Problem. It’s a word that many building service contractors don’t want to hear, much less find in their organizations.

The unfortunate reality is, however, that problems creep into even the most successful contractor operations. But what differentiates successful businesses from their struggling counterparts is how quickly and competently they seek solutions.

“Sometimes, when we have difficulties, instead of sitting down and discussing the issues, we ignore them and hope they go away before the customer catches us,” says Dick Ollek, CBSE, CEO of Mid-America Building Maintenance, Wichita, Kan.

The following are common problems BSCs often repeat, along with the solutions to break the cycle.

You receive a call from an irate facility manager at one of your long-term accounts.

“Normally, we’ve been able to count on you for top-notch service, but for the last few weeks, I’ve noticed skipped wastebaskets, streaks on the restroom mirrors and dust in most of the high places,” she fumes. “But what’s even more disappointing is that when I checked the security sign-in sheet, your workers were here for about 20 hours per week. We’re contracted for 28.”

As you try to muddle through an excuse, you’re quietly wondering where those employees went.

Why is this a problem? Any time the facility manager believes you’re skimping on staff, services or time spent on-site, even if there’s a perfectly acceptable reason, there’s a problem.

Also, if absence rates surprise you, you’re either not keeping track properly, or someone’s not reporting it.

Is what you did ever right? It’s never “right” to fail to deliver promised services, but it can be understandable.

“If you bring in better equipment that’s more efficient, you may be able to cut some hours,” says Steve Spencer, facility maintenance services senior specialist for State Farm Insurance Cos., Bloomington, Ill. “But that’s a clue that you better step in and talk to the customer before your phone rings.”

Also, while a snowstorm or transit strike may keep your workers from reaching the job site, your customer may not automatically realize that. Communicate reasons for any known disruptions before the customer asks about them.

Short-term fix? The best immediate course of action is to apologize, says Spencer.

“Be open and honest, not defensive,” he explains. “There’s nothing worse than making excuses.”

Instead, offer the customer some options. Immediately offer a credit, or to make up the work hours, advises Spencer. Most FMs will choose the work hours — they simply want to get what they paid for, he adds.

Long-term fix? “The BSC must sell at the right labor level,” Spencer says. A good workloading program can help contractors properly estimate jobs, as can a standard guide to task times, such as 358 Cleaning Times, a booklet available from the International Sanitary Supply Association.

Shifting to full-time workers, while potentially reducing absenteeism, may have unintended consequences. If you need to perform 24 hours of work a night in a building, you could use three full-timers or six part-timers. Unfortunately, if one of your full-timers is out, you lose eight hours of work; if a part-timer is home sick, you only lose four. Also, it’s harder to get someone in for an extra eight-hour shift, and substitutes will need overtime pay.

Spencer suggests deliberately over-scheduling workers to cover for absences. Track historical absence rates to find out when to schedule the extra person.

“If everyone shows up, put the extra person on project work, because some nights, you’re barely going to be able to do the routine work,” he adds.

Of course, make sure to train employees properly the first time, and re-train and evaluate them regularly.

Also, add quality-assurance incentives for your workers, suggests Jonathan Williams, founder of, Fremont, Calif., and a former BSC.

“Tape a $20 bill to the back of the toilet,” he suggests. Let the employees know there may be money hidden somewhere along the cleaning route in a hard-to-reach area (perhaps in a clearly marked envelope — you don’t want cleaners taking cash from customers’ offices). If the cleaners find it, they can keep it. You don’t even need to do this very often — just the chance that there may be money is a good motivator.

One customer accounts for
too much of your revenue
Things are looking good. You landed the big, prominent customer in town. It now accounts for a hefty 30 percent of your revenue, with profit margins large enough to pay off some of your accrued debts.

Then, the phone call comes. It seems the account’s corporate office wants to bring in a national company to handle all the cleaning across the country, and you’re out at the end of the year.

Why is this a problem? While losing a customer that big always is tough, the main problem is that you let a customer account for that much of your revenue in the first place. You invest a lot of time, new equipment and other capital into that account, so you run the risk of losing a lot of money if they take their business elsewhere.

“Avoid having any contract take even 10 percent of your sales,” says Gary Penrod, CBSE, president of Gary Penrod & Associates Inc., Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Is what you did ever right? If one of your customers experiences rapid growth and wants to take your company along, that’s a good thing. But even if that customer becomes 20 or 30 percent of your revenue in the short-term, Penrod suggests trying to add a new customer of equal worth.

