Lessons From Sammy the Cleaner

Those of us who spend our professional lives helping to create community between client brands and customers can sometimes forget that examples of exceptional community building take place in the most amazing places.
I give you Sammy the Cleaner.
Sammy is an amazing guy and owner of Crown Cleaners, a hole-in-the-wall dry cleaner in a Southern California strip mall. Sammy can teach us all about building community with customers — and the success it creates.
Sammy owns the smallest dry cleaning shop (at least in terms of square footage) in an area overflowing with dozens of dry cleaners. Yet, when you walk into Sammy’s place, his rafters are bursting with shirts and skirts and business suits sheathed in plastic, ready for their return journeys back into the world.
As someone who recently stopped by one of Sammy’s competitors to do a favor for a friend, I can tell you this business boom has not hit the others guys. In fact, given the bare rafters this one particular dry cleaner exhibited, it seems the economic downturn has turned the masses on to wash-and-wear.
So, why is Sammy so busy? There are a number of reasons:
• Every time my wife picks up dry cleaning either Sammy or one of his employees insists on carrying the laundry out to her car.
• One weekend, forgetting that Sammy opens at 9 a.m. on Saturdays (instead of his weekday 7 a.m. opening), I cruised into the parking lot and past his door. It was dark in his shop and, noticing I was an hour early, I proceeded to the end of the parking lot for a U-turn and a trip back home. As I made my turn, out popped Sammy who, without fanfare, simply opened the door and locked it in place to make it obvious I was welcome. Upon walking in, I mentioned I knew it was early and that I could certainly return. Sammy would not hear of it. He found my cleaning, handed it to me and, since he had not yet opened the cash registers, simply told me to pay on my next visit.
(How many times have you arrived early at a merchant, saw someone inside and had them ignore you until they were ready to “officially” open the place? Yes, we’ve all shared that frustration and most places still don’t get that the customer comes first.)
• Every person who worked for Sammy the day I began bringing my dry cleaning to him over two years ago is still with him.
• Sammy doesn’t ship out his laundry to a centralized, industrial cleaning center like many cleaners (who have become little more than middlemen). He and his people do it all on premises.

• I have experienced nary a scorch mark nor a cracked button.
• While his competitors charge over $3 per shirt, Sammy charges $1.
Let’s add it all up.
The amazing part about this story is that Sammy’s success has little to do with his prices. Most of his customers, I am certain, would patronize Sammy even if he charged as much as the other guys. (Why wouldn’t they? After all, he does a better job.)
It’s about the fact that Sammy’s customers feel recognized and appreciated, cared for, listened to, and that the price factors in as just another part of an overall value equation that puts smiles on the faces of all who walk through his door.
Smart guy that Sammy because, while his competitors may make more money on each individual piece of cleaning, Sammy figured out that delivering value keeps his racks and his cash register full.
Can he charge more? Perhaps jack up his shirt price to $2 and still undercut his competition by a full dollar? Sure. But he knows that what makes his place magic — from his attentiveness to people, to keeping his employees happy, to providing value to customers who increasingly feel ripped off at every turn — is an overall experience his customers can’t get anywhere else.
Sammy has created an amazing community because he has put the customer at the center. He is repaid for his consideration every time I come back — and every time I tell friends that there is only one place they should take their laundry.
If you have any doubts about the impact of treating customers this way, I leave you with one additional — and amazing — Sammy story.
Recently, I was in Nashville at a meeting when a person in the room asked from where I was traveling. She remarked that she had once lived in my area of Southern California. In the next sentence she said (and I take an oath here!) that she missed the sun and the surf of Southern California, but that what she truly missed was her dry cleaner and tailor, a guy named Sammy. She asked if I had ever heard of him.