Following Instructions

From the Ideas From Strange Places Department

I found myself at the laundromat for the first time in a very long time. I was a reluctant customer, but time was running out as evidenced by three rather large bags of laundry in my car’s back seat. Now, I’m the first to say customers aren’t stupid. But I have noticed over the years that the more customers you have, the more likely one will go off in a way that might give you that impression. On this particular day, it appears, I was that customer.

The Wascomat Sr. was new to me. Nothing from college days prepared me for the the giant, front loading beast that promised to do my laundry a hamper at a time. This was my kind of machine. A souped-up washer. I stuffed it full. I read the instructions. I filled the coin slide and pushed. Then…nothing. I tapped the machine. (Lightly I swear.) Nothing.

“Excuse me, the Wacomat stole my quarters,”  I interrupt the attendant as she is trying to set up a tanning appointment (yes, this is a state of the art Laundromat/Tanning Salon. Emoticon Thinking at work).

“Did you put the quarters in?”


“All of them?”


She looked at me. “Twice, you know 14 quarters. Did you do it twice.”

“Oh, Sorry.”

I was now a marked man. A laundromat Newbie. The counter lady was nice, but she had a knowing smile. Some in the crowded laundromat had noticed that I might be a better show than this day’s episode of Marty Povich on the overhead TV.

Back to the machine. 7 more quarters. Problem fixed.

Mistake two.

The Wacomat has slots for detergent, bleach and softener on top and what turns out to be excellent directions on the front. I’m neither a tall nor short man, and that is the excuse I will use for pouring the detergent into the wrong slot. Not a mistake that shows up during the wash cycle by the way, but one that becomes very entertaining during the rinse and spin. My machine neighbors mentioned how unusual this was and we discussed it. The longer it rinsed the more it foamed up.

Foamed up a lot.

Mistake three – How Much Laundry Detergent is Too Much? The answer to that question is – the amount I used.

“Looks like too much soap, oh, and we’ll have to wash out that slot.”

So I re-ran the wash. So much for saving time.

As the washer seemed close to finishing the second wash I pulled the handle, but it would not open. I realized that on a front loader that makes a lot of sense, don’t want the door open and water flowing out. So I sat back down and waited.

The red light never went off. I tried the handle again. Half an hour went by. The washer was done. It felt like everyone else had gotten their clothing and dinner, and were in bed and I was still waiting for my wash.

Back to the counter. “The Wocomat is broken. The door won’t open.”

“That happens all the time, that’s why we added ‘give the handle a shove’ to our instructions….”


“Don’t worry, it happens to everybody the first time.”

I am not a stupid customer, but I play one at the Laundromat.

Is there a life lesson? Sure. Customers will always find a way to use your product in a way you didn’t expect. No matter how well you write the instructions. No matter how well you design the buttons. They may be wrong. They may be innovative. They may even be looking directly at the instructions as they make their mistakes. You still need to find ways to treat wrong-headed customers in a way that delicately works them past their difficulties.

The attendant was friendly, always smiled and never made me feel bad for not understanding the Wacomat.

So, I’ll be back (lord knows my repair of the dryer hasn’t gone well) and next time I may just try out a Tan.

UPDATE 6/7/2009: This post is an unfortunately true version of events, and was also inspired by a ‘What I Learned From…” prompt over at Middle Zone Musings, which in the act of writing I promptly forgot to mention.

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25 Responses to Following Instructions

  1. J.D. Meier says:

    It sounds like you made it out relatively unscathed.

    In one of my mis-adventures at the laundromat, my clothes shrank beyond repair.

    I like how you turn your experience into a lesson in user experience design.
    .-= J.D. Meier´s last blog ..Crucial Moments =-.

  2. Calvin Klein says:

    I had a machine that needed to filled up with water before washing or starting the machine. But my mom forgot to put water and the clothes were tore. I was laughing so much and i could not control, this was one of my great experience and i am sure it has taught was a lot.

  3. Brad Shorr says:

    Hi Fred, Pity you didn’t video the episode. It would have made a sensational sitcom pilot (the name Wacomat is so appropriate). Yes, when you’re feeling stupid, there’s nothing worse than a customer care representative standing by to make you feel even more stupider. Since I can be rather slow on the uptake when it comes to mechanical tasks, I have many times swallowed the bitter pill customer service indignation – How dare you not understand my product! How dare you not appreciate its value! Being on the receiving end of those kinds of vibes will drive a person away permanently. People don’t mind being stupid as much as being condemned for it – hence the popularity of the “Dummies” DIY books. Great post, Fred!
    .-= Brad Shorr´s last blog ..Effective b2b Marketing Follows Branding =-.

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  5. Bill Welter says:

    What a hoot! Been there, done that! Glad I’m not alone.
    (You mean there are instructions??!!)

  6. kay plantes says:

    I went to BP to cash in my 90 cents off per gallon for the Roundy’s Copps grocery award. The end result
    * The first gas pump would not take the roundy’s card
    * I ran into the store and she said just press the pay inside button and I’ll give you credit
    * Which I did, but then the pump would not pump
    * So I moved my card to a new pump and filled up
    * only to be told by the cashier that my card now lost any credits as I’d moved my car
    and so I took 10 minutes longer than usual to get gas, never got the gas credit, and Copps-which was trying to build loyalty–just lost mine.

