By Rick Mullen
Maintenance Sales News Associate Editor
Michael Patterson, president of the International Executive Housekeepers Association, Inc. (IEHA), spoke to cleaning industry professionals on the importance of building strong relationships with customers, during a recent educational seminar.
While Patterson primarily works in the housekeepers segment of the industry,
those who do the actual cleaning of facilities, he said the principles
outlined adapt well
to janitorial/sanitation distributorships.
“To build solid relationships, we must get to know the customer,” Patterson said. “Building relationships is extremely important, whether it is a healthcare environment, in a hotel with sales and catering, in distribution, etc. It is extremely important to know the key players in a customer’s organization, because they are either going to make you or break you — make them your best friends.”
In order for a cleaning industry company to effectively build customer relationships, the organization’s staff/team members must all be on board with the mission. Patterson spoke of how owners, managers and department heads can best lead and instill their staff with the most effective strategies and techniques of relationship building. He outlined some scenarios a new manager might face when taking over a department.
“You don’t want to be what I call a ‘coffee and tea’ manager or director, where you see your people on the fly, speak to them while you are getting yourself a cup of coffee or tea, and that is all,” Patterson said. “I have taken over departments that were in total disarray. In this scenario, you must solve the problems. Nine times out of 10, when you take over a department, it has a lot of problems. Otherwise, the former director or manager would probably still be there. Obviously, that is not applicable in every case.
“When I take over a department, one of the first things I do is have my team conduct a critical analysis. I want them to be able to articulate to me problems that have created issues for them in the past. Then we can problem solve together. At the same time, I am building a scenario where I am getting my team to think critically.”
Patterson outlined some key starting points in building customer relationships:
A Great Start Is A Beginning
• Introduce yourself;
• Initiate conversation;
• Ask important questions;
• Respond timely; and,
• Provide accurate information.
“It is important to learn how to introduce yourself,” Patterson said. “When I walk into an environment, I typically seek the administrative assistant. You can do that in any setting. The administrative assistant is a key individual, because he or she knows everything that is going on in the facility.
“After you introduce yourself and are beginning the process of building a relationship, it is important that you learn how to ask key questions.”
Patterson said in building a viable and strong relationship with a customer, it is critical for the cleaning or sales team to do what they tell the customer they are going to do. It is also important for team members to report back with complete and accurate information.
“I don’t like for a team member to give me bits and pieces of information, omitting some things,” Patterson said. “He or she may not tell me about an issue that will later become a problem. Make sure your team provides accurate information.”
Another key Patterson outlined in establishing meaningful relationships is the ability to handle problems or issues early on, before the situation escalates out of control.
“Does your team think proactively?” Patterson asked the audience. “If you don’t have a team that thinks proactively, you are going to have problems down the road. It is easier to address a negative situation in its infancy stage than when it grows to be a ‘tsunami.’”
Patterson encouraged the audience to teach their teams/staffs to be attentive in gathering pertinent information to foster lasting customer relationships.
“I require my team to have a notebook at all times,” Patterson said.
Taking notes on what they see and hear, while visiting or working at a customer’s facility, aids team members in thinking proactively. This helps solve problems and meet a client’s needs quickly and efficiently, Patterson said.
Another key element in relationship building Patterson shared is honesty. He made the following points:
• A reputation of honesty and integrity is crucial to building long-term customer relationships. In fact, customer trust can be as important as the quality of services you offer;
• Always keep your commitments. Attempts to earn trust by making commitments that cannot be kept will only hurt the customer relationship; and,
• Be open and honest about any problems you encounter. If you cannot meet a deadline or encounter difficulties providing a specific service, notify the customer immediately.
Part of being honest, Patterson said, is owning up to mistakes.
“When you make a mistake, it is OK,” he said. “People would rather you learn from your mistake and then correct it. How often do we make a mistake and fail to be responsible while trying to cover it up? This is not a good way to establish a relationship with a key customer. Honesty is extremely important. It is better to tell someone, ‘I made a mistake; however, we will correct it immediately.’ That is integrity. People admire someone who says, ‘I made a mistake. We should have done it this way.’ How transparent are you in your business dealings?”
An integral part of the relationship process is feedback, Patterson said. He displayed the following slide on the subject:
• Feedback includes seeking suggestions on new features or products that are of interest to the customer, as well as critiques of current products and features. This will, not only build customer loyalty, but also provide important information about customers’ needs and satisfaction. Let your customers know that honest, constructive feedback is encouraged, and be open to suggestions from your customers as to how you can improve your business; and,
• Always listen carefully and respond in a manner that lets the client know you understand the suggestions or critiques that have been offered.
