Every so often, building service contractors hear about — or worse, experience — the horror stories that make them regret going into business: Assaults. Injury or fatality accidents. Employee theft rings. Chemical spills requiring hazmat crews.

Fortunately, these incidents are rare. Much more common are everyday mishaps — forgotten trash cans, billing errors and maintenance problems. But these small, day-to-day issues — even if they don’t originate from your company — can kill contracts just as easily as major mistakes if you handle them improperly.

The key to surviving these small problems is two-fold: First, forging a good relationship with your customer from day one; and second, handling the issues that do come up with grace.

One of the best ways to avoid having small problems escalate into contract killers is to establish strong relationships with clients from the outset.

"If you only show up for problems, it’ll be seen as a strike against you," says Ted Hsu, CBSE, president of Horizon Services Corp., East Hartford, Conn., "Without a prior relationship, your client’s reaction is a crap shoot."

Forging that relationship can be as simple as picking up the phone or stopping by once in a while.

"In this industry, if you put as much emphasis on retention as you did on sales, you wouldn’t have client turnover," says Bob Rosenkranz, president of Serv-U-1st, Portland, Ore. When trying to court a new client, salespeople often schedule regular calls, but once the client signs on, these calls often stop. Rosenkranz believes the opposite should be true.

"We try to make sure we have a frequency of client contact, either by phone or in person," he says.

"It’s much easier to fire someone you never see and don’t like," adds Laura Dellutri, president of America’s Cleaning Connection Referral Service in Omaha.

But just getting in front of the customer can backfire if you’re not equipped with the right communication skills, warns Toni Erlich, owner of Connections: Communicating in Action, a communications-skills consulting firm based in New York City.

"Pay attention to your tone of voice and your expressions," says Erlich. "You don’t have to walk around smiling all of the time, but if you want to be in rapport with your clients, you have to convey respect."

For instance, if you say, "I’m sorry," with a concerned look and sympathetic tone, your client is likely to be responsive, but if you snarl it with a smirk, it’ll be perceived as sarcastic and unprofessional.

That said, a professional demeanor and respectful posture can’t prevent small problems from popping up. While some of these problems can quietly be resolved without input from the customer, most of the time, you’ll need to discuss the problem with your contact. And unfortunately, many people react to news of a missed project or a billing error with the same agitation they would for a much more severe incident.

To lessen the blow, Erlich suggests using a "softener" when discussing touchy subjects with your clients, rather than diving right in.

"Say, ‘Mr. Smith, I’ve made an observation and I wonder if you’ll be open to hearing my thoughts,’" she suggests.

If your relationship with your client is long and strong, you probably could just come out and state your case without the softener, but when in doubt, be gentle, says Erlich.

Mea culpa
Perhaps the most touchy of the small problems that creep up in a BSCs day-to-day operations are the little glitches — the skipped restroom, the invoice error — that clearly are the fault of the contractor.

If you or someone in your company makes a mistake, the first two words to your client should be "I’m sorry," says Dellutri.

"Customers don’t want lip service or excuses," she says. "They want to know when the office will be cleaned, and if they can count on you."

Excuses only work if they’re legitimate, Dellutri adds.

"If the office was locked and we didn’t have a key, that’s legitimate and we can work with the client to make sure that doesn’t happen again," she says. "But don’t use the ‘new employee’ or ‘someone called in sick’ excuses. Your clients don’t care."

How you should handle such a problem depends on who discovers the error first: You or your customer. If you discover the error first, you may be able to fix the problem quietly, without alerting your customer, suggests Rosenkranz. For instance, if your crew accidentally skips a task, and it could be completed before the customer finds out, it may be better to just fix the problem.

But what if a few days have gone by, and it’s too late to fix the problem without discussing it first with your customer? It may be tempting to ignore, and thus not bring attention to, a problem your client hasn’t discovered. But Jeffrey Seglin, a business ethics expert and an assistant professor at Emerson University in Boston, says that may backfire.

While you may fear appearing incompetent if you point out errors, the need to be honest with your customer should outweigh the fear, he says. In fact, the customer might perceive you to have great integrity.

"The thing about acting ethically is that often it's impossible to know what the reaction of others might be to our acts," Seglin says.

Hsu agrees.

"Our intent is to cover our own errors," says Hsu. If his staff makes an error, Hsu will let the client know, and then he’ll fix the problem. That approach, he says, has improved his standing with clients.

"I found this approach to be quite positive. Handling problems with this frame of mind has gotten us more customer loyalty," he says.

If work is skipped, Hsu will fix the error immediately and then take disciplinary action with the person responsible for the job, if necessary.

"Of course, a new crew member may have some leeway, as might someone who encounters unforeseeable circumstances," such as a conference room that’s in use, he explains. But a janitor who repeatedly skips the same tasks may be reassigned or terminated.
Hsu handles customer-discovered problems the same way, although he believes it’s a lot less effective and more damaging to your reputation than if you discover your own errors.

If the client is the one who first discovers the missed work, that’s a big deal, Dellutri says. In that case, she suggests going above and beyond simply fixing the problem.
"He had to take the time out to call," she explains. "So you need to ship-shape up that building. You need to cater to his needs quickly, and spiff up his office as an added gesture."

