What do shirt customers hate the most?

If we can get inside our customer’s heads, if we can understand what makes them happy and what makes them angry or annoys them, then we should be able to follow a path that leads us to a better shirt. I think that, in reality, we think that we know what is in their heads, but I suspect that many times we concentrate on our own pet-peeves and forget to put ourselves in the customer’s place. We forget to think like them.

The thing what makes this particular column difficult to write is that if my studies have shown that a missing button is a bigger service/quality violation than, say, a pressed in crease across the back, there is some kind of implication there that suggests that if a shirt has a missing button and a crease across the back, you must get the button first and, if you have time, fix the crease across the back. Or, if you replace the button but forget to fix the crease, you are better than if you fix the crease but forget to replace the button. This is not my intention at all. My intention is to remind you to never forget to think like a customer and see the big picture, as well as the details and to see the big picture in spite of the details. I believe that many launderers may be over-emphasizing one detail while remaining oblivious to the importance of another detail that, to a customer, is at least as significant as your personal pet peeve. You see, the customer never sees the big picture. All they ever see is their shirts – first soiled and wrinkled, then clean and pressed.

Consider this hypothetical shirt with a missing button and a wrinkle across the back. Assume that the inspection process caught one of the defects, but not the other. Take your pick. It doesn’t matter which you did and which you didn’t do. There is a part of our brain that wants credit from the customer for the defect that we did fix. Yes, it may be a sub-conscious desire for credit. In actuality, we (probably) don’t say; “Yes, Mr. Smith, you’re right. We smashed the collar buttons on your shirt and left them that way, but there used to be wrinkle in the cuff, and we fixed that. Aren’t you glad about that?”

You surely already know that a customer could not possibly care less about anything that you did, but he will likely be perturbed about the things that you didn’t do. The realization that doing shirts is a o job can’t be a surprise. Coming up with a list of what is important to a customer is arbitrary, but there is some logic and some science to it, so based on my experience as a customer, coupled with my experience as a shirt launderer, here is my semi-subjective list of possible quality defects. There are but two items on the list.

  1. I’ll have to say the worst thing that you can do is send a shirt back with a critical button missing. A non-critical button would be one that does not render the shirt unwearable, such as a sleeve button or the bottom button on the front or a pocket button. A critical button is probably any of the others. I remember something that happened to me about 35 years ago when I was relatively new in the wholesale shirt business. I expected that I may be recognized as the “shirt guy” when I packed my bags to attend the local DLI affiliate’s trade show. Wanting to make sure that I made a good impression, I packed a neatly and professionally folded button-down dress shirt – just one – to attend the convention. I brought along some casual clothes for the prior evening’s festivities. The morning of the convention, I was absolutely mortified that the singular dress shirt that I packed was missing a collar button! I was frantic, furious and desperate. After all, it was my employee that allowed this to happen. I sought out one of those little sewing kits that you can get from the front desk at a hotel, cut off the button on the sleeve and used that button to button-down the collar. I then sewed the button that was in the little sewing kit to the sleeve to replace the one that I’d cut off with my Swiss Army knife. I was extremely unhappy about doing this. I did not think like a shirt launderer or a drycleaner that day. Thinking like a drycleaner may have happened if I had with me another shirt to wear. I didn’t and was suitably annoyed. This experience taught me to think like a customer. Way before it was fashionable to say “think out of the box”, I was out of this box that we refer to as our plants and was thrust into a situation that forced me to experience a problem that a customer could have. I would have learned little or nothing from this experience if I had simply tossed the unwearable shirt back into my suitcase and wore another one, perhaps just a tad sympathetic to plight of plant employees. I got my shirts done for free. There were no allowances for that in my thought processes on this particular day. A customer would likely be even more perturbed if he or she had jingled up a few of bucks for an unwearable garment.
  2. If any area in the upper, front part of the shirt has a hard, pressed in wrinkle, like a diagonal crease going from the collar button area down towards the armpit, the shirt is unwearable. Picture a shirt that is folded over an 8×14 shirt board. The collar of the shirt and any other part that is visible while the shirt is folded is the critical part of the shirt. This area is top priority. I really hate it when I see a touch-up person ironing out the wrinkles in the tail of the shirt, justifying their existence on the payroll, but leave an ugly crease in the collar or at some other, clearly visible place. I guess that they leave the latter because it’s harder to fix. The problem here, other than simply not doing as good a job as possible, is failure to think like a customer. Do you really think that it matters to the average customer whether or not the tail of the shirt is pressed perfectly wrinkle free? It is a low priority touch-up.

