“ ‘Good’ isn’t good enough for us; we continually strive to be GREAT.”

These words are posted on the home page of Better Business Cleaning Inc.’s Web site — out there for all customers, potential clients, vendors and employees to see. And Jim Sutton, CEO of the Erie, Colo.-based contract cleaning firm, likes it that way. He wants everyone to know that he isn’t sitting idly by; he’s aggressively adjusting his business model, always striving to make it better.

“I need people to know that we’re aware of our gaps,” says Sutton. “Any product, any service, any business — there are gaps between what’s ideal and what’s so. We’re shooting for the ideal, and the only way to get there is to acknowledge there’s a gap. That’s what benchmarking is all about.”

Sutton’s approach to business, to be relentlessly benchmarking, was inspired by statistician William Edwards Deming’s ideas of quality control and incremental improvements.

“Deming’s philosophy is to make a change, document it and analyze whether the change improved or degraded the system,” says Sutton. “It’s been what helped us get to where we are.”

The “where” for Better Business Cleaning Inc. is a 13-year-old, small, but successful contract cleaning company with more than 80 employees. The company, run by Sutton and his wife Gail, doesn’t go unnoticed in the Colorado market — or in the entire contract cleaning industry for that matter, having been chosen to be among the first companies to achieve ISSA’s Cleaning Industry’s Management Standard (CIMS) certification.

But laying the groundwork for Better Business Cleaning Inc. took time. And as is the case for many fledgling companies, it also needed a little luck and the right opportunity at the right time.

Early beginnings

Sutton’s start in the cleaning industry stemmed from a lesson learned by Gail’s grandfather, Frank Poulson, in 1919 — to recognize opportunity when it hits. When asked by a business owner if he knew anyone who could install a burglar alarm, Poulson replied, “I can do that for you, but I’m busy this week. I’ll come back next week.”

In the meantime, he promptly learned everything he could about installing burglar alarms, building what eventually became Chicago’s largest privately-owned burglar alarm company.

A similar story happened to Sutton: a building owner asked if he knew someone who could clean his building. With Gail just recently completing her MBA, Sutton felt that running a cleaning company would be the perfect next step for both of them. Inspired by Poulson, he told the building owner, “Yes, I know someone.”

Gail recruited four friends and gave the contract a try for the 90-day term. With Jim’s background as a general contractor and experience as a janitor in high school, he knew he could get the building clean — and he was right. Those initial 90 days have become 13 years as Better Business Cleaning Inc. still cleans the building today.

That first account gave the Suttons more than just the confidence to compete in the cleaning industry; it gave them the baseline needed to start benchmarking their practices.

Incremental improvements

Sutton has been tweaking Better Business Cleaning Inc. since its inception. While changes might not always be implemented immediately, they are top of mind. And no matter how small an issue, Sutton is looking to improve it.

For example, when janitors noticed a problem with the company’s Customer Information Sheet, Sutton was quick to apply incremental improvements. This form lists specific information on how to gain entry into a facility, but it was difficult to read the alarm code on the sheet in the dark.

Sutton immediately applied Deming’s principles: he changed the font size and location of the code on the form, he consulted others for feedback and tested his changes in the field. They worked, problem solved.

It may seem incidental to some, but improving this small piece of a very large puzzle can make a substantial difference. When a worker calls in sick, the replacement can easily fill in and not have to worry about setting off a false alarm. Customers are also relieved to know that whoever is entering their building, that person can perform their job without causing any problems. These differences add up.

“You can’t keep doing the same things the same way and stay at the same level. You’ve got to get better because everyone else is getting better,” says Bruce Stark, president of Stark Consulting, Loveland, Colo., a consultant who helped the Suttons during the CIMS process.

Sutton’s drive for benchmarking does more than improve his company. It also separates it from the competition.

When discussing customer satisfaction, Sutton mentions a feedback form as a starting point. But simply having a form isn’t good enough; he needs to make sure clients submit the forms in a way that’s preferable to them, otherwise it’s not complete customer satisfaction. To improve a client relationship, the contractor needs to be the one proactively tweaking the service to get the desired outcome, says Sutton.

“We want our relationship to be successful for both parties,” he adds. “But if we don’t sit down and create what the relationship should look like, it will take on a life of its own.”

Sutton’s benchmarking isn’t limited to only operations and customers. He analyzes all his business relationships, from vendors to employees.

“We’ve been told in the past that we’re the best bosses that people have ever worked for, but as we get bigger, we are in are in less contact with our employees,” says Sutton.

As the company expands, he and Gail continually ask themselves if they still practice the same ideals that have allowed them to maintain an appreciative workforce. They recently created a questionnaire to send to both current and former employees, asking them what they like about Better Business Cleaning Inc. and what the company could improve upon.

Sutton is even teaching employees to make incremental improvements in their own lives by encouraging them to construct “Dreamboards” that display pictures of what they’d like to accomplish, whether it’s buying a new car or sharing a vacation with family members. Employees are identifying their current baselines of where they are today and outlining where they’d like to be.

Even though business is successful now, Sutton isn’t going to run on autopilot. His next agenda item is to benchmark occupant health with science-based cleaning standards.

“Benchmarking continually raises our ability to perform for our customers,” says Sutton. “It makes our business stronger. It’s what people are looking for.”