In discussing the importance of feedback, Patterson alluded to the common saying, “No news is good news.” He said, although on the surface this sentiment sounds logical, in reality, it is a sophistry.
(back to top)
Is No News Good News?
• Are you a coffee and tea manager?;
• No news is not always good news;
• If a particular manager is quiet and not engaging in conversations, you might want to ask some questions; and
• Don’t dodge complaints.
“No news is always good news — I disagree,” Patterson said. “If you are running a department (or a distributorship, etc.), the expectation is you are going to be able to run it well. You are going to be responsive and do the things you need to do for your customers. Oftentimes, when we haven’t heard any feedback, we think it is a sign of good news. Don’t believe it.”
Patterson said if a manager is not receiving feedback from team members or customers, he or she must find out why. Sometimes people are reluctant to pass on customer complaints to their supervisors. This can be detrimental in establishing relationships.
“Complaints can be a good thing, because you can learn from them and correct problems,” Patterson said. “Nothing is perfect. You are going to have problems. Take those complaints and become proactive. Correct problems and move on. Don’t always look at complaints as being a ‘negative.’”
Patterson spoke of how to deal with reoccurring complaints from customers on the same issue.
“If you are getting the same complaint over and over, it may be time to look into your manager, or supervisor, or the frontline worker,” Patterson said. “You need to look at your internal processes. Dodging complaints is a recipe for disaster. You need to deal with complaints head-on.”
Another strategy Patterson covered in establishing and building relationships with customers is to maintain a database of pertinent information about clients. It is a good idea, he said, to take advantage of modern technologies, to record data, such as email addresses, phone numbers, etc., in one readily accessible file.
“We are in an age of electronics,” Patterson said. “We are too technical now for any of us, as professionals, to have to sit down and thumb through our desk drawer to find a customer’s business card.”
When meeting with customers, a company’s team members must develop the skill of listening attentively, Patterson said. He shared the following information:
Listen actively to what the customer is saying
• An angry customer generally just wants someone to vent his or her anger to and, today, you are that person. That means you need to do your best to listen carefully to what he or she is saying;
• Give the customer your undivided attention. Do not look around, space out or let other things distract you; and,
• Look at the speaker and really listen to what he or she is saying. Listen for the answer to these questions: What happened to make the customer upset? What does he or she want? What can you do to help?
“You can’t get upset because a customer is upset,” Patterson said. “Are you able to separate your personal feelings from the situation? Remain professional at all times. Learn to set your personal feelings aside — it is all about business. It shouldn’t be personal.”
One technique that is critical in clearly understanding a customer’s complaint, or what issues he or she is having, is to be able to repeat what the client has been saying. This shows that the team member is listening, and will confirm that the problem, issue or complaint will be handled.
Patterson also emphasized, when listening to a customer, the team member must guard against jumping to conclusions before he or she hears the whole story.
“You must learn to listen attentively, so that you can correctly respond to the question, or what they are asking of you,” he said.
Two more elements of building relationships Patterson covered are to sympathize with the customer’s problems, complaints or issues, and to be quick to apologize for mistakes.
“The customer may be upset already — don’t antagonize him or her further,” Patterson said. “Be professional. Learn to sympathize with the individual.
“Nobody likes to apologize. What happens when your department makes the same mistake three or four times? Do you keep apologizing? You must address the situation. You have an internal problem. Once you fix the problem, it should not continue to reoccur. If it is reoccurring, the customer is not going to be very happy with you. He or she will say, ‘We had this problem two weeks ago. You told me you fixed it. You sent me an email saying it was corrected, but it has happened two more times.’
“You must apologize, then get with your team, close the door, and have a very frank conversation as to why the problem continues to happen.”
Patterson said once a problem is identified, immediate action must be taken.
“If you know you have a problem, fix it,” he said. “Problems don’t solve themselves. The longer you wait to address a problem, the more headaches you are going to have. Tackle the problem head-on.
“Remember we are all in this together. There may be times when it is difficult — you may want to throw in the towel. It is important to understand the customer comes first. It is not about you.
“If someone needs you to handle a situation, respond very quickly. Address issues before they become big problems.”
Patterson closed by reviewing the seven salient points of his presentation. They are:
• Build a solid relationship with the customer;
• Make a personal connection. Get to know the customer;
• A great start is a beginning;
• Ask the customer, “What else can I do?” I want to win your trust;
• Do not assume everything is OK because people are not talking. Once a problem is identified, take action. Instill in team members, “We are going to do it right the first time, every time;” and,
• We are all in this together — one team, one mission.
Contact: Michael Patterson, IEHA president,
Drive, Suite 301,
Westerville, OH 43081-3361.