, as if it doesn’t usually happen, and he or she must be apologetic. He or she must “read” the customer and respond accordingly.
For example, our perfect hostess might laugh and say, “We thought you’d look better open-shirted.” Or she might say, “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Devlin, I just don’t know how this escaped the inspector.” Or she might say, “I don’t know how this happened, but we’ll fix it to your satisfaction, and get to the bottom of the problem.”
Some customers demand more than others, and many will need an explanation. In a situation in which a customer wants to know why a woman’s blouse costs more than a man’s shirt, the staffer should offer a detailed explanation of how a shirt could incur upcharges.
Practicing the explanations will help perfect them. An explanation won’t solve the problem, but it will furnish the customer with information that helps reduce their level of frustration.
Next, the staffer must devise a solution. For example, if a customer sees a stain and says it wasn’t there when he or she brought it in, the staffer must think fast. Usually, the policy is to satisfy the customer all of the time, but if a particular customer has a history of unreasonable demands, the staffer could say, “That couldn’t be, sir. Here’s a tag that says the stain was discovered at check-in, and another that says the stain couldn’t be removed.”
He or she then might discuss how certain stains get so embedded in fabric that they can’t be removed. The staffer might also suggest redyeing the fabric to mask the stain as a possible solution.
Finally, the staffer must consider how to pacify the customer. In the situation in which the customer complains about previous goof-ups, the staffer might offer, “I will write ‘special treatment’ on the order, and I will see personally that it is handled properly.” He or she might say something like, “Allow me to write you up a coupon for $5.00 off this order. It’s the least we can do to show you how sorry we are.”
Counter staffers who can think on their feet are like gold in the drycleaning business. Anticipation, contrition, explanation, solution, pacification — come up with your own set of steps and then train your staffers to keep your customers.

About the author

Howard Scott

Industry Writer and Drycleaning Consultant

Howard Scott is a former business owner, longtime industry writer and drycleaning consultant. He welcomes questions and comments and can be reached by writing Howard Scott, Dancing Hill, Pembroke, MA 02359; by calling 781-293-9027; or via e-mail at [email protected].


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