One minute, you’re crunching numbers to prepare a bid for a lucrative job. The next minute, you’re trying to figure out how the competition was awarded the contract instead. How do you unearth the secrets behind another cleaning contractor’s success?

While you shouldn’t run your company based on what other people do, sizing yourself up against the competition reveals not only what you can improve, but it also forces you to constantly reevaluate your marketing, product and fiscal tactics. But that may be easier said than done.

“[Information’s] pretty scarce. I don’t know a lot about my competitors. When you do, it’s usually negative,” says David Murphy of Supreme Maintenance, which employs 190 people between its offices in Charlotte, S.C. and Greensboro, N.C. The company focuses its business on cleaning sports arenas, coliseums and industrial parks.

However, Joe Fairley, Encompass Cleaning Systems’ executive vice president of business development, says there aren’t that many true secrets in the cleaning industry.

The things that janitorial professionals commonly know about each other are the services and products they sell, and whether or not they’re contracted, he says.

“If you’re looking for a competitive edge, you have to use every tool available to get intelligence,” says Fairley.

Bob Garcia, of VarsityGarcia in Pocatello, Idaho, uses information gleaned from pre-bid sleuthing to figure out which statistics about his own company might leave a better impression than other bidders when he submits his proposals. He likes to find out how long the competitor has been in business, what facilities it has cleaned and its production rates.

On the other hand, pre-bid scoops on what other contractors are offering sometimes can do more harm than good, warns Neil Warer, owner of United Cleaning Contractors in Asbury Park, N.J., which employs 55 people and has a heavy concentration in medical facilities.

“Sometimes it can influence you the wrong way,” he says. “If your price is too high, you might start cutting corners where you shouldn’t.”

Research tactics
To get that scarce information, you’ll need to do some competitive sleuthing in an honest way.

One non-confrontational method is a walk-through of a facility cleaned by your competitor. You will see for yourself if the facility is spotless, what cleaning products are used, whether OSHA requirements are met, and more, says Warer. Don’t be shy about peeking in janitorial supply closets or squinting to read product labels either.

Reading industry surveys and trade magazines, and attending industry events (conventions, seminars and trade shows) are other good ways to dig up competitive research, says Joe Polish, president of Piranha Marketing in Tempe, Ariz., a company that specializes in teaching direct-response marketing processes to the professional cleaning industry. Local newspapers also could provide clues into local competitors.

Another passive approach is to call a competitor and ask that a promotional package be mailed to you. It won’t contain pricing information, but will help you get a handle on the contractor’s approach.

Another, straight-forward approach to getting industry information — Dun and Bradstreet’s Million Dollar Directory — can be expensive to purchase, but you can view it at your local library. It contains a lot of financial information, classified by industry groups, as well as a company’s name and address, phone number, key personnel, and company revenues based on the number of employees.

“There’s a lot of information about a company on its Web site. If it’s a public company, look at its 10K financial statement, and look on a search engine like Google or Yahoo! for recent press releases or articles about the company,” says John LaRosa, president of Market Data Enterprises Inc. in Tampa, Fla.

Some research tactics are a little more intrusive, and, if done improperly, can be improper. Often, workers bounce from one cleaning company to another, and they’re willing to share information regarding operational differences between the two employers. While casual discussions are probably fine, trade secrets can sometimes leak out — and that can work both ways, when a former employee of yours spills all to your competitor.

To prevent that, Fairley suggests that companies adopt a non-compete clause to protect their sensitive information. Included in the clause should be details about the way they clean, how they market to companies, and the products they use. Financial data, if a private company, also should be kept closely guarded.

From their customers
Don’t rule out your competitors’ customers as information sources, even if they’re not intending on changing contractors anytime soon.

“If we need some information on how much a company is doing per square foot, we might call the customer and ask,” Warer says. Most of the time he gets the information.

Having an open line of communication with the person who awards the bid is important even if you aren’t selected for the contract. Dellutri will phone and ask why another contractor was chosen.

“Just be really up front with your contact…say you’re trying to continually research and evaluate your bidding methods,” she says.

And often, customers can provide information useful for bidding — sometimes, even the winning bid itself.

“Ninety-five percent of the customers will actually let me take a look at the contractor’s bid,” says Laura Dellutri, owner of America’s Cleaning Connection, with branches in Omaha, Neb., and Lenexa, Kan. However, don’t expect to get information during the bidding process itself —this sharing usually happens only after the deal is complete. Also, BSCs should be sensitive to clients’ limits if they don’t want to reveal information or it could backfire.

Dellutri says even if she gets a bid with the figures blacked out, she still can get a useful glimpse at the contractor’s promotional pieces, such as a brochure or business card, which can provide a means of comparison.

Polish reminds contractors, though, that throughout their competitive research they need to keep their ears peeled for more than just the dirt on their competitors. Listen carefully to customers when they talk about any problems that made them cancel their last contract. You want to make sure to learn from others’ mistakes so you aren’t being talked about next time.

Kristine Hansen is a free-lance writer based in Madison, Wis.