Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

The buck stops here — with you

September 19, 2010

The occupants of the facilities you clean are your customers.

Just like any business that deals with a lot of clients and accounts, cleaning customers of all makes and models are going to complain.

How you handle those grievances can make or break a relationship, a contract or a job.

The universal truth
To understand the complaint process, we need to first understand the “Universal Truth of Complaining.”

When handling complaints, you need to understand that “the customer is always right” — even if the customer is wrong.

Complaints handled incorrectly can be disastrous.

However, if handled correctly, you can turn that angry client into a repeat customer and even a cheerleader for your company and your custodians.

Don’t get called out on strikes
Customers have tolerances, which I call the strike principle.

How many strikes you get when providing cleaning and maintenance services depends on the customer’s tolerance.

Some customers may be very tolerant and give you a lot of strikes, while others may give three strikes, or even fewer, and you’re out.

It’s a case of never knowing when you will get called out on strikes.

Therefore, always do everything to the best of your ability, because the key to handling customer complaints is preventing them from occurring in the first place.

A systems approach to preventing complaints
Learn to be proactive, not reactive. Find out what the small concerns are before they become big concerns.

This is done by:

  1. Having a checklist system in place to ensure that the work gets done and meets the customer’s expectations.
  2. Letting the customer know the custodians’ responsibilities and when, where and how they are performed through the use of a task frequency sheet.
  3. Having a protocol for receiving complaints, as in knowing in advance who will receive the complaint, and how it is documented, communicated and prioritized.
  4. Having a means of communication through which customers can reach you.

Receiving the complaint
What if you have already earned a strike and the complaints have arrived?

First and foremost, when receiving a complaint you must understand that, in most situations, the person complaining is doing so to get improvement, not to end the relationship.

Don’t take it personally; it’s business.

From the moment you receive a complaint (from now on, “concern” — see “Turn complaints into concerns”), that customer becomes your only customer.

You must communicate this in all you say and do. That way your customer will feel like he/she is your only customer.

When receiving the concern, listen carefully and politely to your customer’s concern.

Listen intently without interruption and let him/her vent.

Smile, nod and grunt appropriately (even if you are on the phone).

Take good notes, writing down key points.

Empathize with the customer and do not argue.

Listen for clues, noting his/her tone, rate and pitch. Is he/she sad, mad or indifferent?

Listening for clues will help you gauge how you are doing.

After the person finishes, make sure to thank him/her for bringing it to your attention.

After all, you would rather have customers tell you than their co-workers, friends, boss or — worse yet — your competitor.

The apology
After listening to the customer, give a heartfelt and sincere apology, even if it is not your fault.

You cannot take the next step until you apologize, and you must keep in mind that the customer wants and needs an apology for closure.

It is amazing how far an apology will go toward resolving the concern.

The key to long-term business relationships lies in repeat and referral business.

If you do not apologize, you will likely miss out on that customer’s future business and/or favor.

Richard Buckingham, author of Kiplinger’s Customer Once, Client Forever, said it best: “The value of a lifetime customer makes the apology worth it.”

Take action
Now that the customer is done venting and you have apologized, it is time to make a plan to correct the concern.

Sometimes the correction is simple and other times not so simple, as you can be bound by contracts, budgets and job descriptions.

Nonetheless, a plan of attack is needed.

After taking all things into consideration, suggest a plan.

However, when in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask the customer: “How would you like it to be handled,” or “Are there any suggestions you have,” or “Our goal is to see that this situation is handled to your satisfaction. Together I am sure we can come up with something.”

Whatever the plan is, a rapid response is vital and you must handle the concern quickly and to the best of your ability.

If it is something out of your realm of responsibility or expertise, don’t be afraid to ask for outside help.

Remember, at this point, the person with the concern is your only customer.

Finally, make sure to document the plan and its results.

The good news
When handled correctly and the situation is resolved, angry customers can become lifetime clients.

More important, studies say that these same customers often become some of your best cheerleaders.


Bob Merkt is the owner of Merkt Educational Group and Associates (MEGA). He is an Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, Restoration Certification (IICRC)-approved instructor, an IICRC Master Textile Cleaner, IICRC FCT and SMT Technician and chair of the IICRC Floor Care Technician (FCT) Committee. He also is a Cleaning Management Institute® (CMI)-Certified Instructor, a member of the CMI “All Star” speaking team, a member of the International Custodial Advisors Network (ICAN), a member of the Cleaning Industry Research Institute (CIRI) and past president of the Association of Wisconsin Cleaning Contractors (AWCC).