“Service industry” is really an incomplete description in the world of contract cleaning. Building service contractor management — at least savvy BSC management — sees its role as providing both service and advice. The “c” in BSC could really stand for both contractor and consultant.

Do you view yourself as a “building service consultant?” Ed Moschler obviously does, and it was in that capacity that he was able to turn a potential problem into a textbook example of how to hold on to a customer.

Moschler, vice president of Southern Building Maintenance Co., Inc., Greensboro, N.C., found himself at a crossroads when his customer came to him one day and asked him to reduce cleaning times because the customer was forced to cut his operations budget. With less time to allocate to cleaning the customer’s facility, building appearance could suffer to the point that the customer might consider finding another service provider who was willing to maintain a certain appearance level, yet cut back in billable cleaning time.

That’s when Moschler donned his consultant hat.

Moschler sat down with the client and explained how restructuring cleaning times may solve the budget problem, but now the client would have new problems in appearance. So, Moschler proposed a way to solve both concerns. He told his customer about another account where he used backpack and hip vacuums in place of the standard uprights. With this technology, workers were able to cover the same amount of space in less time.

If the client was interested, Moschler said he’d be willing to upgrade this technology, even though it would mean taking a hit on his profit margin. But to Moschler, it would be worth the tradeoff of keeping the customer.

The client loved the idea and Moschler retained the account.

Pressure is on facility managers, too, to cut costs while increasing productivity. Like their bosses, they expect more than squeaky-clean floors for their money. Customers demand ideas and input that will make them look good and solve their problems. Sometimes, customers are willing to pay for it, sometimes they’re not.

But, today’s BSC is expected to perform as a quasi-consultant without ever collecting a consultant’s fee.

Know your customer
Any consultant would agree that it’s important to “walk in your customer’s shoes” whenever possible. For example, BSCs constantly worry about how they can steer their business through today’s highly competitive marketplace. But, they tend to forget their customers experience the same problems. John Ezzo, president, New Image Building Services, Inc., Mount Clemons, Mich., has seen his customers forced to do more with less — vacancy rates are increasing, while budgets and staff are decreasing, Ezzo says.

Facility managers face the same time-management challenges as other business professionals, says Dave Hewett, principal for Trammell Crow Co., Global Services, Auburn Hills, Mich. Facility managers are taking on larger property portfolios, so now they have less time to spend providing hands-on supervision for individual properties, Hewett adds.

Yet, there is a lot to supervise: maintenance, mail, lawn and grounds, company cars, wiring — and, of course, cleaning.

Another challenge: Facility managers are, more often than not, “generalists.” They don’t have the time to be an expert in any one topic, says Steve Spencer, facilities specialist, State Farm Insurance, Bloomington, Ill.

Even so, they want and need to be kept abreast of new cleaning innovations and trends that could help provide better service to their customers, the building occupants.

And, of course, there’s the issue of money. On paper, the lowest bid price looks best to facility managers. If clients aren’t aware that BSCs will propose new ideas to save money, improve appearance or surpass health and environmental standards in the long run, the facility manager will simply revert to accepting the lowest bid.

So, proactive communication should start at the beginning — i.e., during the proposal process. Go over the building specifications with the facility manager and determine which cleaning tasks are essential, and which ones can be adjusted to fit a realistic budget.

“If [BSCs] don’t have a strong dialogue, it’s going to be a tougher request-for-proposal process,” says Hewett.

Proactive communication
Unfortunately, even on existing accounts, dialogue between BSCs and facility managers is practically non-existent. BSCs find themselves buried too deep under the numerous routine tasks of their day-to-day cleaning schedule that they don’t take the time do anything but clean, says Ernest Clark Jr., CBSE, president, Mister Kleen Maintenance, Alexandria, Va. They may not realize there is a problem worth discussing.

“A lot of BSCs tend to be happy with the status quo — an ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ mentality,” says Spencer.

Typically, dialogue is limited to customers’ casual inspections — alerting BSCs to a missed wastebasket or an unlocked door, or providing a pat on the back for a job well done. But, there are numerous other critical topics to discuss — security issues, the integrity of your workforce, environmental issues, occupant health and budget constraints.

