How Well Do building service contractors really know their customers? BSCs may offer services they think their clients want, but are they always right? Contracting Profits surveyed facility managers of office buildings across the U.S. to find out what issues are most important to them. Based on the results, it is clear which services they expect from their cleaning contractor.

Not just about price

For years the industry stereotype has been that customers are only interested in a cheap price when it comes to cleaning. Surprisingly, in a market where cleaning budgets are continually reduced, price overwhelmingly rates third — behind providing a healthy and sanitary environment and providing a clean appearance — as a deciding factor when choosing a BSC.

“While I care about price, it isn’t the driving force for my decisions,” says Bruce Weisberg, senior vice president, property administration, Middlesex Savings Bank, Natick, Mass. “I need to look at the total package.”

The majority of respondents say a healthy environment for building occupants is most important.

“There are so many concerns about the threat of illnesses such as the flu,” says Bob Krukowski, director, Hopewell Facilities Management at Merrill Lynch, Pennington, N.J. “We need to do more than just have the place look clean, it has to be an environment that is healthy and sanitary.”

This may be an opportunity for some BSCs to educate their customers about what they can do to create a healthier work atmosphere. Only one percent of facility managers say having their BSC clean desks and commonly touched items — such as doorknobs and computer keyboards — is the most important service their BSC can provide. Implementing a cleaning-for-health program that disinfects commonly touched objects can help reduce germs by 99.9 percent and prevent the spread of colds and influenza.

While creating a healthy environment is important, this doesn’t mean BSCs should give up providing a clean appearance. The margin between facility managers wanting a sanitary environment vs. a clean appearance is slim. What is clear, however, is that restrooms and building entryways are the two areas of a building that need to look their best at all times. These places score the highest among facility managers by a wide margin over vacuumed carpets, shiny floors, cleaned desks and emptied trash cans.

“If restrooms are not stocked, you receive complaints that the evening cleaning crew or day porter are not doing their job,” says Donna Piha, assistant property manager at International Tower, GlenStar Properties, Chicago. “[In addition], clean entryways are the first thing a tenant or visitor sees when they enter the building and this leaves a lasting impression.”

Green and day cleaning

With such a large response in favor of a healthy building, it is not surprising that a majority of respondents, 75 percent, want their cleaning contractor to provide green cleaning. Aside from being safer for the environment, green cleaning also creates a safer work atmosphere for occupants with asthma or who may be sensitive to chemical fumes.

Green cleaning can also be used as a marketing tool for facility managers who want to attract environmentally conscious tenants, especially those interested in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, says Aimee D’Amore, vice president of asset management and customer service, Duke Realty Corp., Dublin, Ohio.

LEED, however, currently isn’t a top demand among BSCs’ customers. Based on this survey, only 32 percent of facility managers want their BSCs to help earn points towards LEED.

While facility managers are interested in green cleaning, few are currently requiring it. According to another recent Contracting Profits survey, only 16 percent of contractors say their customers are currently requiring them to clean with green products. Now is the time for BSCs to educate their customers on the benefits of green cleaning.

“Corporate America is driving the green movement,” says David Hewett, alliance director for CB Richard Ellis, San Francisco. “Fortune 10 and Fortune 50 companies have made a statement to go green.”

Before facility managers put out an RFP for green cleaning, they want to learn more about the cost of a green cleaning program and how effective less harsh chemicals will be for disinfecting and killing viruses, says D’Amore.

The majority of facility managers also report they are interested in day cleaning. For some, day cleaning is another aspect of a green cleaning program.

“Day cleaning is a form of green cleaning because you can shut down the building earlier,” says D’Amore. “That’s a five to six hours saving on lighting, cooling and heating costs.”

These energy savings can help customers earn points toward LEED certification.

However, D’Amore also points out that day cleaning comes with its share of challenges. Noise from machines can disrupt occupants and cords may create trip-and-fall hazards. This type of cleaning program may not be a fit for all customers, including her.

“I think you’ll be hard pressed to get a building with 4,000 people in it to work while a vacuum is running,” says D’Amore.

Corporate offices that are 100 percent owner occupied are better suited for day cleaning, says Hewett. Multi-tenant buildings will be a harder sell.

Security and communication

Facility managers are concerned with more than just the type of cleaning they receive. They also have a strong opinion on who is cleaning their buildings. In a post-Sept. 11 marketplace, BSCs’ customers are focused on the security of their buildings.

The majority of respondents want a cleaning staff that wears uniforms and identification badges so cleaning personnel can be identified at all times. A clear majority of respondents, 92 percent, want cleaning personnel to undergo background checks.

“Background checks and badges help curb potential problems with theft,” says Charles Trice, vice president, facilities, Virginia Credit Union, Richmond, Va. “I’m in the financial business. We make a diligent effort to lock everything up at night, but records may be left out. You certainly don’t want people using them in a malicious way.”

For additional security purposes, 86 percent of facility managers want to be notified of any staff changes in the building.

Any successful relationship is built on effective communication and this is no different for BSCs and their customers. The majority of survey respondents say they want to meet with their BSC on a weekly or monthly basis and meetings should be done in person. This way any issues can be resolved before they turn into larger problems, says Weisberg.

“Communicate with us about the good or bad issues,” adds Hewett. “Don’t be afraid to report what went wrong. However, it’s also OK for BSCs to tell us what they did right. Ninety-nine percent of the calls they get from us are negative, so communicate both sides.”

Frequent communication will help assure both the BSC and the customer are on the same page. One thing facility managers don’t like is surprises. They want to be kept abreast of all changes. As mentioned earlier, customers want to know when changes are made to the cleaning staff. In addition, 90 percent of respondents want to be notified of any product changes in the building.

“A new product could be harmful or have a negative effect on the building occupants,” says Trice. He adds that notification should come before the product switch and prefers to be told via e-mail so he has a record of the change in writing.

Providing better service

Meeting these expectations is a step in the right direction towards improving customer service and potentially earning additional profits from accounts. When asked what would validate paying a higher price for cleaning, most facility managers respond “better service.” For some this means receiving fewer complaints from building occupants; for others it’s a quicker response time to cleaning emergencies.

“We like to think that better service is exemplified with a willingness to do whatever it takes, or in other words, act like you own the place,” says Krukowski.

Some facility managers monitor service levels by conducting their own surveys or performing unscheduled inspections.

BSCs should monitor their own service levels as well to ensure they are continually meeting the expectations of their customers. In addition BSCs should anticipate future customer demands and be proactive in providing service. Waiting for facility managers to inquire about additional services first is dangerous — by the time they ask, it may be too late. If contractors aren’t currently offering what their customers want, clients will probably look elsewhere.