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Management And Training

Why the cleaning industry gets no respect

September 19, 2010
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We''ve heard it for years.

Why don''t people respect those of us in the cleaning profession?

We work hard and our efforts are essential to maintaining a healthy indoor environment, and some of us even have credentials from special training.

So why aren''t we appreciated and respected?

The answer, as with so many things in life, is somewhat simple: One gets what one deserves.

Let''s review some of the industry''s quirks that help form people''s opinions of the cleaning profession, keeping in mind that one definition of "profession" is simply, "the act of professing something," whether someone is genuinely accomplished in performing the work or not.

The price is wrong
Examine what transpires when it is discovered that a competitor has an account that is desirable to others.

No one asks, "Are they doing a good job and enhancing the image of us all?"

The concern is, "How can we underprice and get the job away from them so they will starve and go out of business, leaving us with even dirtier buildings we cannot afford to clean?"

Greedy and stupid? You bet.

If the going price is now $1.20 per square foot, we offer to do the job for 90 cents.

If we are doing the work for $.90, another will offer to charge 75 cents.

Thus, we engage in price wars, making cleaning the commodity.

And, the clients we deal with know that.

Even worse, they witness this endless "cheapening" of services and begin to believe that it''s just the way it is with cleaning contractors.

Those who can define their services clearly, know what those services are worth, and generally perform in such a way as to have satisfied customers are respected service providers.

In the mind of the public, that isn''t descriptive of much of the cleaning industry — goodbye, respect.

We don''t know what we do
Ask any cleaner why they don''t have clean buildings and you will hear some variation of, "We''re good cleaners, but no one agrees on what ‘clean'' means, so …"

Logically, low prices would indicate that sufficient time is not being spent cleaning, but the real explanation is always more than that.

Does anyone ever say, "Sorry, we priced the service too low and can''t afford to spend the time or buy the needed equipment to do the job?" Of course not.

Instead, we hear that, "Cleaning is so subjective that there is no standard outcome."

This, from those who evidently believe that the use of certain tools will enhance respectability, even if the work performed doesn''t.

Let''s see if we can work through this obstacle together.

The word "clean" in the dictionary, as an adjective, is defined as "free from dirt or filth."

When used as a verb (as in "clean the toilet") it means "to make clean."

Cleaning, then, is the act of "making something clean or free from dirt or filth."

Cleaning is the removal of the unwanted.

We don''t do it well
For now, let''s agree that cleaning is indeed the act of removing dirt and filth from surfaces since, according to the dictionary, it is.

Since the recipients of the industry''s services think those services are, for the most part, poorly performed, there should be intense concern that public perception is keener than that of the industry itself.

Unfortunately, this doesn''t seem to be the case.

We might compare this to an airline''s passengers knowing where the plane is going, while the pilot remains uncertain.

Not a reassuring situation meriting respect.

Even so, the industry as a whole has yet to define what it is supposed to do, let alone do it well.

What we are supposed to do is clean surfaces, meaning we locate those unwanted substances — loosely called "dirt or filth" — on a building''s interior surfaces and remove them.

If we are successful, the surface will be "clean" after we do the job.

Do that consistently and we just might become respected as "cleaners."

Much of the industry is in constant competition to price work so low that when it is contracted, no one can afford to do it correctly.

It is hard to respect that business strategy.

Then, that widespread failure is excused by implying that no one in the industry has access to a dictionary that allows for a uniform definition of what we do — one that both cleaner and client can agree upon.

A plausible concept, no doubt.

Even worse, we tend to believe that we are doing a good job despite the generally poor opinion held by many of our clients, and we continue to bemoan the fact that no one seems to respect us.

Since when is blatant incompetence and stupidity coupled with a blindness to reality a sound basis for respect?

Turn it around
If someone is walking in the wrong direction to get somewhere, he/she won''t get there faster by starting to run.

The wise thing is to stop, turn around, and go in the right direction.

As an industry, we need to define what we do and stop making excuses for why we are not doing it.

If, when we are done with a job, the dirt remains, it is because we either did not attempt to remove it or we did an incomplete job.

It isn''t because no one understands us or our mission.

And, it shouldn''t be because we are using something so environmentally safe that it can''t hurt dirt.

If we fail due to a lack of training or attention to detail, then we need to determine if our pricing is intentionally so low that we can''t afford to find attentive people and train them how to clean. Consistently good cleaning will evoke respect.

That, in turn, will move the cleaning industry from cheap commodity broker to that of maintenance professional.

We should have started 50 years ago, but it is not too late.

Most of those who failed to grasp the wisdom of this course are now dead anyway.

Their replacements have a chance for a new beginning.

Let''s see if they are smarter than their predecessors.


Lynn E. Krafft has operated Krafft Cleaning Service Inc. in Watertown, NY, since the 1970s. He is associate editor of CMM''s ICAN/ATEX website. He can be contacted at lekrafft@juno.com.

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