That building service contractors are not proficient when it comes to technology is a myth that many of today’s cleaning companies are systematically dispelling. The truth is, more BSCs than ever are investing time and money in new technologies and gadgets to better communications and give them a high-tech edge over the competition.

“In a business that’s all about people, it’s not a big intellectual leap to figure out that it’s all about communications,” notes Joe Peduto, COO of American Institute for Cleaning Sciences, Highlands Ranch, Colo., and president of Matrix Integrated Facility Management, Johnson City, N.Y. “If technology can facilitate communications, it can give you a competitive advantage.”

Today’s gadgets and gizmos can do just that — and a whole lot more. BSCs are connecting to their employees, prospects and customers anytime, anywhere, all the while performing a host of functions from conducting inspections to accessing directions. Here’s a closer look at some of the devices and technologies helping BSCs revolutionize their businesses.

Today’s tech-savvy BSCs are buzzing about one of the newest trends set to take the industry by storm: podcasts. The word podcasting, which is a combination of “iPod” and “broadcasting,” is the method of distributing multimedia files, such as audio or video files, over the Internet using syndication feeds for playback on mobile devices and personal computers.

Ben Walker, director of communications for ManageMen, Inc., a cleaning industry education firm in Salt Lake City, videotapes the company’s user symposium every year and offers the information via free podcasts for clients to use as a benchmark to improve their cleaning programs. Clients subscribe to the podcasts on the company’s Web site and download the files to their iPods or personal computers. Walker sees podcasting as an efficient way for BSCs to disseminate information.

“A lot of people already know how to use iTunes,” he says. “It’s a way to embrace a really simple technology and apply it to business.”

Paul Condie, vice president, GMI Building Services, San Diego, has just started to use ManageMen’s podcasts for training purposes and is confident that the technology will help increase productivity.

“People will be able to train anywhere, anytime,” he says. If GMI wants a training video on restroom cleaning, for example, it can download the podcast from the ManageMen Web site to an iPod. For training, the trainer can simply bring the iPod to the employee’s location.

“Say we have to do a refresher course with an employee,” says Condie. “After a quick inspection of the restroom, you can hit the menu and then go to the segment of the video on how to properly disinfect toilets and urinals. Instead of bringing him all the way back to an office to show him a video, you can show it to him at the job site while you’re demonstrating [the procedures] in the restroom.”

Condie believes that having well-trained employees can curtail the number of inspections needed as well as the number of customer complaints. In addition to improving employee training, podcasts can help to educate customers.

“Say they don’t understand the difference between sanitizing and disinfecting,” he says. “You can pull up a presentation on your iPod, and instead of them listening to you stumble through an explanation, they can listen to an expert.”

A smarter phone
Gone are the days when cell phones were used merely for talking. Today’s hybrid phones combine a multitude of functions and technologies, making the need for multiple mobile devices obsolete. For example, Pocket PC phones let users run mobile versions of computer programs such as Word or PowerPoint and connect to the Internet — in addition to basic phone functions.

Joseph Jenkins, president and CEO of BearCom Building Services, Salt Lake City, invested in Pocket PC phones and appropriate software to perform inspections. Customer service managers can download the information needed to perform an inspection, complete a detailed inspection, and synchronize the data wirelessly using their phones.

The program also allows the user to customize questions for clients. For example, if a client does not have an emergency phone number, the user is prompted to ask for one.

“[The device] has allowed us to look extremely professional with our clients,” says Jenkins. “[Clients] can send a message from the Internet, and we receive it no matter where we are and respond to let them know what’s going on. We’ve found it’s improved our relationship with them and their confidence in us.”

Prior to using the handheld devices, BearCom relied on a call center to handle customer inquiries.

“There was a big paper trail we had to worry about,” says Jenkins. “Sometimes paperwork got lost or messages weren’t relayed correctly. It was a headache.” And although customers still call in, now the company can track their calls and generate a graphical analysis of their complaints using the software. In the first year, BearCom was able to reduce its customer service staff, resulting in a savings of $40,000, says Jenkins.

Another phone feature that BSCs are taking advantage of is the camera function. Today, most cell phones come equipped with this handy form of documentation.

Jim Thompson, president, A-1 Building Services Inc., Wyoming, Mich., equips his supervisors with camera phones to document any problems they encounter in buildings. For more detailed, up-close photographs, Thompson provides the company’s retail crew with digital cameras.

“We do a lot of retail work in malls,” explains Thompson, “and most of the time we get blamed for damage to floors. If the crew finds a gouge in the wood floor, for instance, they document it with a digital camera and fill out an incident report.” The company also uses cameras for work estimates.

