When researching and developing new products and equipment, manufacturers often look to end users for ideas, feedback and validation of a concept. The degree to which cleaning managers are involved in the research process varies — most companies agree that customers make a significant impact on the end product.

“Our philosophy is very much driven by end-user needs,” says Craig Monsell, assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble Professional. “It typically begins with qualitative understanding. You look at how your products improve their lives and make them more successful in their businesses.”

Manufacturers and end users connect most often at cleaning industry tradeshows and through distributors and sales representatives. Sometimes manufacturers network with their customers through training programs they offer.

If a company has a research and development (R&D) department, it is more likely that researchers and developers will visit facilities to witness their customers using products and equipment.

“We go to multiple types of facilities to get broad feedback,” says Reneau Van Landingham, industrial design manager for Rubbermaid Commercial Products. “It’s critical because it’s only through seeing those problems and issues that we can design products with innovative features that can actually solve problems.”

Rubbermaid industrial designers meet with end users, Van Landingham says. “We watch them do cleaning tasks, like mopping a floor. We try to better understand their needs and problems doing the task. We also like to do the task ourselves for knowledge of what it is actually like.”

R&D experts and cleaning managers have different ways of thinking and envisioning solutions.

Some manufacturers say that they prefer “visual” feedback.

“People often can’t verbalize how they want their world to be different,” Monsell says. “In R&D, you need to step back and try something different — really look at people’s needs and figure out what will help them.”

“I don’t know if end users think R&D through in a technically oriented way,” says Gareth Mason, president of NaceCARE. “They’re not sure if it’s power or specs, but know they want a vacuum or piece of equipment to do something specific, like save time. It comes out in the field when we meet with them. Whether at an airport or school system, we see the world through their eyes.”

Product developers at NSS Enterprises Inc. also rely on watching customers in their environments. “Observation is where the learning is,” says Kevin Morey, vice president of product development for NSS.

“You see a guy having a hard time changing a pad driver, going one direction down an aisle due to a tight turning radius, or taking the long way around [the building] because the equipment doesn’t fit into an elevator,” he says. “These are first-hand obstacles you can overcome in your design.”

To make the most of facility visits, Van Landingham says it is important to assemble data.

“We take lots of photographs and sometimes we’ll record our conversations,” he says. Designers might take photos to document clogged or “gunked-up” casters on a piece of equipment, for example.

Photos also are used to record how a particular task is performed, step-by-step.

“We might take pictures of the steps in cleaning a hospital room,” Van Landingham says. “After visiting a dozen facilities, sometimes it’s hard to remember what you’ve seen.”

What manufacturers want to know
Researchers also rely heavily on end-user interviews. Van Landingham says he also likes to hear cleaning workers describe, in their own words, what their experience is like performing a particular task, like mopping or sweeping.

“We want the product to be something that benefits the manager as well as the cleaning workers,” he says.

Customer needs are always changing, says Jeff Johnson, marketing manager in advanced product development for Tennant Co. He always asks end users how their needs are changing and why.

Other questions:

  • Are changing needs unique to your location/company, or are the changes industry-wide?
  • Are your needs driven by a trend or a change in regulatory environment, new technology, the cleaning industry or the current work force?
  • How would you critically rank them?
  • How much value do you place on having a solution meet your needs specifications?
  • Are your specifications “must-haves” or “nice-to-haves?”

David Schauer, marketing director for Essential Industries, gets right to the point. He starts conversations by asking: “What is your greatest need?” before anything else.

Monsell starts by asking about problems with customers’ current products and equipment.

“I think a good place to start is ‘What are your biggest headaches?’ It all comes back to what they spend time worrying about on the job.”

Through asking questions, he has found that cleaning managers look for products that make it easier for training workers. P&G also aims at manufacturing products that are more pleasant for the user. “Cleaning doesn’t have to be yucky,” Monsell says.

Focus groups
In addition to one-on-one customer research, it is common for R&D departments to arrange for a sampling of customers in a group setting.

With this approach, manufacturers try to obtain a broader understanding of end users in different types and sizes of facilities.
“We invite our customers to share their challenges and frustrations so that we may first take a broad view, then dig deeper into what they are truly asking for — which is how we can develop our best insights,” Johnson says.

It is important that customers share their general ideas and information, says Rob Godlewski, marketing manager for Clarke, a division of Alto, U.S. Inc. “We want them to come in with just their knowledge of the cleaning application, current problems they may be experiencing in the application, and knowledge of our own and other industry equipment. That’s the best opportunity we have to improve our product — not making the customer pay for something they tell us they don’t want.”

There are pros and cons to conducting focus groups, Van Landingham says. It is nice for manufacturers to have a group of end users in one location, for instance.

“We get a lot of information in a short time,” he says.

But there is the potential for individual attendees to feed off of each other, which can be good or bad.

“Someone can bring the whole group down if they are a negative person,” he says. “That’s why we balance our research with one-on-one visits.”

