At one time or another, each of us in the contract cleaning industry has encountered one of those jobs that truly tests your patience and ingenuity. How we deal with those difficult cleaning situations can make the difference between an excellent contractor and a mediocre one, as well as whether it is a profitable job or one that disappoints or worse yet, bleeds red.
Whenever I am faced with one of those jobs that looks like more trouble than it’s worth, I keep in mind a few simple truths. First of all, if it was easy the customer wouldn’t need you to do it! The more difficult and time-consuming the job, the less likely the customer is to opt to do the job in-house. Secondly, if you open the yellow pages of any large metropolitan area, you will find page after page of cleaning companies. Any one of those competitors can probably handle a routine cleaning assignment, something with few complications and minimal deviation from basic cleaning.
The truth is, some of your smaller competitors may even be able to out-compete you on price for some of the smaller and simpler jobs. It is how you approach and handle the really tough opportunities that sets you apart from the myriad competitors in the phone book. Finally, if you cannot only meet, but exceed your customer’s expectations on a difficult job, you will earn his trust and respect, which in turn leads to repeat and new business opportunities.
Several years ago I was asked to bid a stripping and waxing job at a local hospital. Like most hospitals, they maintained their own in-house environmental staff, but due to hiring and staff shortages they were falling behind in the upkeep of their facility. The director of environmental services informed me that they had tried a couple of other contractors, but were either unhappy with the quality of work or the contractors were just not able to adapt to the schedule or difficult nature of working in a hospital environment.
After meeting with our contact it became apparent that this would not be just another floor job. The expectations for the quality of work would be high, and securing the area we would be working in would be almost impossible. I offered to do the job as a “demo” and as an introduction to our company and our capabilities. That demo, in turn, led to a mutually beneficial relationship that lasted for several years. For our part, we received as much floor work as we could handle (sometimes more than we wanted) and eventually branched out into subcontracting general cleaning duties on a weekly basis. As for the customer, this solved his staff-shortage problems and kept his floors on the required cleaning schedule.
On the surface it sounds like a textbook win-win situation. On one hand you have a loyal and happy customer, and on the other, a contractor who has steady and profitable work. Piece of cake, right?
Well, anyone who has ever worked in the cleaning profession has heard the expression “hospital clean” at least once before. When cleaning in a medical environment, whether it is a dental office, medical clinic or large hospital, the customer's expectations are exceedingly high. One missed hair or dirt build-up along the corner of a door jamb can give the impression that the area is unhygienic. And in a hospital environment, this is unacceptable. Being absolutely clear on the customer’s expectations is critical to head off complaints before they occur. Lowering your normal production rates, allowing for increased supervisory involvement, or assigning your strongest team members to the difficult jobs are some of the tools you can use to eliminate the potential issues before they happen.
One of the more difficult aspects of doing floor work in a hospital setting is the challenge of maintaining a safe work environment. Unlike most office buildings, which empty at the end of the workday, hospitals never shut down. Even at 3 a.m., a hospital wing is a beehive of activity. It never fails that as soon as we put floor stripper down in an area, a lab technician would come along and need to draw blood from one of the patients, or the kindly older gentleman in room 908 would hit the nurse call button to get an extra blanket, just as we were applying the third coat of finish in front of his room.
As it became apparent that no amount of “Caution Do Not Enter” tape, “Area Closed” signs or floor barricades were going to quell the flow of foot traffic through our work area, we, in turn, got creative. We quickly became adept at stripping and waxing onehalf of a hallway at a time, thereby ensuring a safe, dry passageway through the area we were working on at the time. For the cost of a few pieces of lumber and half of a sheet of plywood, we constructed a lightweight bridge that could span the length needed to reach from halfway in the hallway into a patient’s room for those times when the hospital staff needed to reach a patient located on the side of a hallway that was not dry. This allowed the hospital staff to attend to their patients without the risk of crossing a hazardous floor surface and to reach those patients quickly and safely in the event of an emergency.
In those instances where we had to put our bridge down across fresh wax…well, that’s just the way it had to be. Once the blood had been drawn or the blanket distributed, we would look at our ruined floor, sigh and start over. Sometimes it seemed as if we had to do the same floor area a half-dozen times before we could get the final coat dry without someone destroying it. Invariably, my floor technicians would get frustrated, and I would have to remind them that the care of the patients took precedence over our floor work. I would say, “What if that was your mother or father, sister or even you in that room? Think of it that way, take a deep breath and count to 10.” After my team had regained its composure, they would grudgingly agree, and one of the crew would usually remind me that it didn’t matter how many times they had to re-wax the same area because I was paying them by the hour anyway. It was usually about then that I would go off in search of the head nurse in a vain attempt to get a prescription for some blood pressure medication and a handful of sedatives!
Looking back, I realize that being involved in that difficult cleaning environment over the course of a few years enabled me to grow as a person and as a manager. Each time I approach a new bid situation, I am reminded to ask myself what is the unexpected factor to this job that is not readily apparent? What are the customer’s expectations and what will it take to not only meet those expectations but to exceed them? Have I encouraged creativity so that those around me will be able to “think outside the box” and come up with solutions when others only see obstacles? And finally, having faced difficult challenges in the past, how can I achieve the confidence to face them in the future?