As customers have struggled amid what the media has dubbed "the Great Recession," they've slashed discretionary spending. As a result, building services contractors have felt the economic pinch as their clients trimmed cleaning services to better toe the line on spending.

Guy Mingo, CEO of Marsden Holding, St. Paul, Minn., estimates firms reduced general service cleaning spending approximately 12 percent during the recent economic downturn. The impact on specialty services, such as carpet maintenance and window cleaning, fared far worse, with ongoing carpet care being slashed by as much as 40 percent in some cases.

According to Mingo, clients are removing restorative and interim cleaning from contracts in lieu of calling in BSCs when they feel these services are needed. They're also trimming daily vacuuming to two or three times a week, adds T.J. Barnes, COO of Fairfield, N.J.-based Manhattan Maintenance Co.

"They've moved to the idea that, "I'll pay for it when I think it's dirty,' as opposed to committing to maintaining carpet on a regular basis," Mingo says. Companies that once contracted for monthly carpet work are scaling back to once a quarter or even less.

Ironically, customers' moves to save money now can cost them some serious cash in the long run, warns Doug Bradford, CEO of Eco Interior Maintenance, an Arnold, Md.-based cleaning company as well as Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC) S100 Committee Chair. S100 establishes minimum standards for professional carpet cleaning.

"If you don't have specialists maintaining carpet, the carpet needs replacing sooner and from a sustainability perspective ends up being thrown into landfills," he says. "You may also void the manufacturer's warranty and have to live with carpet that's "uglied' out within a couple of years."

Heed the Warning

Mike Stollenwerk, senior vice president of operations in Eastern Wisconsin for CleanPower LLC, a Milwaukee, Wis.-based cleaning firm, advises BSCs act as problem-solvers as clients seek to pare their budgets.

"We need to focus on being proactive, go-to answer people," he says. "You cannot wait until the customer comes to you to start looking for alternatives, you need to look for them before the client says anything."

Here, education is the name of the game. The client who seeks to reduce carpet care may not understand the long-term expenses they can incur. BSCs with good client relationships, who have positioned themselves as solutions-based service providers, can help companies navigate the economic storm by trimming their budgets in areas that make sense, while keeping critical care, such as carpet maintenance, status quo.

Talking to clients about their flooring investment and the expense of replacing carpet provides a critical vantage point. Go over manufacturers' warranties and discuss the ways warranties may be voided as well as show clients how trimming maintenance impacts carpet lifespan and reduces indoor air quality (IAQ), suggests Mingo.

Improperly maintaining a carpet with a 10-year lifespan, for instance, may reduce its life by as much as 30 percent. Likewise, manufacturers will not replace a carpet warrantied for 10 years when it wears prematurely, if it hasn't been properly maintained.

"Clients need to know that not cleaning their carpets may damage carpet surfaces to the point where they have permanent discoloration or wear patterns that cleaning cannot remove," Mingo says.

Skimping on carpet care also can lead to employee health problems and reduced productivity. Dirty carpet can become a health hazard, says Mingo.

"The longer you let carpeting go without cleaning, the more dirt and bacteria builds up," he says. "Eventually, you will negatively impact the building's air quality."

Find Some Middle Ground

Even with these facts in hand, clients' economic situations may still dictate cost reductions. Here BSCs must look for solutions that fit client budgets, while keeping cleaning quality high.

Mingo recommends looking at building traffic flow patterns, considering foot traffic patterns inside as well as outside, and identifying high traffic areas that may pick up dirt faster, then modifying the cleaning program to ensure the most critical areas keep maintenance adequate.

"High-traffic areas, lobbies, 24-hour spaces: these are the places we recommend companies continue cleaning even when they're cutting their budgets," Mingo says. "Farther back into the building, in the cubicles and office areas, where outside dirt has been walked off of people's shoes, these are the areas we recommend cutting back. The deeper you are in the building, the less you need to worry about dirt coming in from outside."

When clients tell Bradford they need to reduce carpet cleaning, he recommends increasing vacuuming frequencies.

"Eighty-seven percent of carpet soil can be removed dry," Bradford explains. "The last thing you want to do is reduce vacuuming intervals if you're cleaning the carpet less frequently."

There are cleaning options for customers that aren't as preferable as a deep clean and extraction, but that are better than the alternative of skipping maintenance cleaning altogether. Foam-, bonnet- and spot-cleaning are all methods of preserving carpeting when deep-cleaning has been put on the back burner.

Foam cleaning utilizes a machine similar to a buffer that releases shampoo onto a brush, which works its way into carpet fibers. Shorter drying times, less chemical and water use are among the benefits inherent in this method. The technique can be part of an ongoing maintenance program to keep heavily used areas clean. However, because it is difficult to remove shampoo residue through vacuuming, eventually these deposits attract dirt and must be eliminated through water extraction.

Bonnet cleaning can also extend deep cleaning intervals. Here, cleaning product is deposited onto the carpet surface as mist and a round buffer or "bonnet" scrubs the mixture into the carpet with a rotating motion. This method only addresses the top third of the carpet fibers, however, making it a quick solution rather than a deep cleaning.

"It can be used as a preventative type of maintenance but is not meant to replace deep cleaning," Mingo says. "But if a customer asks how to get their carpet to look better on a limited budget, you might recommend bonnet cleaning because the production rate is faster and it uses a lot less water and chemicals."

If BSCs provide input as companies replace carpeting, they can suggest carpeting infused with stain guards. They can also recommend applying stain guards to existing flooring to keep carpet appearance high for longer intervals, says Mingo.

Finally, BSCs can look to increased spot cleaning as a means of keeping stains at bay, adds Bradford.

"If you're not going to do full carpet cleaning as often, you need to aggressively address spills and spots," he explains.

There are many chemicals that can be used to do this. Bradford recommends researching available chemicals on the Carpet and Rug Institute's Web site. This institute's Seal of Approval program certifies green carpet cleaning products.

In the end, however, these options are temporary solutions — restorative cleaning will eventually be needed, whatever the client's budget. Bradford likens foregoing restorative cleaning to not getting a haircut.

"You can comb your hair, but after awhile it's going to get long and look shaggy, and eventually you'll need a full makeover," he says.

The key is to use the methods temporarily, to keep appearance high until deep cleaning is possible.

The Good News

There are some signs pointing to the country emerging from the recession. The latest figures for new home construction released in mid-April were better than expected. Mid-April also found the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 finishing at the highest levels in more than 18 months. Unemployment is also going down. As the country's economy bounces back, BSCs can expect companies to add regular carpet care back into cleaning contracts.

"You cannot put carpet cleaning off forever — eventually it gets ugly and it gets dirty," says Mingo. "I've already seen a loosening up in this area with clients saying, "Let's schedule this' or "Let's schedule that.' The good news is that specialty services will likely come back to a great degree."

In the meantime, building services contractors need to be vigilant in meeting client needs on reduced budgets.

"Our focus needs to be on that facility," says Stollenwerk. "BSCs can't say, "Well, if you're going to reduce my time or cut this and cut that, I'm just going to have to work harder and faster.' It's not about that. It's about working smarter."

Ronnie Garrett is a freelance writer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis.