When faced with a room full of new, untrained employees, the first thing most building service contractors think isn’t, “I wonder what somebody in Australia would do in this situation.”

Perhaps it should be. At first glance, it may seem that BSCs in the United States have nothing in common with their counterparts from other countries. The oceans, laws, culture and languages between them may seem too high a barrier to overcome.

But the world is getting smaller. It is becoming more common to see “Kyoto, Japan” and “Guatemala City” on name tags at industry trade shows. Online listservs, e-mail and chatrooms are emerging, allowing contractors from various countries to compare notes regarding how they handle common business problems.

As it turns out, even though the languages, economies and demographics may differ, contractors all over the world have similar challenges to their American counterparts — providing top-notch service, finding qualified workers and keeping costs under control. These overseas BSCs have some solutions, as well as some advice that’s more universal than contractors here may realize.

Hiring considerations
One of those worldwide challenges BSCs encounter is finding and keeping good employees. Part of the problem in the United States is that cleaning as a profession isn’t held in high regard, and BSCs must compete with fast-food restaurants, retail stores and other entry-level, low-wage employers for workers. Perhaps contractors here can turn to the German point of view for inspiration.

Finding employees with the right qualifications in Germany is easier, because that country has strict training and education requirements for BSCs. Also, cleaning is a much more respected occupational choice than it in the United States. Kurt Zachhuber, principal consultant with AtlanticBridge Network LLC, and founder of FacilityValue Group LLC, Bedford, N.H, is a native of Germany and has a master cleaner designation there. His business partner operates his company’s cleaning and technology arm in Frankfurt.

“At 18, I graduated from the technical school in Metzingen, in the field of cleaning,” explains Zachhuber. “After only two years of practical experience, I was accepted to the Master-Program. The Master-Program is a one-year, full-time program, with final exams at the end. In Germany, by law, it is required to have the Meistertitel (master title) in order to be a licensed cleaning contractor.”

Even frontline cleaning employees must have a certain level of formal education, and BSCs can target prospective workers based on those expectations.

“Knowing what a graduate of a certain level should be capable of really makes the hiring process so much easier,” says Zachhuber. “We require, for certain jobs, certain educational and practical skills and knowledge. A supervisor needs to have a formal degree in cleaning and maintenance services; a branch manager needs to have the Master degree in cleaning and service management. A person who would handle hazardous material would need more special training.”

Even with all of this outside education, the company goes several steps further to ensure all employees have an in-depth knowledge of the field and the company’s standards.

Zachhuber provides three to five different levels of training for employees, depending on their educational background. For employees with a degree in cleaning and maintenance, the company provides two courses, which are related to corporate policies and standards.

Employees without a formal degree in cleaning and maintenance can work toward obtaining the degree, or they can attend an in-house training program.

That in-house program offers initial information on company policies and procedures. Then, cleaners work a couple of weeks on the job while being trained by a supervisor. After a month, the employee would attend two weekend classes, to learn about cleaning theories. Three months later, the employees attend one week of classes, with emphasis on cleaning theory and technical skills.

In Germany, mid-size and larger BSCs have an in-house training center, though some aren’t as demanding as Zachhuber’s. Most smaller contractors offer extensive cleaning education through outside training providers.

Seeking a strong work ethic
Even though Canada doesn’t share Germany’s stringent requirements for cleaning professionals, contractors there also see the importance of training.

For instance, Faruk Atasever believes that technical skills can be trained, so he hires people based on work ethic and discipline rather than experience. Atasever, founder and president of UHS Floorcare Systems Inc., Oakville, Ontario, says his comprehensive training program makes up for the lack of prior expertise.

“They work about two to three months as a helper, and the right person with the right attitude will have his own supermarket in three months,” he says.

Atasever is able to recruit hard-working employees because of his company’s above-average wages. His company is small, and Atasever advises similarly sized BSCs to consider a flat-management structure to give more power, and cash, to the rank-and-file.

“Because I do not have supervisors and a middle-management team, my company has one owner and 25 qualified, honest, self-motivated and hard-working employees,” he says. “I can afford to pay above-average wages.”

And because all of his employees are out working on jobsites rather than sitting in offices, Atasever isn’t tied to his desk or stuck in meetings, allowing him more productivity.