“In our industry, we’re so afraid of losing accounts, we’re hesitant to propose new ideas,” says Moschler.

Ironically, if BSCs don’t propose new ideas, they could be in danger of losing the account. Facility managers don’t want to hear about new solutions from their professional peers or other BSCs. They don’t want to ask themselves: “Why didn’t I already know this?” says Spencer.

“Facility managers don’t want to be caught off guard. They don’t like to be blindsided, so they’re asking BSCs to keep them informed,” he adds.

“We as contractors need to get involved and educate clients on what we’re capable of,” says Ezzo.

Find ways to reduce costs, provide faster service or deliver more sanitary cleaning methods and share ideas with customers. For example, explain how installing touch-free faucets in the restrooms not only is more sanitary, but also can reduce hot-water costs and the potential for vandalism, says Ken Galo, owner, L&K Property Services, Brookfield, Wis.

“We want to be viewed as professionals and cleaning consultants,” adds Clark. “If we do our job properly, that’s how they’ll think of us.”

For Clark, doing his job properly includes bringing fresh ideas to the table. At one of his new accounts, he noticed the need to constantly refill the fold-towel dispensers in the restrooms and coffee stations. The fold towels were sticking together and coming out in clumps. Patrons began bringing the excess towels back to their desks where they sat unused.

But instead of billing the client for more product and additional labor to service the dispensers, Clark proposed a switch to roll-towel dispensers. Patrons would have more control over how much towel was actually dispensed, creating less waste. The customer agreed and appreciated the proactive solution.

“If you wait until the customer comes to you, you’re on the defensive. They may look to someone else,” says Ezzo.

“You’re looking to become the solution,” adds Galo. “You don’t want them to pick up the phone and call somebody else. The only person I want them calling is me.”

What it takes
So, if BSCs know facility managers are willing to listen, how should they begin a dialogue?

If they’re not meeting with a customer on a monthly or quarterly basis, they should start with that, says Hewett. During these business reviews, go over any problems, value-added services that were performed, accomplishments and goals.

But don’t stop there. The more often BSCs and facility managers talk, the more topics that can be covered, says Spencer, who is able to meet with his BSC every afternoon — a benefit of day-cleaning. Instead of focusing on only the day-to-day cleaning concerns, regular conversations might develop into future plans, concerns and ideas.

BSCs also can distribute news articles about new innovations or cleaning trends and highlight important passages, suggests Spencer. These articles can then be used as discussion points at the meetings.

Industry updates can come from other sources. For instance, the Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI) and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) have agreed to share information with each other’s members. The International Sanitary Supply Association (ISSA) and the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) have also instituted an information exchange. This communal knowledge can help foster mutual understanding between BSCs and facility managers — and provide a foundation for a more constructive relationship.

Joining the local BOMA chapter is a great way to get known in the area, says Ezzo. The more visibility a BSC has, the more credibility he’ll earn with the customer.

Through BOMA, talk with facility managers who aren’t clients. Take a cue from them regarding issues affecting your customers, says Spencer. For example, facility managers at the meeting may show concern about security. A BSC can then proactively approach his own customers to see if this is one of their concerns as well. If it is a problem, he can have solutions prepared, such as performing background checks if they haven’t already been done, says Spencer.

Whatever solutions or services BSCs suggest, they need to do their homework first — talk to manufacturers, test products beforehand and line up vendors in advance.

“You can’t just take a buzzword and run out there,” says Moschler. “It takes preparation.”

The credible contractor
Don’t worry if facility managers aren’t implementing every idea. The point of the consultation is only to educate, not make a sale.

“We’re not trying to create a market,” says Moschler. “We’re trying to keep a market.”

“If you can do it first, you’re beating all the other contractors trying to get into the building. You inspire confidence by being the first to point it out,” says Galo.

This type of business approach shows the client that a BSC is a professional — he’s paying attention to change in the industry, says Sheila Sheridan, IFMA chair and retired director of facilities and services for Harvard University.

Credibility gives the contractor a competitive advantage, necessary for today’s aggressive playing field, says Clark. Professional, day-to-day cleaning is expected, but going above and beyond that expectation and educating facility managers creates a client for life, he adds.