“In our proposals, we’ll identify anything that’s unique or requires special attention,” he says. “It helps me to communicate better and explain things to the customer.”

Even the most basic cell phone functions have vastly improved communications and response times. All of A-1 Building Services’ employees use phones equipped with walkie-talkie service to instantly connect with coworkers in emergency situations. And text messaging is frequently used for special customer requests.

“It helps us track everything so we know who responded to the call and whether or not the work was done,” says Thompson. “If a customer calls in with a carpet stain, we handle it that same night and do a follow-up call the next morning to let them know it’s been taken care of.”

GPS devices
While BSCs like Thompson rely on cell phones to keep in touch with their employees 24/7, others are turning to global positioning system (GPS)-enabled devices to eliminate any doubts about their whereabouts.

“Before GPS, we tried a bunch of things,” says Peduto. “We tried calling in and out from job sites, we used paper tracking and pagers. … It didn’t work well.”

Peduto has been using GPS for several years and is beginning to expand its uses. Currently, Matrix employees carry GPS-enabled cell phones for timekeeping and driving purposes.

Instead of using a time clock, employees can punch in and out using a cell phone.

“There’s a tendency for employees to punch out for others,” says Peduto. “GPS allows them to punch in and out with cell phones and substantiate the fact that they were at the location when they punched in and out.”

Prior to GPS, the company used time sheets, which were both inaccurate and time consuming. Now, instead of manually tallying up timecards and pay sheets at the end of the week, the payroll process is automated. “It’s an assured way to know we’re paying people for work they actually did,” says Peduto.

The GPS technology also is useful when employees are driving from account to account. If a vehicle breaks down or one of the mobile crews is involved in an accident, GPS allows the company to respond to the scene quickly. Employees also use their GPS-enabled phones to access directions.

“There’s a lot of lost time spent with people not knowing where they need to go,” says Peduto. “With a GPS-enabled cell phone, you can have door-to-door directions.”

Some workers may be put off by this “Big Brother” approach, but as BSCs point out, employees stand to benefit from GPS as much as the cleaning company does. At Matrix, GPS cleared an employee’s name when one of the company’s clients suspected that the employee had misappropriated their property.

“The theft occurred at a specific window,” says Peduto, “and we were able to demonstrate that our employee wasn’t anywhere near the window at the time.”

Tablet PCs
Some BSCs are using Pocket PCs for inspections, but others are looking to larger-sized devices: Tablet PCs. Tablet PCs have a touchscreen and instead of using a keyboard to type, users handwrite directly on the screen.

While performing building walkthroughs or room inspections, a supervisor or manager can scan in building plans and take notes or give instructions right on the plan so associates can see exactly where the problem is, rather than cryptically describing the area, says Peduto.

“Before investing in the devices, inspections were always a multi-step process,” adds Condie. “You’d do the inspection on paper, but then you’d have to come back and enter the data electronically, so you’re doubling your steps. It wasn’t an efficient process.”

Afterward, employees can save the form to a network. If someone needs to see the document, it can also be e-mailed directly to them.

Safety concerns
Regardless of what gadgets and hardware BSCs choose for their business, it’s important not to overlook security issues. With many employees connecting with their offices remotely from home, hotels or other offices, data may be compromised if not protected, says Jim Kelton, president, SoftwareUnlimited, Irvine, Calif.

“You need to build in security so people can have the functionality they need without being restricted,” he adds.

Technology is rapidly changing and tomorrow may bring new high-tech tools and toys for BSCs, but to get ahead in business today, contractors may want to consider investing in any of the aforementioned hardware and upgrade their tech-savviness.

Beyond Hardware

No doubt, the right technologies and tools can improve communications and lead to more efficient, cost-effective business processes. But for some building service contractors, the answer doesn’t lie in new gadgets, but in a form of communication already in widespread use: the Internet.

When Steve Mastio, president, Business Clean Inc. (BCI), St. Charles, Ill., first started working for a franchise cleaning company in sales, the biggest problem he faced was poor communications. So when he started his own company, he built it on the simple premise that if you communicate better, you’ll have a better cleaning experience.

From day one, he built an Internet portal that would allow clients, cleaners and BCI management to communicate 24/7 on any issue. The portal was so successful that today his phone hardly ever rings.

“If a client wants to contact a cleaner, he can log in, type his message, and go on with the rest of his day,” says Mastio. The portal will fire out e-mail alerts to everyone associated with that account. It’s a means to communicate more effectively.”

Messages are logged electronically so there’s always a record of every communication.
“He said/she said is a big problem in the cleaning industry,” says Mastio. “With this system, there’s no one to hide from.”

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