Is the overall cleanliness of a facility really what’s important to people? Maybe to a few, but chances are, many building occupants and visitors look first for one thing: shiny, well-kept floors. One distributor Sanitary Maintenance interviewed for this article talked about research that indicates that when observers are asked to rate cleanliness, they base 80 percent of their judgment on the appearance of one aspect of the facility — the floor.

Because maintaining floor appearance is so important, floor cleaning machines are essential tools. Too often, distributor salespeople and their customers overlook their importance — especially when facilities’ budgets are tight.

An Umbrella Term
“Floor machine” is a general label applied to all pieces of floor cleaning equipment, despite significant differences in design, purpose and use among three different types of machines.

Autoscrubbers are all-purpose machines that are used for the daily cleaning of hard floor surfaces. Built as an automated version of a mop and bucket, an autoscrubber’s horizontally-mounted brushes or pads scrub floors after a mixture of clean water and detergent are sprayed down from an on-board tank. The machine has a vacuum and squeegee that suck the water and detergent back up from the floor, leaving it dry. By switching certain components, an autoscrubber can also be used to strip, wax, buff, shampoo carpet, or sand and buff wood floors.

A burnisher is a single-task machine used exclusively for buffing hard floor surfaces. The machine’s high-speed motor rotates a pad against the floor, and the heat generated by this mechanism produces a glossy finish. Burnishing is typically done daily, after the hard floor surface has been cleaned with an autoscrubber.

A stripping machine is typically used once a year when the floor finish starts to show signs of wear. Typically powered by propane, the stripping machine puts a high pH chemical product on the floor to dissolve the finish. After the machine applies high brush pressure to remove all the stripping chemical and dirt, the floor is re-coated with multiple coats of floor finish, which are typically applied by hand.

Meeting Needs
Given the complex nature of floor care, customers can easily become confused when they try to choose machines with the features that will meet their cleaning needs. Distributors can provide a valuable service to their customers by simply understanding their needs, helping them sort through their choices, and recommending the appropriate equipment. Several factors are important to consider when helping customers choose the right floor machine for their needs.

The first step is to fully understand the facility’s requirements. “The key is to do a good job of surveying the customer’s operation — not necessarily just asking a lot of questions, but also taking the time to actually look at the customer’s operation to see firsthand some of the problems they might have,” says Pat Marsh, president of Eagle Power Products, based in Minneapolis.

“It is necessary to understand the cleaning application and its requirements,” adds Greg Rau, president and CEO of Addison, Ill.-based Minuteman International. “You also need to determine the amount of resources available for cleaning, not only monetarily, but also from the standpoint of labor: personnel, time, and money.”

Determining the type of surface to be cleaned is the first step toward choosing the right machine. If the machine is going to be used exclusively on hard floors, a 1-horsepower autoscrubber will often be adequate. However, if the machine must clean carpet as well as hard surfaces, a distributor might recommend a more powerful 1.5-horsepower machine.

The specific cleaning application should also be taken into consideration. More aggressive cleaning applications, such as sanding, bonneting, or shampooing, require a machine with more torque. However, less aggressive cleaning tasks, such as cleaning, stripping, or buffing hard floors, do not require the same horsepower.

In addition, if the machine is used on surfaces with a lot of dirt, or if it gets heavy use, it must have greater horsepower in order to prevent the motor from overheating.

The size of the cleaning area is another important consideration; larger and more powerful machines require less time and manpower to clean large spaces. For example, in a 1,000-square-foot area, a 20-inch, 175-rpm burnisher can polish the floor in 25.2 minutes. On the other hand, a burnisher of the same size with a 2,000-rpm motor can finish the job in 3.6 minutes, a significant time savings — especially for facilities that have large areas that need to be cleaned.

The size of the area to be cleaned also affects the need for mobility. Small areas such as bathrooms, or areas with many fixed obstacles, are easier to clean with a 17-inch width machine. Larger-width machines clean wide-open areas much faster, resulting in increased productivity.

So What’s New?
Several recent manufacturing innovations have given distributors more options they can turn around and offer to customers. Mercury Floor Machines, an Englewood, N.J.-based manufacturer, has introduced a floor machine with five interchangeable aprons ranging in size from 13 to 21 inches, eliminating the need to buy multiple machines of different sizes.

“Sometimes customers can only budget for one machine, but they end up compromising by choosing the middle size,” says Peter Karp, president of Mercury. When cleaners need to do different jobs with the same machine, it’s sometimes hard to do each task well. “With the interchangeable aprons, the customer can buy one machine but make it into five different sizes, and the machine can be made to fit the requirements of a specific cleaning task.”

There are also a few new safety products on the market. A “power-on” light indicates when a machine is plugged in and powered up, which is important when the machine’s long cord is plugged in around the corner or out of sight. A safety switch, which prevents the machine from turning on accidentally if the handle is touched, is another attractive feature.

