Years ago, former vice president Dan Quayle was soundly ridiculed in the media for his less-than-sage aphorism: “If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure.”

But, maybe he was on to something. Failure and success are odd bedfellows, anyway. Maybe the vice president meant to say: “If we do not fail, we run the risk of not succeeding.”

Further research demonstrates that if that’s what he really meant, then his only crime is haphazardly paraphrasing someone far more qualified to muse about success and failure — Dr. Joyce Brothers.

“The person interested in success has to learn to view failure as a healthy, inevitable part of the process of getting to the top,” she tells us.

Another thing you eventually learn about making mistakes is that it’s usually the most successful among us who have little misgiving when it comes to sharing theirs with the rest of us. They assume that all of us — in this case, all of us in the business of cleaning facilities — have at least one life-altering, not-so-funny-at-the-time mistake that we would take back if we could.

And, even though they can’t take them back, we found a number of building service contractors out there willing to share the ways in which “that worst mistake ever” made them better people — certainly, much better business people.

Forgive us one more quotation, then, gleaned from our hours of research on the subject of making mistakes: “If you got the guts to stick it out, you are going to make it.”

So, here goes. Hopefully you’ll learn from the mistakes of people who not only lived to tell the tale, but had the guts to stick it out and, indeed, make it in a big way.

Something in the air…
Unfortunately, sometimes mistakes come with costly consequences. That’s why Bill Friske, CBSE, president, Friske Building Maintenance Co. (FBMC), Livonia, Mich., does not hesitate to tell this story. He wants to keep others from making the same expensive error.

In the early 1990s, FBMC was hired to clean a manufacturing plant’s ceramic-tiled lobby floor. While the tile itself cleaned up fine, the grout was especially dirty and still required more attention.

“As most contractors know, grout is one of the toughest cleaning challenges we face. We used every cleaning product and tool we had, but could not clean the grout,” says Friske. “That’s when the customer suggested we use muradic acid on the grout. [The customer] had recently used it on the grout around his tiled swimming pool with great success.”

Friske followed the client’s advice, and purchased the muradic acid. After taking safety precautions such as using personal protective equipment and allowing for proper ventilation, the crew went to work. The grout cleaned up well; so, the crew packed up the equipment and locked down the facility for the weekend.

“The following Monday we received a call from the customer that the elevator door was now ‘bronzed’. The same was true for picture frames, window-blind hardware and door hinges. A number of computers were destroyed. Seems that their internal components had corroded,” says Friske. “It turns out that the muradic acid vapors had gone airborne and were drawn into the building’s air handling system. We failed to account for that!”

The chemical misuse caused $80,000 in damages. But Friske’s troubles were just beginning. The insurance company would not cover the damage because airborne vapors from cleaning products are considered air pollution. Most policies exclude air pollution coverage unless specifically requested at an additional premium, says Friske.

“Many months and a few court dates later, we settled with the insurance company, but it wasn’t a happy ending,” he adds.

It didn’t take FBMC long after that experience to get the necessary training to deal with difficult grout in a safe and non-destructive manner, says Friske.

And, at least in the end, the expensive mistake did leave Friske a bit wiser.

“If you don’t have the necessary knowledge or proper training to provide a difficult or dangerous service — get the training first or sub-contract the job to a contractor that does,” Friske advises.

Hang on to your ego
Not every mistake is as costly — or as visible — as Friske’s error, but many of them cause similar headaches, liability and embarrassment with the customer. For example, Paul Greenland, president of Aetna Building Maintenance in Columbus, Ohio, believes his biggest mistake was letting his ego get in the way of servicing a frustrating customer.

“The customer kept changing his expectation/specifications and that made it difficult to manage to an end result,” he explains. “We were never on the same page about the price/quality ratio.”

But, instead of negotiating patiently, with proper service in mind, he let his ego take over — and it drove the account right into the hands of a competitor. The customer got fed up and switched contractors.

“I forgot that the customer isn’t always right, but they are still the customer,” he recalls. “After a month of reflection and self-evaluation, I went back and apologized for letting my ego get in the way of servicing the account and not listening to the customers needs. The new company’s service wasn’t so great.In fact, it was terrible compared to us, and the customer was so impressed that I apologized, he gave us the account back.”

Now, Greenland checks his ego at the door, and his company has much higher account retention than before.

“My job is to always be the customer’s advocate — sometimes even against my own company,” he says.

Personnel problems
As Greenland’s mistake shows, elements of one’s personality that often help in business also can be a hindrance; a healthy sense of pride is important for an executive, but too much pride can damage or destroy relationships.

The same is true for trust — one needs a certain level of trust in their employees in order to get jobs done, but too much can lead to major problems. Paul Taylor, president of Environmental Solutions & Services, Inc., Urbana, Ill., can relate.

“Since starting our business in 1995, my biggest mistakes have always involved hiring decisions,” says Taylor. “A bad hiring decision can set your company back months or even years if it is a key position. The hiring decision that sticks out most in my mind, is the first time I ever hired anyone. I had done all of the work myself up to that point.”