    If you do a promotion, make it foolproof.

    .-= kay plantes´s last blog ..Capitalize on Customer Frustration with Your Industry =-.

  7. I’ve had my share of shrinking moments as well. Thanks J.D.

  8. Hi Brad, Luckily or unluckily the video camera never seems to be on at the right time for me to win that $10K.

    If you work kindly with a customer, by the time they reach that aha moment (and realize they’ve been pretty dense) I think it turns them more loyal than ever.

  9. Hi Bill, Not only instructions, but very clear instructions. That’s what really kills me. I should have avoided all of this.

  10. Hi Kay, Foolproof? You’re asking a lot 🙂

  11. Paul C says:

    As you say, service is so important for business success. Managers need to make sure that their employees are friendly and forgiving, particularly when a customer makes an oversight. It may mean the difference between repeat business and oblivion. Enjoy your blog and have just subscribed.
    .-= Paul C´s last blog ..Antique Roadshow Hits $1 Million Jackpot =-.

  12. Hi Paul, Thanks for dropping buy. No question, kindness rules in customer service.

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  14. Andrew says:


    Entering a laundromat – you obviously have a lot more courage than I do.

    A laundromat represents a place where, for those who are not familiar with the correct operating procedure, ignorance can be exposed in a public setting, often with somewhat embarrassing consequences.

    However, I does sound as though you did well to come out relatively ‘unscathed,’ as J. D. Mier put it, and for that, plus the fact that you now are now familiar with the correct operating procedure, you should certainly feel as though you accomplished something worthwhile from the experience.

    I agree with your comments about the need for sales assistants to be flexible in terms of understanding about the mistakes of customers and to handle situations involving ignorance on the part of customers in a delicate and sensitive manner. Those who do may just pick up a loyal customer – not so for those who are unable to do this.
    .-= Andrew´s last blog ..What Ikea’s decision to halt expansion in Russia says about corruption =-.

  15. Fred, I love the story, and it DOES illustrate a few great customer service principles. And… I’ve been there too. *sigh*

    Hey, this one still qualifies for WILF, you know. I announced the topic on June 26, so anything posted after that works for me.

    Tip o’ the hat, Fred!

  16. Hi Andrew, Long ago I learned that the more I try to avoid embarrassment, the more likely it would find me anyway. (Really, in this case my only alternative would be to ‘air my dirty laundry in public’ 🙂 ) And yes, Kindness sure does deliver loyalty.

  17. Hi Robert, Well that’s good news! I’ll add the appropriate link. In thinking about it I know I had read about your prompt and probably had it in the back of my mind when writing. Thanks for dropping by.

  18. I’m sure your mom was not laughing! Thanks for visiting.

  19. Great story Fred and thanks for sharing it with us. I have only used a public laundromat a couple of times in my life – and only when travelling. Most recently when I was in New Zealand on a campervan site I found myself in a similar situation to you but there was no kindly attendant. Only a guy who was clearly as stumped as me. And he was German with little English and my school German did not run to laundry terms. But between us we managed to do our respective laundry and have a few laughs. Maybe the new social networking venues …no wait a minute ! They were the original social networking venues back in the day…
    .-= Jackie Cameron´s last blog ..A “saying no” update – an abusive “no” is never acceptable =-.

  20. Karen Swim says:

    ROFL! I am sure that the customers were entertained that day! LOL! When I was a young college student I found myself in a laundromat and I accidentally added to much soap. When the machine started washing, the foam didn’t just bubble up to the top it overflowed into a sea of thick white bubbles. The whole thing was like an episode of I Love Lucy as I frantically tried to get control of the bubbles and hold on to a shred of dignity.
    .-= Karen Swim´s last blog ..Is Your Brand the Man in the Mirror? =-.

  21. Hi Jackie, The good ol’ days when social networking was face-to-face. 🙂 Funny how something so familiar can throw us for a loop. Thanks for chiming in!

  22. What a great show (you at the laundromat and I Love Lucy 🙂 ). It is amazing how well that show still rings a chord today. My kids grew up with it on Nick at Nite and simply loved her antics. My daughter talked about it so much, one year her favorite present was a Lucy Vitameatavegamin doll. (And for those of you who don’t know – try Google, this is still Lucy’s word.)

  23. Karen Swim says:

    Fred, that was one of my favorite episodes! I can still watch that show and laugh as hard as I did the first time I saw it! lol! Thanks for the laughs and the great story!
    .-= Karen Swim´s last blog ..Is Your Brand the Man in the Mirror? =-.

  24. jan geronimo says:

    Wacomat? Seriously, Fred? That’s a dead giveaway. There must indeed symmetry in the cosmos: you’re so graceful on the page, Fred, but somewhat clueless in Wacomat. Highly entertaining, Fred. Love your story. Tell us your experience when you get your tan from Wacomat. 🙂
    .-= jan geronimo´s last blog ..My Philosophy in a Bottle of Ketchup =-.

  25. Hi Jan, Thanks for your kind words and for dropping by. To be honest, I have real concerns about what would happen if I mess up in the tanning booth the same way I managed to mess up the laundry. At least only my clothing was at risk then. 🙂

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