Other innovations increase convenience. Handle releases that allow the operator to adjust the handle for height and comfort have been added by the handle (instead of being located at the bottom of the machine, where before, the handle release was operated by foot). Other machines have a solution tank control for the handle, which allows the operator to dispense the cleaning solution directly onto the floor.

Durability has been enhanced by manufacturers by offering housings made of rotationally-molded plastic. These machines are as rugged, durable, and as heavy as metal machines, but are not as prone to rust.

DC rectified machines, another industry innovation, are less sensitive to low-voltage environments. “They are wired to use AC power with a DC motor, and will work with the power they’re given,” explains Kevin Stamets, director of marketing and training for Nilfisk-Advance, Plymouth, Minn. “An AC machine might pull more amps from a wall outlet than are available, which can trip the circuit breaker. The DC rectified machine is more flexible in a low-power environment, because the motor will reduce the machine’s power slightly to work with the amount of power available.”

Other innovations have enhanced cleaning quality and effectiveness. Typically, burnishing can cause floor finish to powder. Now, some burnishers are equipped with dust-control features that collect dust from the machine as it operates. Another innovation is a baseboard cleaning attachment, which uses automatic brushes to scrub baseboards.

Never A Bad Time
The economy’s recent slump has affected sales of floor machines, but distributors who meet their customers’ needs can flourish despite economic factors.

“In tough economic times the tendency is to repair old machines rather than purchase new machines,” says Mike Savidge, manager of technical services at NSS Enterprises, based in Toledo, Ohio. “It is a given that customers want machines that work, but service is key. You must be able to provide information on periodic preventive maintenance, supply parts, and repair machines in order to help customers maintain their machines.”

Although customers are more interested in getting a competitive price in tight economic times, distributors can help them focus on value instead, says Robert Allen, marketing manager for Sparta, N.C.-based Pioneer Eclipse Corp. “I recommend to distributors that they help their customers look at all the factors, not just price, because price will not tell you the whole story,” Allen explains. “What is the job all about? How much productivity, time, or labor do I need? A machine that could cost more could increase your productivity, so that the money you save on labor costs could pay for the machine in three months.”

Stamets stresses increased productivity, and explains that the cost of cleaning is 90 percent labor cost and only 10 percent equipment and supplies. “During down times, it is important to focus on lowering the cost of cleaning for the customer by providing them more efficient ways to perform with fewer resources,” he says. “Providing a more efficient piece of equipment can allow cleaning professionals to save time and labor costs.”

When cash flow is a factor, leasing becomes an attractive option. Leasing allows the customer to pay for equipment monthly so they don’t need to pay in full up front. “Because the lease’s monthly payment amount is low, customers rarely ask for significant discounts when leasing,” Stamets says.

Although important, price is surely not the only factor a customer considers. “Customers want more from a distributor than just a good price,” says Jerry Winstead, director of training at NSS Enterprises. “They want a quality product, prompt delivery, training of personnel on the product, salespeople who can solve their problems and a fair price.”

Winstead encourages distributors to use the aids provided by the manufacturer to increase sales. “Distributors have available to them from the manufacturer a variety of supports: literature, customer support programs, technical service, regional managers to support them, home office training seminars, end-user seminars and sales meetings for salespeople,” he says.

The Opportunity is There
In spite of the economy’s influence, most experts see opportunities for well-trained, knowledgeable salespeople. “In times of economic downturn, the opportunity to sell is even greater, although most people think just the opposite,” Marsh says. “Typically, when times get hard, you have to ask more questions, call on more customers and spend more time with them — and identify needs they haven’t thought of. They are not necessarily going to order more, but to grow your business you are going to have to get a lot smarter about it, ask more questions and be more focused.”

Bill Hughes, marketing manager for Fort Worth, Texas-based Powr-Flite, agrees. “The old adage is that when the economy is down it is time to advertise and make sales calls,” he says. “It’s time to demonstrate the product by going out and seeing customers — but it is not the time to raise prices. When the economy turns around, your customers will remember that you stuck with them in hard times and didn’t raise their prices.”

Hughes also recommends that distributors give customer training more attention. “In my opinion, the No. 1 value-added service distributors add is training,” he says. “Anyone can keep inventory and ship next-day — those are standard services now. Distributors who can train their customers to strip, wax, and bonnet properly, and use and maintain their machines, will come out ahead.”

Rau encourages salespeople to help customers recognize value. “Work with your customers, look at their needs and the economic impacts on their business, and provide additional value to customers to help them get their money’s worth,” he advises.

Lynne Knobloch-Fedders is a freelance business writer who resides in Glenview, Ill.
E-mail questions or comments regarding this article.

Additional Resources:
Must-Have Floor Equipment
Selling Machines? Focus on Productivity