Short-term fix? Unless you have 10 other customers waiting in the wings, the best thing to do is to get your finances in order. And don’t simply lay off a secretary or re-negotiate credit terms with vendors; BSCs go on an austerity plan immediately.

When this situation happened to Penrod’s cleaning firm many years ago, he cut administrative positions, office supplies, furniture orders — and even cut his own salary as an example.

Cutting people from the management chain also may help, and an owner who has become removed from day-to-day operations may need to start pitching in again.

You also may want to seek a loan to help your short-term cash needs, but the truth is that if you just lost a big customer, you may have a hard time securing credit from a new source. Coming in with a distinct and sound recovery plan and justification for the cash you need may help, says Ollek.

Long-term fix? Avoid replacing a big customer with another big customer, Penrod suggests. Instead, try to gradually make up the lost revenue with several smaller accounts.

To avoid an emergency cash crunch, Ollek suggests securing a line of credit with your bank while business is healthy, before you need to beg. (For more information on bringing your business back from financial problems, see Business Savvy).

Saying “yes” too often
Greg over at Affiliated Bank has a brother who owns a music store that needs cleaning once a week. He recommended your company since you do so well at his locations. It’s a bit of a drive — but that’s OK, isn’t it?

“Of course. I’ll give him a call,” you say — just as you said to the customer who needed you to shift to days with almost no notice; your dad’s restaurant an hour away; and the small day-care center you take a loss on but feel sorry for. After all, you don’t want to pass up new business.

Why is this a problem? There’s really two problems here: First, taking on one or two tiny or marginally profitable accounts in faraway places probably won’t mean disaster, but too many small accounts can drain your resources until you’re too thinly spread to service more profitable customers.

Also, if you go into a territory where you don’t have support, you may be unable to react quickly to problems, says Anthony Maione, Core Management Services Inc., Endicott, N.Y.

Is what you did ever right? If you’re a small company, niche customers may be your bread-and-butter; after all, many successful businesses get their start by cleaning for their friends and families.

If you’re a big company, doing a favor for a profitable customer may generate a lot of goodwill; and of course, there’s nothing wrong with performing a little charity work — if you see it as such.

Short-term fix? Go ahead and call the brother, but recommend a colleague closer to the music store.

Long-term fix? It all depends on how you want to position yourself, says Maione. Do you want to “own” your town? Do you want to expand geographically? Do you want to offer more services? You can’t do all that at once without spreading yourself too thinly.

If you position yourself as a big player, stick to the meatier accounts.

“If you’re a regional or larger company, don’t even look at jobs unless they’re large enough for a site manager,” Maione suggests. “The big guys don’t want the local branch bank.”

Maione also suggests pairing with colleagues out of your competitive area. That way, you can refer the music store to them, and they can return the favor. (Click here for more information on partnering with other BSCs.)

Communication breakdown
“This is Tina from Powell Property Management. One of our tenants, Bradley Biotech, has complained that the cleaning crew missed their conference room three nights this week.”

You resist the urge to get defensive; instead, thank Tina for the call, and you offer to speak with the site manager to find out more.

The truth is, however, you can’t remember who Tina is — only that she seems hostile. You hope the site manager remembers her.

Later, you run into him.

“Well, we tried to clean Bradley, but they seemed to change their schedule. They’re using the conference room after hours, and we haven’t been able to get in there,” he says.

And as for the identity of Tina? “Oh, so that’s who’s managing the Powell building now?”

Why is this a problem? The site manager (and you) have no idea who the contact is in the building you’re cleaning. The property firm never told you about a new manager, and you never asked.

Also, there’s a legitimate reason the crew can’t get into the conference room — it’s occupied — but neither you nor Tina knows this.

The overriding problem is that you’ve failed to establish a relationship with that customer. The decision-makers at Powell Property Management may not even remember your name or understand the value you provide, giving them little incentive to keep you aboard when the contract expires.

Is what you ever did right? Of course, you don’t need to tell the facility manager about every aspect of your business — they’re paying you to worry about staffing, taxes and supplies so they don’t have to, says Ollek.

But relationships are key to the contracting business, and if you and your managers don’t know what’s going on, your customers will see this as a sign of incompetence — which, frankly, it is.

Short-term fix? “Customers don’t want to be lied to,” Ollek points out. “Own up to the problem, then fix it.”

Call Tina back, Ollek suggests, and say, “The site manager has reported difficulty accommodating the schedule. Can we meet with that tenant?”

Then, schedule a meeting with her and the biotech firm to revise the cleaning schedule for that building.

“If you have difficulty in doing scheduled work because a department is still in the building, don’t just say, ‘we’ll try to work around it,’” Ollek says. “Bring the customer in to work on a solution.”

