It seems like a natural fit: commercial cleaners offering house cleaning services as a logical way to expand their core business. But while some building service contractors successfully manage both divisions, it is advised that those considering residential cleaning proceed with caution.

“There’s a big misunderstanding that the industries are the same,” says Perry Phillips, founder and executive director of the Association of Residential Cleaning Services International based in Atlanta. “In theory, you have people cleaning buildings, but outside of that they’re completely different industries.”

For one, cleaning someone’s home is a very personal endeavor and should be treated as such.

“You’re in someone’s private space,” notes Bill Griffin, president, Cleaning Consultant Services Inc., Seattle. “You know more about that individual than their parents might know. Their underwear is on the floor, their movies are on the table, and their children are there. They’re very protective of that space.”

Because homeowners are very particular about the people that enter their homes and handle their personal belongings, BSCs need to be even more selective when it comes to hiring cleaners for the residential side of their business. Personality plays a dominant role during the hiring process. Residential cleaners must work in teams and have good people skills, whereas commercial cleaners typically work independently in unoccupied buildings and rarely interact with customers or tenants.

Residential cleaning also requires a lighter touch and greater attention to detail.

“Homeowners are generally very picky and touchy,” says Griffin. “If you move something and put it back in the wrong place, they’re going to know it. People that do commercial cleaning tend to be less delicate in the work they do. In a home, if you knock something over, the homeowner will likely be upset about it and want a refund. If you put a commercial cleaner in a home, it’s like putting a bull in a china shop.”

Opportunities for theft are also greater in someone’s home, say BSCs, so homeowners and cleaning companies need to be more vigilant. Contractors should run background checks on potential employees and check references before hiring janitors.

A helping hand

Whether BSCs choose to buy franchises or start their own divisions, the need for residential cleaning companies is growing.

“There are a lot more elderly people, and people are working out of their homes,” says Griffin. “These are growing markets.”

Profit margins can be more rewarding than the commercial side of the business if you operate efficiently, but the environment is more emotionally charged, says Phillips.

“There’s an emotional component of cleaning someone’s home as opposed to cleaning an office building that has a dramatic impact on every aspect of the business, from the types of products you use, to scheduling, equipment, employees and the way customers interact with the managers and owners. It creates a really different dynamic.”

For some BSCs, that emotional element of the business can be its own reward.

Mary Conrad is president of Conrad Cleaning Service Inc. in Vero Beach, Fla. The company offers both commercial and residential cleaning services. The residential side of her business has brought some very happy times to the owner and employees.

“When we had Hurricane Frances and Jeanne, some of the older folks had to be moved out of their homes so the homes could be reconstructed,” says Conrad. “We’d go in afterward and clean the construction dust. What made our hearts happy was when the folks could go back into their homes again. The rewards are great when we see people happy, and they complement you on your work.”

Divide and conquer

Adding on residential cleaning services can be an excellent opportunity for BSCs to grow their business, but to be successful, owners must run each division as a separate entity.

“The type of people who do residential cleaning have a different mindset than people who do commercial cleaning. You don’t want them mixing. It’s like oil and water,” says Griffin.

Sharon Cowan, business development director for Beachland Cleaning Service in Florida and former president and CEO of a commercial and residential cleaning company, advises business owners not to serve as manager for both divisions.

“They will burn themselves out,” she warns. “Owners won’t be able to competently manage a daytime operation and then go out and supervise accounts or even clean at night. The best advice I can give is to hire someone or promote a skilled part-time person to part-time supervisor.”

When adding a residential division to a commercial cleaning company, or vice versa, quality is the owner’s priority, Cowan says.

“That’s where owners should focus their time — not in cleaning but in managing people that do the cleaning and overseeing quality,” she adds.

When it comes to managing schedules, residential divisions need to be more flexible than commercial ones because there is a greater chance customers will change their schedules at the last minute, says Cowan.

Expanding into residential services requires the same research and planning needed for a new business venture.

“It requires investigation of the need for that service, the demographic you’re going to target, and how you’re going to do it,” Cowan says. “You have to figure out how long before your marketing kicks in and you can generate enough revenue to cover the cost of that startup because there will be advertising and personnel costs.”

On the plus side, these two industries play well off each other when it comes to marketing opportunities, Cowan says.

“You can do a lot of cross marketing and offering promotions and discounts. For example, when you have commercial offices, most of the employees are two-income families so they will need your residential maid service business. A good portion of residential customers either work outside the home or have partners that work outside the home, and they will have a need for your commercial service.”

Some companies may even choose a different name for the residential side of their business, but Cowan warns them to be careful when selecting a new name. For example, a “cute” name that speaks to the residential side of the business won’t help attract commercial customers.

On the flip side, homeowners might be less inclined to pick a company with a commercial name because they think that the company won’t pay attention to detail when cleaning their home.

“The perception of what you do is all in your name,” Cowan says.

While referrals are the best way to grow your new business venture, initially you will need to focus marketing efforts on your target market as well.

“If you’re marketing to residential customers, you’re going to spend your marketing dollars in places where homeowners go,” says Cowan, “such as dog groomers, nail salons, etc. Same for the commercial side: Market to chambers of commerce, make sure you have a strong Internet presence, and network within trade associations.”

Favoring franchises

Rather than start a residential cleaning division from scratch, some BSCs may reap greater rewards by purchasing an existing residential cleaning company or franchise. Colin Bishop is executive vice president of The Maids International, a residential cleaning franchise in Omaha, Neb. He acknowledges that the two industries are very different, requiring separate management, and marketing and advertising budgets. On a positive note, residential cleaning is less competitive than commercial cleaning, he says, and is still in its infancy as far as growth potential.

BSCs that purchase a residential cleaning franchise are relieved of some of the burdens associated with starting and operating what is essentially a new business.

“We know like clockwork how they’ll grow and what issues will come up,” says Bishop. “It’s important to be consistent with customers. For someone to start up a residential cleaning division it would be costly to redevelop their own systems. Most people that buy a franchise don’t want the headaches and the capital needed to start their own business.”

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.