So, Taylor ran an ad in the newspaper, and scheduled interviews with 15 people.

“Two people showed up for their interview,” he says. “They were best friends, and I hired them both to work at the same building. They seemed like nice guys ... Why should I check their employment history?”

After about six weeks, the customer contact called Taylor in to his office. He informed him that a police investigation had been conducted as a result of some missing checks that had been cashed for more than $7,000.

“They had our employees on camera at the bank, cashing the checks. Needless to say, the employees were arrested, were fired, and forced to pay restitution,” he recalls. “Amazingly, our customer did not cancel the contract. In fact, we are still providing services there today. However, it was not good public relations, and I never could use them as a reference.”

The company has changed significantly since 1995. Since then, Taylor has been much more selective in the hiring process.

“We had two employees then, and we now have around 130,” he says. “Many of our employees work in situations where they are not supervised a good part of the time. We are very careful in filling these positions with people who have a solid, proven work history. We perform thorough reference checks, and criminal background checks. We hire, on the average, one out of every 15 applicants.

“I have also learned to never hire in a hurry. It almost always comes back to haunt you. We still hire untested employees, as I feel it is our duty to help those who have not had the opportunity to develop a good work history,” he continues. However, we always place these individuals in a supervised environment, until they have proven themselves. We still make bad hiring decisions now and then, but it’s not from a lack of doing our homework.”

Look before you leap
As the previous errors demonstrate, hindsight truly is 20/20. If Charles “Mickey” Crowe could go back to his earlier days in his janitorial business, he’d be sure to do his homework and ask the right questions.

Once, he approached a customer with a request for a modest increase in their monthly rate. A simple enough request, but Crowe forgot to check one important detail — verifying if the client was actually satisfied with Crowe’s service. As it turns out, the customer wasn’t happy.

“I apologized and withdrew the request, but it was too late,” says Crowe, CBSE, now a project manager for NISH: South Region in Kennesaw, Ga. “The customer put the account out to bid and I lost it to a lower proposal.”

Now, Crowe monitors customer satisfaction and quality control scores closely to ensure that future price increases are a legitimate request.

“I made it a point to build up to an increase request by being sure the customer is delighted with service and more open to an increase request,” he says.

Whether its asking for more money or taking on new jobs, the research needs to come first. Just ask Shaun Davis, vice president, R.B. Davis & Co., Ogden, Utah.

Davis was offered a project —removing glue from a tiled floor. The client couldn’t find any chemicals to remove the glue, so he asked Davis to submit a bid and round up the proper products. Davis asked his vendor for help figuring out what chemicals to use.

The vendor claimed to have found a product that only took 15 minutes to work. Davis then submitted his bid based on the vendor’s findings. He never tested the product for himself.

“I found out the job took three times longer to remove the glue and after that there was still a sticky film left on the tiles,” says Davis.

But then, Davis caught a lucky break. Another manager told him about a special chemical that worked well in the past. This time, Davis found his answer. The project was completed, but unfortunately, Davis lost a lot of money working on it. But with that loss came a valuable lesson.

“I will not accept a job to help someone out unless I know for a fact that I can do the job, complete it successfully and I will verify for myself that chemicals that are suppose to work actually do perform up to my expectations,” he says.

Entrepreneurial errors
A similar lack of research proved problematic for Ron Piscatelli. After losing his steady, non-cleaning job of five years, he decided to strike out on his own. He thought a cleaning company would be an effective business to run on little start-up money. Looking back now after more than 20 years, he realizes that his biggest mistake was not working for a janitorial company first.

“I had to learn many things on my own. I had no idea how to clean. I had no idea what types of accounts were profitable. I had no idea of where to find labor,” says Piscatelli, president of Global Building Services and author of Jump Into Janitorial. “Knowing what I know now, it would have taken very little time to rise at a cleaning company.”

When he first started his business, Piscatelli tried to offer every type of cleaning. He took on jobs for everything from janitorial to maid service, carpet cleaning to floor stripping, vacancy cleaning to construction cleanup. It was a mistake.

“I should have stuck to one niche and poured all of my resources and energy into becoming an expert in that area of cleaning,” says Piscatelli.

Instead, Piscatelli bought new equipment and hired new people qualified for the specialty cleaning. He thought it would be an easy way to make money, especially by offering new services to existing customers, but it didn’t work. His lack of marketing and sales knowledge came back to haunt him.

“It cost me 15 years of my life that six months working for another janitorial company could have solved,” he says.

If he had worked for a janitorial company first, Piscatelli could have observed how it trained its people, got new business and marketed its service — all functions that Piscatelli knew nothing about. If he had learned the ropes from someone else, Piscatelli could have experienced a much smoother start-up.

“I thought cleaning was a joke that anyone could do. I was wrong. Like every thing in this world, there is an effective way to do it and a non-effective way to do it,” he says.