A lesson in customer service: The Cambodian laundry

Phnom Penh

Outside the laundry shop, Phnom Penh

I don’t know what it is about travelling, but we seem to be particularly aware of the extreme levels of service when we are away from home. We all have stories of the appallingly bad; whether it is imcompetence, incomprehension or service given with added undiluted hostility. Occasionally though we also experience the very highest standards of service, and often it’s found in the places where we least expect it.

One such case for us was in the suburb of Phnom Penh where we staying over Christmas. We were overdue for a laundry day, and needless to say the hotel we were staying in was not an option (it would have come to around $50; exactly what we paid for a night’s stay). Walking through the neighbourhood we didn’t find any of the $1/1kg laundry signs that were so prevalent in the tourist hot-spots of Laos. But we did find a place that looked as though they might wash our clothes (a general store with a clothes line hanging limply from a streetside pole along the side of the shop). I tried to ask the family seated around a table in the shop whether they do laundry but none of them understood a word and after many smiles and blank faces we walked away.

Undeterred, I returned later with a rucksack full of dirty clothes. It must have been around 5kg worth, and the main man greeted us and tipped out our laundry, carefully separating it into neat piles and all the while tapping numbers into his calculator. I feared the worst while he added the items and he seemed to add on many extra fugures before showing me the final figure: $4.81. I nodded with a poker face and he signalled I should come back at 8 o’clock the next morning.

And here’s where he excelled. When we walked past the shop that evening, we saw our washing hanging in the street. We went up and found that it was completely dry, so asked him if we could take it there and then. He was not happy for us to take it as he signalled that it wasn’t finished. After much persuasion he allowed Sam to take a couple of items she needed and he hung on to the rest. When I collected the remaining clothes in the morning, every item was neatly pressed and carefully folded. He was full of gratitude and the family later waved and smiled warmly at us when we passed the shop again during our stay.

Why have I shared this very ordinary story? For me he personified what it means to excel in delivering customer service. He could teach many businesses much bigger than his own about the essence of customer service. The pride he took in doing the job to the highest standards was striking. He could have easily let us take our clothes away and spare himself the extra task of ironing. We would have been happy customers at that point. But it wasn’t enough for him to leave it at that. He insisted on finishing the job properly, whether we appreciated it or not. How many of us will go the extra mile when our own pride in the quality of our work is the only reward?

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

3 Responses to “A lesson in customer service: The Cambodian laundry”

  1. Having worked in the customer service industry for over ten years I really appreciated this story. Thanks. In order to be good at customer service you have to truly enjoy what you do, have integrity in the way you do your job, and most importantly sincerely want to please your customers. Money of course is always a motivation too, but for those who really care it is not the most important aspect. I liked the way this story exemplified that fact.

    March 9, 2010 at 11:11 pm
  2. Thanks Ted. Very true that for those who show the most exemplary levels of service, money is rarely the primary motivator. It is a pride in doing a job to the highest standard. It’s great to find these people and to know that they DO exist!

    March 10, 2010 at 4:59 pm
  3. Mat Roberts #

    Wonderful story! My wife and I will be in Laos next spring or summer; do you remember the name of the store, or any physical distinctions so we might find it, as well?

    October 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm