Cliché as it is, the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” can describe the attitude of a building service contractor with multiple offices spanning different time zones and geographic climates.

Steve Spencer, who manages 20 contractor coordinators for State Farm Insurance from a corporate office in Bloomington, Ill., thinks managing across the miles can be a problem — but only if managers let it be. Communication, key to any successful business operation, is even more vital when members of the team rarely see each other face-to-face, he says.

If remotely located employees are not prepared, or do not have enough insight about the company before digging into a territory or a task, the business can suffer. Clients could be given the wrong information, resulting in, at best, wasted time — soothing irate customers and correcting errant data takes time away from core business. At worst, BSCs can lose accounts and reputation.

Building service contractors should prevent spasms of miscommunication even before they occur, Spencer advises, so that rippling disasters don’t plague the organization. Otherwise, managers will spend more time trying to uncoil those kinks than selling new accounts or providing top-notch customer service.

For example, because there is no on-site supervisor at each of the 13 operations centers that State Farm Insurance contracts with, Spencer wrote an operations manual that is available electronically. He makes sure that each employee has a copy. Only after an employee has read the entire manual does Spencer follow up with a teleconference, making sure all questions are answered before she or he hits the streets promoting and selling the company’s services to clients.

“Even if we hire a new employee in the field and they don’t know me from Adam, that document will tell them who to alert,” says Spencer, acknowledging that due to his other company responsibilities, he isn’t always available at the drop of a hat.

While it may be customary in the beginning to have a bit of long-distance hand-holding with new hires, after a period of time it should be dissolved so that sales employees can work independently.

For example, Stan Doobin, president and owner of Harvard Maintenance in New York, N.Y., who supervises 3,000 full-time janitorial-services employees out in the field, likes to think of himself as the least important person in the chain of events that seal a sales contract. That’s because he is not the client’s closest link but is instead handling administrative and leadership duties at the home office.

“I’m actually the least important person in the company,” he says, “and the workers out in the field are the most important.”

His philosophy is that by him motivating employees and providing them with the right equipment he can be assured he won’t lose time counseling dissatisfied customers. And that frees him up to focus on company growth.

On top of the game
Managing sales employees who are hired to work independently requires a different approach than the typical office set-up where departments share physical space and can get to know each other’s work styles fairly quickly. If there is an errant employee not putting in the proper number of hours, or not working to his or her full potential, months could go by before this is discovered.

Doobin says that making sure everyone is on task can be quite a challenge. To help with this, he developed an “inverted pyramid” in 1993. The pyramid concept is the subject of his book, titled Customer Mania. (To learn more about the pyramid, and see the accompanying graphic, visit www.harvardmaint. com/pyramid.html.)

Using this tool, employees are empowered at every level, forgoing the “command and control” management style in which orders come from the top and trickle down to the bottom level of employees. Employees are rewarded with incentives, opportunities and support through every phase in the work cycle. At the top of the pyramid are employees, followed by supervision, area managers, the project manager and the management team. This way, the entire team stays in touch.

Software solutions
Another method of staying in touch with representatives stretched across the field is with computer software.Paul Greenland, president of Aetna Building Maintenance in Columbus, Ohio, manages three sales employees who are spread out over Ohio and Kentucky. By using customer service management software, the entire team can log contacts as well as record dates and information about contractors.

“We just give the salespeople the freedom to do what they need to do,” says Greenland. “Salespeople are difficult to manage but easier to evaluate. Either they’ve sold it or they haven’t.”

That’s where online sharing comes in. Establishing an efficient database or online filing system helps fuel a sales team’s operations so that each employee can operate independently. Besides being quick, feeding information directly into an electronic system cuts down on the number of e-mails and the amount of paper mail that probably is bogging down most sales teams. Making the data available to everyone — and not just the manager — builds the framework so that when a sales catastrophe strikes, everyone can dive in and get to work.

“When it comes time to rebid, you can send a contractor qualification form to everyone you’ve ever had contact with,” says Spencer, adding that he maintains a database of all client contacts, which his employees can access.

Face time
Although teleconferencing, online sharing and frequent communications are important, don’t forget to visit your remote sales teams and branch offices, and, if the situation allows, attend meetings with clients together.

Greenland makes sure that his sales team meets once a month, without fail. Even though it could compromise time with clients, the team makes sure it does not conflict with other duties by putting the meeting on the master calendar.

In a similar vein, after producing requests for proposals, Spencer visits the client with the assigned contract coordinator. While this may swallow up two business days, with air travel and ground transportation, the time invested may very well pay off when he can sit back, relax and know that his employees are taking care of the company and its customers.

Kristine Hansen is a freelance writer in Milwaukee.

Book Review

Quench The Cynic: Get Employees to Think Positively

By Dan Weltin, Associate Editor

Filling the Glass: The Skeptic’s Guide to Positive Thinking in Business by Barry Maher (Dearborn Trade, 2001, $19.95)

It’s no secret that the cleaning industry is plagued by high turnover. Cleaning companies experience turnover at well over 100 percent and building service contractors don’t have it easy when it comes to offering perks to keep their employees. Wages are low and benefits practically non-existent. Many workers see their life as a janitor as short lived and are merely waiting for a better opportunity to come along.

For these cases a book like Barry Maher’s Filling the Glass might contain a few nuggets of information that could help change the mind of staff members constantly looking for a new job.

Once someone gets trapped in the viewpoint that they are “stuck” in a job, their time with the company will be nothing but a negative experience. And negative employees won’t be as productive as positive ones. So, Maher encourages employees to thoroughly examine their working conditions. Instead of checking out emotionally, turn the job experience around and make the position a positive one. Even though the wages may not be spectacular, the boss might be a good motivator, or maybe co-workers make the late shifts a pleasurable experience. Perhaps the company offers a large number of vacation days that allow workers to spend more time with their family. Or having to work two jobs, the moonlighting hours are a chance to make ends meet. Whatever the circumstances, Maher says that after weighing the pros and cons of the job, people might find that their job is actually better than once thought.

However, if the cons are still outweighing the pros, Maher dispenses advice on how to turn it around. Learning how to excite colleagues and co-workers can affect one’s own work experience. For those in supervisory roles, if employees are happy, managers themselves have a better chance of being happy with their own job.

But focusing on others is only part of the equation — attention also needs to be put on one’s self. Improve how you relate to customers, employees and bosses — impressing the right people will make your job easier, and in turn more enjoyable.

Maher uses numerous quotes, examples and anecdotes to relay his messages of positive thinking. Sometimes, however, he uses too many and the point gets lost in translation. Also, after reading multiple examples back to back, it is easy to forget the point Maher was making. Thankfully, he interjects tips where he clearly spells out the point.

The majority of the examples are sales oriented. For the most part, Maher does effectively translate them to apply to all positions, but at times, anyone not a salesperson might feel overwhelmed or out of place.

Editor’s note: Barry Maher will be speaking at ISSA/Interclean® in Las Vegas on Tuesday, October 18. His presentation titled “Effective Communications for Success” is part of the Facility Service Provider Track sponsored by Contracting Profits.