Long-term fix? The goal is to try to establish an effective communication strategy in the first place.

First of all, you need to have a solid reporting system in place so you know most of what is going on in each account at a quick glance. Try holding meetings regularly with your senior staff, and set up a customer database — with contact names, contract specification and even the quirks of the facilities — on your computer.

At the start of any new job, make sure you’ve met your customers’ team, and they’ve met yours. Ollek even includes this customer orientation in his proposals.

In addition, much of this communication must be done in person, emphasizes Bob Merkt, president of Kettle Moraine Professional Cleaners, West Bend, Wis.

“You can’t build rapport over the phone,” he says. “You must stop in and visit.”

Once you’ve established a rapport with your customers, you can take it a step further and begin to “toot your own horn,” suggests Spencer.

“Carpet cleaning always is in the off-hours, and if you do it right, the carpet always looks good,” he explains. That means customers may never see you clean the carpet, and might never give it a second thought.

“Leave a note detailing the spots you removed. Otherwise, they forget, and they may cut spending, thinking they don’t need carpet cleaning,” says Spencer. All of that communication effort should pay off when it comes time to renew the contract.

Treating employees as clones
You arrive at one of your accounts, an office building, during a night shift. You’re greeted by the new site supervisor. He says the vacuum specialist quit (again), and while he found a substitute for the week, he isn’t getting any good applicants for the job. You look at the staff roster.

“Pull Maria from projects over to the vacuum,” you suggest. “She’s a really good worker, and I’m sure she’ll be just as good at vacuuming. The projects can wait, but we need a vacuuming now.”

When he tells Maria this, she protests. She says the backpack vacuum is too heavy, and she’s good at the special projects.

“Just do it,” you snap. Maria walks off, sulking.

Why is this a problem? You’ve got several problems here. First of all, Maria may indeed be unable to work with the backpack. She simply may not be trained to use it properly, or she may have an underlying medical condition.

“Not everyone can use backpacks,” Spencer says. “Some people like them just fine, but I once saw an older gentleman hauling the backpack behind him on a cart. He couldn’t lift it.”

Also, Maria has implied she likes doing the special projects. Perhaps there’s a perception that projects is a more prestigious job than vacuuming. She may feel as though you demoted her for no reason.

On a deeper note, you’re assuming that Maria is just like every other janitor — you think of them as faceless, ambitionless, interchangeable. But that’s an erroneous assumption.

“If you have 100 workers, the bell curve will apply,” explains Maione. “Ten will be excellent, another 10 will be awful, but the rest will fall somewhere in the middle.”

Is what you did ever right? Of course, your employees should be expected to help out in a pinch. But if at all possible, consider your employees’ preferences for long-term assignments.

Ignoring your employees’ concerns, on the other hand, is never right.

Short-term fix? Apologize to Maria for your short temper, and explain the situation. That may diffuse her anger.

Long-term fix? The key to differentiating your employees is to get to know them, says Spencer.

“Ask them about their long-term goals,” he says. “Chances are, they do have ambitions beyond dumping wastebaskets.”
You may find a potential supervisor, someone who wants to go back to school or someone who really does enjoy cleaning. That way, you’ll get to see your employees as individuals.

For instance, if you talk to Maria and find out she wants to use the cleaning job as a springboard, you can point to employees who were promoted.

Editor’s note: The format of this article is based on that of
101 Mistakes Managers Make by Mary Albright and Clay Carr (Prentice Hall, 1997).

With every problem, you need to think about solutions in two ways: short-term and long-term. In other words, you need to try to “save face” immediately (if that’s possible) and work out a plan to make the customer happy in the long run — and more importantly, keep these problems from happening in the first place.

Mary Albright and Clay Carr’s 101 Biggest Mistakes Managers Make suggests generalizing problem-solving scenarios into other situations by seeking three sources of information: your team; your peers; and yourself.

First, whenever you have to take an action you’re not sure about, evaluate its consequences afterward. Then, ask for feedback from your crew; they know better than anyone how your words and actions are perceived. Finally, share your experiences with other managers, and ask them to help you work through problem situations.

Dick Ollek, CEO of Mid-America Building Maintenance, Wichita, Kan., suggests calling in a consultant for a day or two who can sit down with your management team and give an honest assessment of your business, as well as an action plan.

Most of all, you must be willing to accept criticism, and take action based on the input you receive from all sources.

“Don’t be the type of owner who says, ‘this is how it’ll be,’” Ollek advises. “The owner must listen in order to help.”