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Business insights while standing in line, again

Have you ever wondered why you keep going back?

(Tales of shame from the Dry Cleaners)

Have you ever been so busy in life that you've forgotten whether you're still enjoying it?

Have you ever found yourself after a less than sparkling customer experience asking yourself, 'why do I keep putting up with this?'

I can relate.

In this article

Commoditisation stalks all small businesses

The specter of the 'commoditisation C curve' will continue to pursue most businesses - some of whom will simply not reopen their doors next year because of it.

So now may be the perfect time to consider if commoditisation is stalking your small business too?

Below is a tale of one such business that didn't successfully deal with commoditisation and by the time you’re reading this, will have ceased trading unable to compete on price alone.

Starched collars (and occasional cat hair)

Working with small business owners and other professional people, I usually wear long sleeves shirts so at the end of a busy week, I can have 5-7 shirts that require laundering and - ironing.

Now if you’re like me, the ironing part is an ongoing area of concern.

If I'm without a laundered shirt, I feel I can't see a customer - if I had to launder them myself, I’d go mad.  And if I attempted a localised outsourcing to a family member, the prospect of having to iron 24 of dad's shirts in my house is akin to turning off the Wi-Fi, and other cruel and unusual punishment of a teenager. If I labour the topic, more disturbingly, it's considered legal grounds for a marital discord with significant financial and physical ramifications!

So, like any good business owner - I outsource relational bliss (and starched collars) to the local Dry Cleaner (secretly despising the expenditure of hard-earned money to an otherwise commoditisable task).

Herein begins my tale of woe

For many years, I had an aggressively grumpy dry cleaner who could put Seinfiel's Soup Nazi (from the 116th episode sitcom Seinfeld), to shame.

She would adopt a scold and shame approach to her customer experience for those waiting in line. In her loudest broken English, the cost of the cleaning was discounted by her public scolding of customers for a variety of their soiled wardrobe failures.

The shame-inducing process of going to my Dry Cleaner

The public scolding's would range from;

'Are you messy eater - how you silly stain this dress lady?' 'You want washed and iron when?' My personal penance was, 'Why! so many you can't wear all at once’,' through to, ‘this shirt ooold you throw away - don’t waste me clean.’

The perennial favourite, usually reserved for delivery in amplified tones - ‘Cat hair! You bring Cat hair! You clean first before you bring me cat hair. I no clean for you!’


Stockholm Syndrome and My Dry Cleaner

Upon reflection, I wondered why I’d allowed this caustic customer experience to continue in my life?

Had I unconsciously slipped into Stockholm Syndrome with my dry cleaning captor? The thought of her holding all 36 of my precious business shirts at once leaving me bereft - admittedly would cause me angst. Perhaps I was overcome by lack of time, preyed upon by the convenience of easy parking (or did her low price captivate my inner Scrooge?)

The dashed hope of a complimentary small repair

One morning while standing in line, it all came to a head when I noticed a loose button on my best suit jacket.

Maybe she would offer to sew it back on, I wondered? Maybe she would do it complimentary, I wondered? But then I also wondered, was this an appropriate conversation to have with my Dry Cleaner?

That morning, the louder her pre-purchase scolding, the more I revised down my earlier estimates of success. As I nervously inched towards the front of the line searching for words to ask, I steeled myself for her steely stare and disapproving commentary at this week's fresh shirt stains. I was ready.

But then, horror upon horror ─ the loose button I had been fingering ─ fell off in my hand. I was left holding an armful of shirts on one side and clutching a single button in the fingers of my free hand on the other (like one would clutch a precious coin as if your future depended upon its very safety). Before I even had the chance to ask, the last crisp command I remember coming from my Dry Cleaning captor was, ‘I no sew, you no ask me’.

Only then did I see I’d developed what experts described as Stockholm syndrome - ‘an unhealthy psychological alliance with my captor' as a survival strategy during dry cleaning captivity.’

As I stood there clutching the now disattached button, I saw I needed to break free from this weekly anticipation of gloom and - find another kinder Dry Cleaner.

I decided there and then, I hated my grumpy Dry Cleaner.

It was time to remove another unnecessarily gloomy expectation from my weekly routine and break free.

The search for Dry Cleaner Freedom

And so began my mission to find a dry cleaner with a smile and a ‘thank you for your business we appreciate you,’ approach to their customers (and perhaps a more evolved commercial approach, howbeit hidden behind the smile of gritted teeth, to the occasional occurrence of cat hair.)

Upon my escape - like all who escape from the paradoxical familiarity of such long-time captives, I asked, 'How long have I allowed this type of behaviour in my suppliers, my customers and in my life?'

The only commercial advantage was it was closest to the door at the local shopping center and parking was relatively easy.

Dry cleaning had long ago become a commodity left to compete only upon price.

Without a positive customer experience, I was not emotionally tethered to that particular store.

The masochistic process of going to my Dry Cleaner

No matter how much I tried to smile and present a role model of a positive customer experience back to the supplier - (yes the irony is not lost on me...) I found myself thinking out loud - why am I paying for this negative experience?

Am I prepared to do this for the rest of my life? (And if not, for how long then?)

Why would I start my week this way, every week for the rest of my life? Am I prepared to continue to pay hard-earned money for criticisms and scoldings? Am I enabling bad business behaviors and therefore become an enabler and passive participant in this skit? *yikes*

So I walked away ─ with 36 long sleeved shirts in hand, a loose button in a suit jacket pocket and a happy commitment to willingly pay more or drive more or, well, whatever the more was needed - to buy a better customer experience.

In January the following year I'm so happy to report, I found my new Dry Cleaner who smiles at me and says, ‘thank you, we appreciate your business’.

I’m happy to pay more for the smile, even if I have to park a little further away too.

(They also sew loose buttons for free and don't mention the cat hair).

I love my new Dry Cleaner.


So what was the annual revenue loss to that business of a loose button?

  • Laundering 7 shirts @ $28 x 50 weeks = $1,400 pa
  • Dry cleaning 5 suits @ $23 x 4 quarters = $460 pa
  • Combined: $1,400 + $460 = $1,860 each year for 10 years of custom.

The last word

Commoditisation can be resisted with a better relationship with the customer.

Drew Browne Modern Small Business thought-provocateur
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