What spending a hot summer in my town’s dry cleaner taught me about customer service

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I was a typical 15 yr old. I wanted money to hang out with my friends (the mall), buy music (albums) and go to concerts (think 80’s hairbands.) My allowance wasn’t cutting it so I decided to get a job. The challenge: I lived in a small town and I didn’t have a car, so my sparkly new job had to be in bike-riding distance. Keep in mind it was 2 miles to town from my house, so there was that. At the time, my choices were: gas station, dry cleaners, post office or bank. My dad said girls don’t pump gas, so that was out. Post office and bank said I had no relevant skills (duh) and so there I was standing in front of the local dry cleaner in my cutoff shorts and tank top as a steady stream of hot air rushed out the door. Not quite what I had in mind, but they gave me a job for $5/hr.

This job was not easy. It required standing in 100 degree + conditions each day with no A/C. Did I mention it was hot? It required taking people’s clothes and not losing them. I’ll get to that later. It required taking money and giving the correct change – without a calculator or iPhone – and balancing the register at the end of the night to the penny. It required taking orders from someone. I was never good at that. It required being nice and making small talk when you’re 15 and could care less. It was the worst job ever because of all of those things but it was the best job ever because it taught me how to serve.

Customer service is supposed to be about “The Serve.” It’s supposed to put me down a level from the customer because I am serving her by taking her clothes and tagging them and putting them in a bin and then, god willing, giving them all back to her nice and clean and pressed and perfectly de-stained when she comes back. I had no idea about The Serve. I was 15. My mom, who is a saint, washed all my clothes. She dropped off my dad’s shirts at the dry cleaner’s every week and picked them up. It was just part of the routine but had nothing to do with me.

Until my second day.

A woman came in to pick up a dress. Of course there was a line of people and it was just me behind the desk. I couldn’t find her dress. I checked the numbers a hundred times. I was sweating. She was waiting. There was no red dress with a zigzag design. What the heck do I do now?

I walked back to the desk and told her I couldn’t find the dress. She barked: “You’re not looking hard enough, miss!” I could feel my blood boiling. Who the heck was this woman barking at me? I wanted to scream at her or better yet run out the door into the cool air and go ride my bike with my friends and screw this job. But I somehow pulled it together and told her I would go look again. Now there were at least 5 people (felt like 50) waiting for me to take their things and now watching this show unfold. I went back into the bowels of the steam machines and searched for the red dress. Nada. I returned empty handed. She slammed her fist and demanded to speak to the manager, who of course, wasn’t there. I must have said I am sorry a zillion times. She was just screaming and people were waiting and I finally told her I would take her phone number and look for the dress and talk to the manager and call her before I left for the day. She was not happy but there was nothing more she could do then take a lamesauce response from a 15 yr old kid.

That’s when it clicked. She probably thought I was just some stupid kid and that she was going to have to call and lambaste me and the manager and everyone else to find the dress. This was my moment to serve. All of my parents’ hardwork finally coming to fruition as I pulled it together and did The Serve. I called the manager. He eventually came in and showed me where to look. I spent the afternoon combing thru bins and piles of tagged and untagged clothes. I scoured racks and rummaged through bags. And then I found it. The red dress. It had been placed in the alterations bin by accident and she was on holiday for two weeks. The manager cleaned and pressed it himself and put it in the bag. I told the manager I would call her and he said: “Get on your bike and take it to her house. No charge.” I showed up at her door with the red dress. I will never forget her face. After that, she was nice as pie to me and I always made sure to double-check the bins before I threw the clothes in and always smiled even when it was 100 and someone was yelling in my face.

Humility is a big part of The Serve. Listening, learning, rolling up your sleeves. It’s an important part of the journey and has served me well in my career. It also gives me huge appreciation every time I drop my clothes off to get cleaned and I’m sure to be extra nice and leave a tip. 🙂

This post was originally posted on Linked In on March 3, 2016.

 

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