“During the day I contact my customers and suppliers and follow other management and training tasks. During the night I visit the job sites and talk to my employees. I run my business almost by my cell phone,” says Atasever.

Larger companies probably won’t be able to operate without middle management and supervisors, but keeping the number of each to a minimum can help cut costs. And Atasever advises owners of any size company to visit regularly job sites to stay in touch with worker and customer needs.

Understanding everyone
Many contractors in the United States have employees with minimal English skills. Language problems also arise in other countries, especially in those with large immigrant populations. For instance, though Aruba’s official language is Dutch (it is an autonomous member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands), many other languages are spoken on the island.

“We have people coming from around the world looking for work in Aruba,” says Wilifred Ras, managing director of Total Services in Barcadera. The company also has offices in Curacao, St. Martin and the Dominican Republic. “Currently we have over 20 nationalities living and working together on the island. Spanish, English, Dutch, Filipino, Patoa (Haitian) are spoken in almost all work environments. The way we handle this is by using Papiamento, our local dialect, as the official language in our company, but we also switch to Spanish a lot when necessary. We do encourage our employees to learn Papiamento and we are also going to start with basic English courses for those employees working with clients where English is spoken.”

In Germany, cleaning employees come from all over the European Union and elsewhere, speaking a variety of languages. Zachhuber uses a variety of methods, including multilingual training materials, language classes and pictures and graphs to bridge the gap. Even though the law allows companies to require German fluency as part of a job description, Zachhuber doesn’t require employees to be proficient in the language, as long as they can learn their job and communicate basics regarding emergency response.

Such an approach could benefit American BSCs in areas where non-English-speaking employees are common. Many U.S. training companies offer picture or Spanish-language materials, and some offer other languages as well.

Cost containment
Another employee-related challenge contractors around the world face is labor cost. Keeping worker costs at a reasonable level is tough for contractors in other countries, especially those with high inflation.
Les March is proprietor of Fabritech, a curtain-cleaning operator in Durban, South Africa. March also operated a ServiceMaster franchise in England in the 1970s and 1980s before he left for South Africa to start Fabritech.

“As with most industries, labor is our biggest expense,” says March. “South Africa has a current inflation rate of around 12 percent; this is pushing wage demands. Many small businesses are mainly powerless to control the majority of their expenses.”

South Africa has an unemployment rate of around 37 percent, according to 2001 estimates, which means entry-level workers are easy to find. But, as inflation increases, their wages buy less, so pay pressure is a challenge for cleaners and management alike.

March is a member of an industry association, which negotiates with the labor union; this helps him have some control over wages and working conditions. However, it’s an imperfect system.

“Getting owners to participate in the process and to offer a united stance is frustrating and apathy sometimes seems to be prevalent,” March says.

Wages aren’t the only cost March has trouble controlling.

“Due to the depreciation of our currency, the costs of imported machinery and motor vehicles have soared,” says March. “All dry cleaning machines are imported. Therefore, we are at the mercy of the prevailing foreign exchange rate.”

Some other machines, chemicals and spare parts can be found locally through distributors, helping ease the burden a bit, but March still must cut costs elsewhere to compensate.

For instance, the use of diesel vans and smaller, more economical vehicles has kept his fuel costs fairly static. Fabritech also prohibits drivers from taking the vehicles home, which saves on insurance premiums.

Another factor in Fabritech’s favor is the ability to pass costs to customers. Companies don’t want to invest in expensive equipment or employees to perform their own project work, so they turn to Fabritech and other specialty companies to do the job, even if prices seem high.

Competitive pressure
Outsourcing is becoming quite popular in many other countries. For instance, in Australia, a widening trend is single-sourced facility management, where one company provides or subcontracts everything from cleaning and foodservice to plumbing repair and energy management. This arrangement provides ample opportunity for general building service contractors, as well as more specialized service providers.

“The commercial environment is usually split into providers of office cleaning, then carpets, windows and so forth,” says Keith Apps, customer service manager of QUAD Services Pty. Ltd., a full-service BSC in Sydney, Australia.

Large companies such as QUAD subcontract project and specialty work, concentrating only on commercial janitorial jobs. Many U.S. contractors already do this for disaster restoration, gym-floor refinishing and other highly specialized jobs, but they could consider subcontracting even routine work such as carpet cleaning in order to concentrate on other tasks.