Now my own words are misleading. “Low-priority” touch-up sounds like something that you do when you have run out of high-priority touch-ups or when there are no high-priority touch-ups to attend to. This is flawed for at least two reasons: First, it leads to a variable standard. Secondly, it will cause a touch-up person to migrate towards the types of touch-up that are easy to do, not those that are important to the customer. Outwardly, your touch-up person will look busy always, but the labor used will not be significantly improving your shirts. Doing unnecessary touch-up often leads to excess labor cost. It snow-balls into extra-ordinarily high labor cost if left unchecked.

When management sets standards for touchup people, it is easy to measure their effectiveness. For instance, let’s say that the standard at XYZ Cleaners is these three quality points:
1- All wrinkles removed from the tail of the shirt. The touch-up person must remove curls or folds that have been pressed in by the body press.
2- The box pleats on the back of the shirt need to be within an inch of each other in length. There are some cleaners that have this rule. Now I want to make clear that I don’t disapprove of this rule, it’s just that I doubt that a customer would consider it important. More importantly, there are perhaps more generic – less specific – defects that a customer would object to, but because the quality of the shirt can not be judged so decisively as it can be with a yardstick in this case, management may unconsciously approve a substandard shirt.

These standards will raise the quality standard of your shirts, but these standards have an unspoken assumption. That assumption is that the shirt is already “perfect.” Huh?

If you adopt standards such as these, you must have an exceptional shirt to start off with. All of the things that a customer expects must already be a given. If you choose to raise the bar beyond that what a customer expects, then you are an exceptional business person. I once wrote; “…exceed a customer’s expectations and you will succeed.” This is as true as it ever was.

So the key is to know what they expect, never forget it, give them that, then go beyond. Let’s take a look at what they expect:

  • A clean shirt, no ring around the collar, no stains
  • A smoothly pressed collar, no wrinkles
  • The collar folded exactly where it should be – right on the seam
  • The perfect level of starch (or lack of it). They might not know what it’s called, light starch, heavy starch, secret-double heavy starch, but they have in their minds what they think is right and what is wrong.
  • Two collar buttons in the perfect condition, firmly attached with the proper color thread. If the button is chipped, cracked or broken, they will not understand because they are not likely to be familiar with the processes through which their shirts undergo. If a button looks like it went to war, the customer may conclude that you put the shirt through a more rigorous ordeal then they do themselves.
  • A smooth, hard-pressed button-hole band. No bubbles, wrinkles or rough-dry look.
  • The entire front of the shirt free of pressed-in wrinkles. No rough dry area. If you’ve raised the bar on quality and gave your customers higher expectations then good for you. Doing things like this will certainly keep your competitors on their toes.
  • The entire back of the shirt free of pressed-in wrinkles. No rough dry areas here either.
  • There are lots more things

Frankly, I could go on and on and still forget some specifics. My point, this month, is to remind you to take care of your customer’s annoyances before your own, even though you may find that your customer’s annoyances are harder to measure than your own

In a nutshell: ABC Cleaners and XYZ Cleaners both do an extra-ordinary shirt. ABC Cleaners wants a competitive edge over XYZ. He decides to iron in the sleeve pleats, clip the cuffs together with clips and iron out every little crease in the tail of the shirt. ABC oozes attention to detail and trumps XYZ. We, of course, must assume that ABC is still doing all of the things that had him doing an extra-ordinary shirt in the first place. If ABC gets so caught up in doing the 3 little things that were meant to outdo XYZ, but in the meantime has allowed buttons to become a problem, ring around the collar to become more common and press quality to become an issue, does ABC still trump XYZ?

“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.”

Picture of Donald Desrosiers

Donald Desrosiers

Don Desrosiers has been in the laundry and drycleaning industry for over 30 years.  As a management consultant, work-flow systems engineer and efficiency expert, he has created the highly acclaimed Tailwind Shirt System, the Tailwind System for Drycleaning and Firestorm for Restoration.  He owns and operates Tailwind Systems, a management consulting and work-flow engineering firm.  Desrosiers is a monthly columnist for The National Clothesline, Korean Cleaners Monthly, The Golomb Group Newsletter and Australia's The National Drycleaner and Launderer.   He is the 2001 winner of IFI's Commitment to Professionalism Award.  He has a website at www.tailwindsystems.com and can be reached at tailwindsystems@charter.net or my telephone at 508.965.3163