Most BSC-customer relationships can survive a mistake — the first time. But make the same mistake twice, you lose credibility; thus, it is vital to ensure that mistakes don’t happen again. Rosenkranz has a novel way to make sure of that:

"We have two columns on an inspection sheet," he explains. "If the customers complained about something in the past, it would be classified as a ‘hot spot’ on all future inspection sheets. We watch those areas closely, and we instruct the janitors to pay extra attention."

If all else fails, the power of food and small trinkets is vast when it comes to smoothing a rocky relationship, Dellutri says. Her company often will leave coffee cups filled with candy for executives; gift certificates on desks; or put sandwiches in the break room for everybody if they have had to right a substantial wrong.

Incidental problems
While mistakes can diminish your company’s standing with your customers, other issues that seemingly have nothing to do with you directly also can affect your reputation.

For instance, if a carpet in a facility you clean is dingy, worn and fraying, no amount of cleaning can make it look new again. The client may blame you for not cleaning it properly, but in truth, the carpet needs to be replaced.

Even though carpet replacement generally is not part of a building service contract, you still can offer suggestions for practical solutions, says Rosenkranz.

"You could suggest using optical brighteners. But be sure to tell them that won’t fix the problem completely, and that in order for that to happen, the carpet should be replaced," Rosenkranz says.

If the customer still balks, show him or her the differences between the edge of the carpet, which doesn’t see a lot of traffic, and the most damaged parts. Chances are, the customer will understand the need to replace the carpet.

Dellutri suggests becoming more of a consultant to your customers, so they’ll be more willing to heed your warnings and take your advice than if you simply clean and leave.

For example, if a room needs painting but the client seems unaware, Dellutri won’t hesitate to recommend a paint type to the client.

"I do it as an expert," she explains. "I’ll say, ‘Look at these walls; they have a flat paint that’s chipping. If we try to clean these walls, the paint will look terrible. I recommend repainting with a glossy finish.’"

By putting maintenance issues in a cleaning context, Dellutri can alert her clients to potential problems. She will recommend flooring and carpeting installations based on cleaning needs, too.

Sometimes, though, there isn’t a way to tie a facility maintenance problem into cleaning. Perhaps you notice a safety hazard in a client’s facility — in the lighting or HVAC system, or in the work practices of one of the tenants. It’s not something that’s in your contract, but you feel your employees are at risk

If Hsu notices a safety hazard in a customer building, he will tell them right out.

"The good guys appreciate that as a value-added service," he explains.

Any client who won’t listen, or gets angry if a legitimate hazard is pointed out, may not be worth retaining, Hsu adds.

If you do tell your clients about potential safety problems, be sure to document the conversations and keep copies of all memos, says Dellutri. That way, if the facility manager ignores your advice, you have proof you tried to warn him or her.

Chronic complainers
Even if you believe your relationship with your contacts in each account is rock-solid, you still need to remember the rest of your customers — the tenants and other users of the buildings you clean.

"Everybody’s our boss, not just the decision makers," says Dellutri. "If the secretary complains enough, the decision maker might just have enough fuel to not renew the contract."

Unfortunately, many accounts seem to have a resident "chronic complainer," usually a tenant, not a decision-maker. You try repeatedly to make this person happy — perhaps by leaving a coffee cup with candy as Dellutri suggests, and most certainly by fulfilling their cleaning requests. But they still don’t seem satisfied.

Before you dismiss their complaints as frivolous, Hsu suggests giving them the benefit of the doubt.

"Chronic complaints always are somewhat valid, but they usually lie half-way and exaggerate," says Hsu.

Ideally, you should have each complaint logged from the beginning, so you can look back and see where the problem started. Then, take the log and meet with the tenant and your contact. You should be able to work out a mutually acceptable solution.

Often, chronic complaints originate from unrealistic expectations, Dellutri says. Make sure the tenants, as well as the decision-makers, know what your contract includes and what you can accomplish.

"Be up front, and promise only what you can deliver," Dellutri advises. "Then, make it happen."

By Stacie H. Whitacre, Associate Editor

Unkind Words
Whenever you communicate with a customer, you should be professional and respectful. However, that doesn’t guarantee your customer will grant you the same courtesy. Sometimes, small problems can cause tempers to flare, and you may find yourself on the receiving end of some choice words, names and threats.

"If someone is treating you poorly, you have two choices," says Toni Erlich, owner of Connections: Communicating in Action in New York City. "You can grin and bear it, or, if it’s serious verbal abuse, you may have to have a confrontation."

For example, if you receive an inflammatory e-mail from a customer, Erlich advises not to respond in kind. Sometimes, the problem at hand is just the tip of the iceberg when the person is having a bad day, and they’re not aware of how they’re behaving. Other times, people want respect and think harsh words will lead to compliance, but as soon as you respond properly, the anger dissipates.

"Call the customer promptly, and use a softener: "I have the impression you’re upset and I’d like to straighten this out,’" she suggests. Often, that simple statement can diffuse much of the client’s anger right there.

However, if the customer yells back, try to maintain your composure and say, "I’m sorry. What can I do to resolve that?"

If the customer escalates into name-calling, threats or other abusive behavior, you may have to say, "Ms. Jones, I can’t do this with you right now," and hang up. You then should decide whether this to keep this client at all, Erlich says. If you can’t interact with your contact in a cordial, adult manner, or if you feel your safety might be endangered, you may need to terminate the contract to preserve your own sanity — or your safety.