Building service contractors are using more technology these days to make their businesses more efficient. But when it comes to addressing customer complaints, the ageless rule on service applies: The customer is always right.

“All customers are alike,” said Keith Brown, owner of Tridon Services Inc., Allentown, Pa. “They are spending money for cleaning and they expect service. The tolerance is very short.”

BSCs that don’t respond quickly to complaints are in peril of losing them, adds Ken Law, an Atlanta industry consultant.

“The field is so competitive that there are three or four people standing at the door waiting to come in,” Law says.

Receiving complaints

Most BSCs receive customer complaints in several ways, and this is where technology has become most helpful. Complaints are coming in via e-mail, cell phones, even Blackberrys. Tridon provides an 800 number, while All-Pro Cleaning Services Inc. in Cleveland, offers a checklist that customers may submit by e-mail.

“Something that may have festered until the next client meeting can now be taken care of immediately,” says Law, referring to the effect of technology on addressing customer concerns. “It’s much easier now.”

Even though clients have greater access to BSCs now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that more complaints are coming in.

“Customers are usually busy; most don’t waste time on needless communication,” Brown says. “They expect concerns to be dealt with.”

Complaints come from both facility managers and building occupants, but All-Pro Cleaning’s president, Steven Altman, will take calls from any client contact.

“The president of a company or the mail clerk should be able to inform us when our level of services drops,” Altman says. “When the services are great, everyone lets you know.

“When there are several building occupants, we have log books in each suite,” Altman adds. “This makes sure all tenants are kept happy.”

Calls are reviewed by top managers and handled immediately, say BSCs.

Complaints run the spectrum, from dirty floors to unemptied trash cans to low paper supplies — even workspaces that have been re-soiled by later-shift workers.

“Every person who occupies a desk has the potential for making a complaint,” Brown says.

Teaching building occupants to be a little proactive helps — problems that are left often get worse, creating more problems, says Mary Conrad, co-owner Conrad’s Cleaning Service Inc, Vero Beach, Fla.

“We educate the building manager as a team member,” Conrad says. “We let them know that if a spill happens, then it must be addressed immediately. An office worker that spills food should be taught to clean it up immediately and not just leave the mess for the janitorial staff.”

Quick response

When calls do come in, BSC owners say they first work to learn the scope of the problem, generally by visiting the site and talking directly with building managers early on and once problems are addressed.

“We prefer going there and seeing the problem,” Conrad says. “We don’t want to address the problem over the phone. We want to go there, see the client and say, ‘Here’s the problem and this is how to address it.’”

She also likes to involve clients in resolving problems.

“The customer is learning — and you’re probably not going to have that problem again, because he knows what’s going on,” Conrad says.

On the other hand, clients eventually must defer to the BSC’s expertise.

“We should be their experts,” says Law. “You don’t want them in your business, and they don’t want you in their business. If they can do it, then they don’t need you.”

Balancing customer needs with contracted services may pose challenges.

“We can only provide so much in the exact time frame in order to meet our profit margins,” Altman says. “The hardest thing to do is to negotiate specifications that are attainable for that set price. Many companies go in with the attitude: ‘What can we cut to improve our margins? Where can we make our money on what we don’t clean?’ We don’t do that.”

Striving to meet all customer demands can cause problems and lead to “scope-creep,” an occurrence when a janitor is casually asked to do something not covered in a contract — moving boxes, for example, says Law. Soon, the task is performed so frequently that the employee cannot complete the contracted duties.

“The employee wants to do a good job, so he does it,” Law says. “And then they’re asked to do it again. But if the employee says he can’t do it anymore, in lots of situations, the customer becomes a bit hyper-sensitive to conditions in the area. Some small concern then grows into a formal complaint.”

These challenges, however, can also bring opportunities to expand your business, he adds.

“Every problem or service concern that you encounter can be turned into a selling opportunity,” Law says. “By doing so, you want your customer to know that you’re on their team.”

Eliciting that information is critical, says Judy Reinders, an instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College who teaches a course in customer service in the college’s business division.

“The hardest thing to do is to listen to your customers, because the person doing the talking is in control,” she says. “Don’t take it personally.”

Companies need to look at customer complaints as source of improvement, Reinders adds.

“Unless you get that information, you don’t have room to improve,” she says.

Once a complaint has been resolved, BSCs take a variety of steps to ensure that it does not occur again, including follow-up within days afterward. The most common practice, however, is placing the responsibility on employees.

“It’s two strikes and you’re out,” Altman says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s an associate or manager. If you can’t get it right the second time, you’re gone.”

Complaints cost money, he adds, but more importantly, they cost a BSC’s reputation.

Common complaints

  • Standard concerns: “There will be spills, leaks, odors, just as there always have been,” says Mary Conrad, co-owner of Conrad’s Cleaning Service Inc., Vero Beach, Fla. But as a “green” company, Conrad’s must pay special attention to issues like fibers and dust.
  • Varied issues with changing seasons: “Spring is always a complaint season, as the sun is bright and low in the sky,” says Keith Brown, owner of Tridon Services Inc., Allentown, Pa. “It sheds a different light on the cleanness of the facility. There might be litter on the floor that they can see the following day, but not at night.”
  • Differing specifications among clients: “Medical facilities are more concerned with the waiting room and bathroom areas,” Conrad says. “They have the mentality that if these areas look a mess and smell bad, it makes people wonder about the quality of service they will receive.”
  • Clean bathrooms: “They better be immaculate, every night,” says Steven Altman, president of All-Pro Cleaning Services Inc., Cleveland. “I want to be able to use that bathroom myself. We promise our clients that they are not going to have problems with the bathrooms. If they do, we give them credits.”


Todd Beamon is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer.