A quiet customer is a happy customer, right? After all, many clients complain — loudly — when they take issue with their cleaning services. But just because they aren’t hurling insults at you, doesn’t necessarily mean your customers are thrilled with your service. In fact, some may be silently seething over little mistakes that have added up to a large sense of dissatisfaction. That’s why some level of self examination is necessary for building service contractors to meet the needs of discerning customers and foster successful relationships.

Take Jim Malone, for example. He’s in charge of hiring contractors to clean the headquarters and airport facilities of Southwest Airlines. It’s a big job and sometimes he just doesn’t have time to make a call when there’s a mistake.

“I don’t have time to monkey around with companies to the extent that I have had to do,” he says. “But when they don’t take care of the details it puts a bad taste in your mouth. It’s a credibility issue. Is this company ethical and honest and does this company have their customer’s best interest at heart?”

Billing is the most common source of Malone’s frustration. He gets upset when he is billed for work that wasn’t completed or when he receives an invoice for a rate different than what was agreed upon without any warning from his sales rep.

You, too, could be unwittingly alienating your clients because of policies or procedures that make you difficult to work with. All is not dire, however. Some strategic thinking can stop problems before they begin.

Never assume
The first step to creating an easy-to-work-with company is eliminating assumptions. These can be the kiss of death, according to Pamela Harper, author of Preventing Strategic Gridlock (2002).

“Too often, companies focus on what should work and not on what will work,” Harper says. “Don’t make the assumption that because you’ve been successful in the past that you’ll always be successful. This can lead to strategic gridlock — persistent problems that pile up and grind progress to a halt.”

Common assumptions in the cleaning industry can include:

• “Well, it worked for the other people!” Some building service contractors believe that what works for one customer should work for the rest; others assume that if a competitor has success with one method, it will work for them, too. However, this misses the fact that no two customers or companies are alike.

• “We’re No. 1!” It doesn’t matter if contractors have the largest market share, the most certifications, the best reputations or a great name on the marquee. Fall for the magic of being on top and you’re likely to become complacent, or you may make promises you simply aren’t able to deliver.

• “If the clients want something, they’ll tell us.” Often, customers don’t have the time or the inclination to tell their contractors something’s amiss; the natural tendency is to assume no news is good news.

Sometimes problems are obvious, such as when an angry client calls to dispute a charge or complain about dirty restrooms. Don’t assume, however, that the absence of these calls means that everything is satisfactory.

“Just because you aren’t getting direct complaints doesn’t mean you can assume that all is going well,” Harper says. “You may not get complaints because you aren’t set up in a way to get them.”

Be on the lookout for less obvious signs of unhappy clients, as well. Pay attention to small idiosyncrasies and changes in your client’s behavior — does it seem like a formerly prompt customer is taking an awfully long time to pay? Are your big customers flip-flopping on project scheduling? Did you receive a request to itemize and explain what you thought was a basic invoice? Even a phone call cut short or a detached tone of voice can signal discontent.

But sometimes, customers may not even drop hints; in that case, it’s up to you to make sure they’re satisfied.

“For the most part, customers tell you when they aren’t happy,” says Rick Torres, managing partner of Alliance Building Services in Fremont, California. “But the opposite also can be true. By that point, it is usually too late to turn things around. So it is essential that you regularly take your customer’s temperature.”

Reality check
But before conducting that temperature check, look within your own company, and evaluate all of the areas with which customers come into contact. Are they working as efficiently as possible? Is there more that could be done?

“Successful businesses look not only to see that things are on track but also what more they should be doing,” Harper says. “They are willing to question themselves. They understand that many things are not isolated problems but patterns for something bigger.”

Conduct internal evaluations at least monthly, Harper says. Any less frequently and it could be too late to save a weakening client relationship.

For instance, Torres’ company is dedicated to providing superior customer service and it frequently monitors itself to ensure it can deliver on that promise.

“We try to evaluate ourselves in everything we do,” Torres says. “We also ask our clients and our clients’ employees to rate our services using postage-paid survey cards. We always ask what we could do to make their experience with us a better one.”