While outsourced cleaning is widespread in Australia, in other countries, contract cleaning is an emerging market. But savvy BSCs there have been able to convince building owners and facility managers to try it out. For example, in 1990 when Ras and his business partner started Total Services, Aruba was experiencing rapid economic growth and a shortage of workers. Businesses were beginning to outsource non-core functions, and Ras was able to jump in.

“Our company really opened the market for other companies to start, because before that, cleaning contractors were not common in Aruba,” says Ras. “Today, they are more so. Most businesses outsource their cleaning and many hotels outsource their housekeeping. Even so, the market is not saturated yet and there is still room for growth.”

However, Ras advises BSCs against growing too quickly without guidance, as Total Services did early on.

“My biggest problem was lack of resources due to quick growth of the company,” Ras explains. “We are restructuring with the assistance of a financial advisor who is guiding us through the process. Part of the plan is to re-finance capital expenditures and new projects through a different [financial] structure.”

Still, Ras doesn’t regret the rapid pace of growth. He just wishes he had a financial advisor around all along, and advises others to seek outside financial advice.

Another growth challenge in Aruba involves questionable competitive practices. Since 1990, more janitorial providers have emerged in Aruba, and some have skirted local employment and tax laws.

“Our biggest challenge is unfair competition; that is, competition by companies that do not follow the local rules and regulations and therefore are able to offer services at a cheaper price than our company,” says Ras. “A lot of small companies do kitchen cleaning and housekeeping in the hotels and they offer low prices to the hotels and employ people with no work permits. Most of these companies do not withhold taxes from their employees, competing unfairly with companies that do work by the book. We call [the law-breaking competitors] high risk/short term companies.

“What we do as a company to work our way around this is we denounce cases to the local authorities and we also advise our clients of the consequences of working with these high risk/short term companies,” Ras says.

Whether they’re operating outside the law or not, low-price, low-service contractors are a problem for BSCs in competitive-bidding situations worldwide. One way scrupulous contractors can stand out is by concentrating more intently on customer-service efforts.

That focus already has paid off for Apps — in Australia, customers can be quite fickle, but price is not high on the list of reasons for turnover.

“At QUAD we would say the most common reason for customer turnover is because the customer service manager (CSM) did not have an emotional contract with the client and missed any signs that there were problems on a site,” says Apps.

Similarly, the customers’ own employees can make or break a contract, Apps explains. When the customer contacts change, they often try to make an immediate impression.

“While the new hire cannot change, say, the legal side or banking side of things they may have a immediate impact by changing … the current cleaning company,” Apps points out.

To combat customer turnover, QUAD uses a multi-step process. If an account is lost, Apps immediately goes into action to find out why.

“We survey the client after we have stopped cleaning the site and ascertain the reasons. The feedback is then discussed with the CSMs,” he explains.

In the past, CSMs would speculate and become defensive about why their accounts were lost , blaming the customer contact, unreasonable requests or vague contract terms. The lost-client feedback opens up the real reason for the lost job, and Apps uses this data to understand how the company loses business and therefore, how to retain business in the future.

Another step in the account-retention process is QUAD’s detailed CSM training program.

“Many CSMs have come from a cleaning industry background, and while they may have a high knowledge of cleaning, they will lack people-management and customer-relations skills,” Apps explains.

QUAD uses a custom-designed training room, where all managers and even some office staff learn a broad spectrum of skills, from listening and body language to reading from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey.

Apps also asks current customers to score both cleaning quality and service response during the company’s monthly courtesy calls. Then, the results for all tenants of a building or site can be graphed to provide a quick review for managers to see any downward trends in service. This information also can be forwarded to the customer contact for further review.

This whole procedure may seem involved and expensive, but Apps advises contractors to put service, not money, first.

“We believe that if we provide the service then the financial results will follow,” Apps says. QUAD’s commitment to service is a major part of its corporate culture, and competitors who are driven solely by profit are at a disadvantage, he adds.

Learning Opportunities
Even though American BSCs may not be facing double-digit unemployment (or double-digit inflation), many of their challenges are similar to those faced by contractors abroad. So, at the next industry conference, keep an eye on the name tags, and pay attention to e-mail addresses in chatrooms and listservs. Look for attendees from other corners of the world and compare notes regarding pressing business concerns.