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Worst case scenario

September 19, 2010
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Those just starting out as building service contractors (BSCs) often find that landing their first big customer can be pretty tough, since most owners or managers of sizable property will want to see references from locations you are currently cleaning.

In fact, some potential customers not only want to review and call on your references, but many will actually go out and physically inspect the locations to see for themselves if they like your work.

My first "big" customer also turned out to be my worst case scenario.

Although I take full responsibility for the unfortunate circumstances that unfolded — and how they were eventually corrected — several issues beyond my control made the situation all the more complicated.

It all began when a large California tugboat company merged with a smaller business firm.

The two businesses found both individual office locations were too small to accommodate all their employees, so they looked for larger quarters to comfortably house both companies.

Eventually, they rented a pier on the San Francisco Bay and converted it into an office capable of accommodating their operations.

Luckily for me, I knew a woman who held an executive position in the larger of the two firms.

When the new facility was completed, she was in charge of hiring a cleaning company to maintain the offices.

Because she knew I was just starting out in the cleaning business and had no references, she wanted to lend me a helping hand.

Unfortunately, the president of the smaller company also had a friend who owned a contract cleaning company and lobbied for him.

Eventually, I was able to secure the janitorial contract — but on a strict 90-day trial basis.

Tough beginnings

As most BSCs know, the first few days working a new account are usually the most difficult.

This is especially true for someone who is inexperienced, with little or no professional training.

There are many things a BSC may need to ponder:

  • Where are the light switches and electrical outlets?
  • How many workers will I need?
  • What cleaning chemicals should I bring?
  • How many vacuum cleaners will be best?
  • Where are all the trash cans and the dumpster?

These and many more issues came up when I started cleaning the location.

Those first few days were difficult; from the start, my company received complaints that rooms were not cleaned, desks not dusted, and restrooms not serviced.

Some of the complaints were justified and, although some people were waiting for us to fail, most in the facility were patient and gave us time to adjust and get things running smoothly.

However, everything came to a head when we were asked to refinish the long hallway floors.

This request became the ultimate test of my company''s ability to handle the cleaning duties at this facility.

I was immediately confronted with a major challenge — I had never stripped and refinished a floor before in my life.

Walking the walk

Like many fledgling entrepreneurs, I promised my new customer I could handle all their cleaning needs.

Although my company was brand new, I had worked for another BSC and indicated that I was trained to handle almost any cleaning task.

However, refinishing floors was not one of them. In fact, at the time, I did not even own a buffer.

My local JanSan distributor took about an hour to "train" me on how to refinish floors.

I purchased a buffer and, after my "education in floor care", felt relatively confident that I could tackle the floors that night.

Never having operated a traditional rotary buffer, I was in for a big surprise.

These machines can take some time, training and experience to learn how to handle.

As soon as I pulled the trigger and the stripping pad began to whirl, the machine headed right for the wall and left a sizable dent in the plaster.

Although the buffer continued to be hard to handle and tiring, eventually I learned how to control it — just in time for my next set of problems to begin.

Instead of stripping a small floor area at a time, then mopping and rinsing to remove old finish and soil, I stripped large sections.

By the time I went back to rinse the floor, the solution had dried and several areas had to be stripped all over again.

My problems were compounded by the fact that I had to inhale the fumes from the floor chemicals for several hours.

Strippers and other floor care products are some of the most powerful — and potentially harmful — chemicals in the cleaning industry.

Finally, all the hallways had been stripped and cleaned.

At this point, what would have taken an experienced floor care technician two or three hours to complete had occupied my time for more than five hours.

Looking forward to completing the job, I applied the first coat of finish.

The distributor had advised me that I apply several thin coats of finish to the floor, allowing each coat to thoroughly dry before applying the next.

Unfortunately, I did not heed his advice and applied several relatively thick coats, repeating the applications as soon as the floor was "dry to the touch."

The lesson learned

Because the finish did not dry properly, the floor had an "uneven" look, with some areas glossier than others.

Some sections of the floor quickly began to attract dirt and scuff marks — again because the finish was not properly applied — and a few areas were "tacky" to the touch even 24 hours after the last coat had been applied.

Today, I look back on the situation and realize several lessons can be learned from the experience, and there are things I would now do differently.

Learning the hard way

The most obvious lesson is that cleaning, especially floor care, is not something you can just "learn on the job".

In fact, in several parts of Europe, cleaning professionals must attend college for up to two years before they are allowed to perform any cleaning duties, including floor care.

Today, I would attend a training program — such as those presented by the Cleaning Management Institute┬« (CMI) — before attempting to refinish a floor or tackle any other major cleaning undertaking.

Technology rules

I would also investigate the latest in floor care equipment and technology.

Instead of a rotary machine, I would select a cylindrical machine, which has counter-rotating brushes at each end, instead of a rotating pad.

These are much easier to operate — especially for a beginner — and less fatiguing.

In fact, instead of making you feel as if you are riding a bronco, they are more like driving a luxury car — smooth and steady.

Also, they have more contact pressure on the floor, which helps expedite both stripping and polishing.

Going green

Finally, along with selecting more advanced floor care equipment, I would now choose more environmentally preferable cleaning chemicals.

Although traditional chemicals have served us well, products are now available that minimize cleaning''s impact on the environment and are much healthier for the worker to use.

Happy endings

Even though the hallway floors continued to be a problem and soon had to be refinished all over again, we slowly were able to get that facility — and the floors — in tip-top condition.

In fact, I was quite proud of how well we maintained the office space.

Occasionally, visitors to the building would remark at how clean the facility was, and one even hired us to take care of his building.

Additionally, I now had a good reference, which helped me build my business.

However, I knew we had finally overcome our worst case scenario when I ran into the president of the smaller firm — the one who had wanted his friend to handle the cleaning.

Leaving the building at the end of the day, he walked right passed me, turned around, and exclaimed, "Wow, these floors look good!"

Richard Sanchez is a building service contractor based in Santa Rosa, CA.

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