Tracking trends
In addition to picking the brains of end users, manufacturers also keep an eye on industry news and trends. “By tracking industry trends, we put ourselves in a position to anticipate what customers truly need and then deliver a product that meets that need better than they expected,” Johnson says.

Ideally, manufacturers would like to anticipate the cleaning industry’s changing needs and have solutions ready, Morey says. “This forward thinking may also enable the manufacturer to provide a solution to a challenge customers didn’t even know they had, which is a hallmark of innovation,” he says.

He points out battery-powered backpack vacuums that eventually played a critical role in the team-cleaning process.

One company took heed of an industry need 10 years ago and developed a solution that the vice president says made the company a pioneer in the industry.

“Traditionally, in buildings you have carpet, VCT [vinyl composition tile], wood, marble or stone, and ceramic tile,” says Joel Mitchell, vice president of SaniGLAZE International LLC. “Many companies had a cleaning program for everything — except ceramic. No one knew how to clean it. The industry cried out [for a solution].”

Mitchell says his company developed an answer with its tile-cleaning system and then introduced it to the cleaning industry. He continues to use that development technique.

“We don’t have an ongoing program of surveying end users,” Mitchell says. “We do the reverse of that. We develop the technology first and then go out and show it to people. We don’t think end users could tell us anything that we don’t already know. We’re always trying to make our systems better, but we know better how to do that because we know the weaknesses in our system.”

The company wants its system to be safer, more durable and more resistant, he says.

“End users want a better mousetrap,” Mitchell says. “They want [products] to cost less and do more. Always. Who doesn’t?”

Facility markets
Manufacturers must consider the varying needs of specific facility settings.

“I think there are different blends of needs for different markets,” Monsell says. “Educational facilities are under intense budget pressure and really have to justify products that are expensive. They focus on the safety of kids over appearance. Others, such as offices and government buildings, are concerned with the appearance of the building most because it is incredibly important to their reputation.”

Mason believes that the education facility sector, particularly, is under tremendous pressure from parents with high expectations that budget numbers don’t support.

“There are some considerations, like cross-contamination in hospitals,” says William Diversi, chief operating officer for AmKing Technologies. “But when it comes right down to it, everyone just wants their buildings to be clean.”

Host/Racine Industries’ dry carpet cleaning system was designed with facilities that operate 24/7, 365 days a year, in mind, says Geoff Greeley, Host's director of training and technical services. “The system allows carpet in health-care or hospitality facilities to be back in service immediately.”

Rather than differentiate between facility markets, Van Landingham says Rubbermaid designers look for similarities among all facility types.

“For us, the more we can get end users to buy a single product, the better,” he says. “We also look for ways we can create a family of products that might consist of three, four or six variations that all relate in some way to the task at hand, but for facilities with different requirements. We don’t consider ourselves custom molders — we’re mass producers.”

In-house vs. contract customers
In-house cleaning managers and building services contractors have similar goals, but manufacturers say that there is a difference between the two types of customers.

“In-house professionals and contractors are definitely two different groups,” Mason says. “A business for profit — a contractor — requires less expensive labor that’s not unionized, like a school custodian. These are two totally different environments that reflect wage rate and the nature of individual workers. Normally, equipment that is a little higher-end is better suited to in-house use — there’s a little more care required.”

Manufacturers have more time to react to in-house managers’ product requirements because they usually have the ability to forecast their needs, says Morey. “Contract cleaners may require easy transport and fast delivery when they win a bid.”

In-house end users specify products and equipment for one facility, which means that they might require more specialized solutions, Johnson says. “Contract cleaners often require a solution that is more general-purpose, robust, easy to train on, very productive, and easily adopted throughout the organization.”

“Customer” relations also vary between in-house professionals and contractors.

“To both groups, customer satisfaction is important, but for one, it’s your coworkers, and for another, it’s your customers,” Monsell says. “To a certain extent, an in-house person has to live with the results.”

Prototypes: one of the final steps in development
There is a process that Rubbermaid industrial designers follow with each new development.

“First, we talk to end users,” Van Landingham says. “Then we come back and develop initial concepts and prototypes. After that, we go out and validate the mockups or prototypes with end users through one-on-one meetings or focus groups for feedback. We make sure to validate the solution before production. This way the end user is involved in the whole product development process.”

End users are official testers for AmKing. “You can do one thing in a lab, but it’s best to take it out in the real world and use it in a facility to verify what we think we may or may not have discovered in the lab,” Diversi says.

During a past product development program, AmKing made 10 prototypes and distributed them to different types of facilities. The manufacturer then received feedback from a variety of market segments.

“We don’t want smoke and screens from customers,” Diversi says. “We want the honest truth. Complaints, to us, are positive because then we know what we need to change. When customers make a request, nine times out of 10, we’ll do it.”

Laura Bayard, contributing editor, and Lori Veit, a free-lance writer based in Madison, Wis., contributed to this article.