A Dirty Business

by Don Hartness

“How long have you been alive?”

A strangely worded question. I decided to play along.

“30,” I replied simply.

“Well, I do this almost as long,” the old Italian chef told me with a stern look. “And there’s one thing I learn in all that time. All of you are crooks!”

My eyes widened slightly, as I dropped the bag of dirty towels, napkins, and tablecloths on the floor. He saw my expression, and waved his hand in acknowledgement.

“I don’t mean you! I know you just work there.  But your company…all of them…crooks!” he repeated in his thick broken accent.  “All of you; same thing. You offer to wash towels and aprons for lower price than competitor, but only for contract.” His blood pressure was rising. “I sign, you jack up price, and give many excuses! After years of fighting , I go to ‘nother company, same thing, all over again!!”

He was now red in the face. “CROOKS!!” he shouted.

I remained expressionless, listening to him vent, knowing full well that the best way to handle a disgruntled customer was to simply let them blow off steam. At the time, I thought it was the ranting of a bitter and cynical old man.

I mean, c’mon: everyone?

A few months later, another incident. Sorting through invoices, I noticed a duplicate replacement fee for damaged linen, even though I corrected the error the week before. Maybe it was an oversight, I thought, as I repeated the action. The next week, it was there again. And again. I called accounting and pointed out the problem. The next day, I got what turned out to be “the speech” from my boss.

“You do realize that we deal with thousands of pieces of linen every day, all dumped on a big conveyor belt” he said as he leaned back in his chair, a sign that this was just a ‘casual’ conversation. “And you do realize that matching a damaged piece of linen in that pile to a particular account, each and every time, is impossible for some gal named ‘Consuela’, right?”

I’d seen the sweat shop staffed with illegal legal immigrants. “Sure,” I replied.

“Then you understand why we have to keep these charges on the accounts, right? We don’t know who damaged what, and there’s no way to know, so we have to spread the pain around. It’s unfortunate, but there isn’t a better solution.”

He leaned forward, signaling the end of the ‘causal’ part of the conversation. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

I nodded and was dismissed. I did see his point. Even if a customer didn’t damage a piece of linen (towel, apron, napkin, or what-have-you) this week, the charge covered the two damaged pieces the restaurant was sure to have next week. In the restaurant business, damaged linen was simply a fact of life.  In the end, “it would all come out in the wash”.

Shortly after understanding “how things work around here” (a phrase said during my initial interview and reinforced during that conversation), I was given a new route involving a  majority of customers whom were threatening to quit. A revolving door of employees, bad service, and a billing nightmare (in which the pain was definitely not distributed evenly) were the chief culprits.

Balancing the need to spread the pain evenly, while still retaining clientele, I concocted a plan involving redistributed damage charges and temporarily lowered prices in exchange for renewed contracts.  I figured it was better to lose a little revenue while still keeping clients, then lose a lot of clients and a lot of revenue. My plan worked: I retained over ninety percent of the clientele. I was a hero.

During that time, the old boss was replaced by a new boss. One day, I was asked to cover the boss’s old route, since the guy replacing my new boss was out sick. “I need someone who understands how we do things around here, and I haven’t had time to train a filler,” he told me.  With map in hand, I proceeded to deliver a day’s worth of linen in an area I had never serviced.

I’ll never forget where I had my epiphany. After arriving at a doctor’s office in a strip mall, I checked the invoice: one bundle of dental towels. Shaking my head over such a small order (we charged a minimum service fee of $25), I grabbed the bundle and headed inside.  The staff was busy, so I passed my time peering at the decorations, the waiting room literature, the invoice…

(Total amount due: $65)

What the…?’ as I did a double-take. Nope: my eyes didn’t deceive me. My gaze moved up the page to the line items on the invoice. And there it was, right under the minimum charge for the towels…

LRC (Linen Replacement Charge): $40

Just then, the receptionist hurried over to me. “Hi, sorry, just really busy.” She grabbed my invoice and hurriedly scrawled her signature.

“You guys always like this?” I asked as I looked in disbelief at a staff of scurrying rabbits.

“Every day!” she laughed, handing the invoice back to me as she raced away to her next task. I could have delivered dead fish, for all she knew.

My boss’s former route was the highest revenue-earning route in the branch. As I got back in the truck and looked around at the inventory inside, I also noticed it was the lightest load I ever delivered. As I went to each stop, those customers that scrutinized their invoices found impeccably clean and ordered charges…

And for those who didn’t? Well, let’s just say that I now knew why he got promoted.

(“There’s one thing I’ve learned in all that time. All of you are crooks!”)

It all made sense now. The ridiculously huge pre-employment psych test was a measurement of your potential culpability. The “family” emphasis. The sneak-peak into the bonus-pay structure. All of it could be yours, as long as you understood “the way things work around here”; i.e., as long as your affections and values were in the right place.

The end came a couple of months later. I was once again summoned to my boss’s office. It seems the only reason I was a “hero” was because nobody actually noticed what I was doing. Corporate didn’t see a ninety-percent retention of clientele. Instead, they saw a ten-percent loss of revenue. Revenue always goes up; never down.

“The area manager wants to have a meeting with you,” my boss said gravely, hands in his pockets as he looked at his shoes. “He needs to set you straight about a few things.”

I didn’t need to look my boss in the eye to know what “setting me straight” meant. I saw his former route. I spent the last couple of months interviewing my customers about their experiences with our competitors. I now knew why “LRC” was charted alongside “revenue” on a big board for all to see.

I wasn’t interested in being “set straight”. Instead, I quit.

My reward for virtue is discussed in the next post…

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