Alliance Building Services also holds twice-monthly meetings to review data collected during inspections and walk throughs. These important meetings include not only top management but also the front-line workers, who often have the best insight into what a client is feeling about the services being provided.

Make a change
A warning: Don’t gather information simply for the sake of having it — you must act on it. Torres says that while it is vitally important to have systems in place for capturing relevant data, it is a waste of your time and your client’s if you collect useless data or fail to act on good information. And customers agree.

“One of the biggest disappointments to me has been the companies that come in with these big, fancy performance measurement things that end up being nothing but overblown PowerPoint presentations,” Malone says. “I’d like to see them really do it.”

Action is the key. Alliance actually uses the information it collects in meetings, from staff, and from customers to track potential problems and to stop them before the client ever knows there was an issue. This information helps Torres communicate more effectively with his clients. And the time that would otherwise be spent dealing with angry customers is instead used to visit facilities, dazzle his clients and build relationships.

“If a client feels you’re not interested, you’re pretty much finished,” Torres says. “Look for ways to be of value, such as reporting maintenance issues that may not be your responsibility. This makes your client feel that you care.”

Proactive management
In addition to correcting problems and ensuring they won’t happen again, make sure your policies always make doing business with you easy for the customer.

For example, take a look at your accounts receivable. Do you have a client that’s always slow to pay? Don’t assume that’s just their style. Perhaps there is something you could do to make the payment process easier for them and shorter for you.

Likewise, if certain customers always seem to postpone or cancel project work, it may not just be a budget concern. Look at your scheduling, for instance — could you offer to perform the project at a more convenient time for the customer?

“If something is happening you don’t like, don’t take it at face value — ask why. It could be a signal that they are not happy with the service,” Harper says.

Taking proactive steps to stop problems before they start will make working with you a breeze for your clients.

“My favorite cleaning company has challenges just like anyone else, but they are constantly managing them,” Malone says. “If they have a no-show employee, they don’t hope the customer won’t notice. They get on the radio and shift someone else over to the job. They shift, move, and react constantly to all of the things that hopefully the customer wouldn’t see.

“The best compliment a janitorial company can get is if a customer says, ‘I don’t even think about it and I don’t worry about it,’” Malone says.

Becky Mollenkamp is a business writer and editor based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Customer Concerns Checklist
Being a top-notch building service contractor entails much more than keeping a customer’s facility clean. There are many more aspects of the business that can unwittingly sabotage an otherwise solid client relationship because a contractor wasn’t aware of hidden problems. The following is a list of issues BSCs should review frequently to stay in customers’ good graces:
  • Does your chain of command get the right questions to the right people and expedite decision making? Customers shouldn’t have to sort through a maze of people to get answers.
  • When a customer contacts your staff, how fast do they respond? Do they treat all complaints, even seemingly trivial ones, as important? How are you tracking that response time to ensure it is as efficient as necessary? And when workers respond, how do they treat the customer contact?
  • What type of after-hours communications system do you have in place? Customers won’t be happy with an answering machine or an answering service that can’t address their concerns. If your services take place at night, there should be a live person available for handling last-minute concerns.
  • What is your billing accuracy rate? How often do billing inconsistencies arise, and what process do you have to track the problems and correct them in the future? In the same vain, how do you reconcile billing problems with the customer contact and how quickly?
  • How many pieces of paper does a customer receive each month? Can you reduce that amount or make the process completely electronic to make it easier for customers to keep track of their information?
  • How often do you provide customers with operations reports describing what you have done for them and any additional services you’ve provided at no charge? How detailed is that information and are the details useful for that contact’s internal purposes? Could you make your reports more compatible with the customer’s reporting processes?
  • How easily can a customer request additional services and how smooth is the extra billing process? If a customer is willing to pay more for more work, there should be an easy way to determine the price and to reconcile quickly how the extra services will be performed.
  • How well do your employees anticipate future customers needs, bringing them to their attention first? Customers pay you to reduce their problems and the more often you can head off issues before they become a problem the more loyal those customers will be.
  • How well do you communicate changes affecting a customer’s facility? Hiring new employees or new supervisors for the site, adding updated cleaning technology implementing new processes or even rewarding workers for a good job all remind clients of how much you are doing for them.