By Rick Mullen
Maintenance Sales News Associate Editor
In their recent educational presentation to a group of cleaning industry professionals, both cleaners and distributors, Liz Trotter and Derek Christian gave an overview of how to improve both customer and employee retention.
Trotter is the owner of American Maid Service, of Olympia, WA, while Christian is the owner of Blue Skies Services, of South Lebanon, OH. Both are Cleaning Business Builders coaches.
“One of the things our customers want more than anything is consistency,” Christian said. “They want to know that they are going to get the same thing every single time. Clearly, the best way to do that is to retain your employees.”
Christian outlined some things a business ower can do that are “win-win” moves for both clients and employees, including:
■ Create a positive place to work;
■ Create a feedback loop; and
■ Create room for growth.
“You want to create a culture of growth and promotion, and make sure you charge enough money to provide the service at a quality level so you can pay your employees fairly,” Christian said.
Create a Positive Place to Work:
■ Fire the toxic staff — fire the toxic clients;
■ Hire the right staff — take on the right clients;
■ Train properly — retrain often (yes, you have to train your clients, too); and,
■ Say “thank you” — especially when you’re apologizing.
Trotter and Christian said one important key in creating a positive workplace is to fire both “toxic” employees and clients. The presenters outlined differences between toxic and “difficult” when it comes to employees and clients.
“Sometimes employees are just difficult, and other times they really are toxic,” Trotter said. “If your employees are toxic, get them out.
“Difficult employees have trouble with frustration. They sort of get ‘freaked out.’ They get kind of grumpy.
“In contrast, the toxic employee can’t handle frustration at all. So, in a situation that is stressful, he or she will go into full ‘melt-down’ mode. A toxic person will say things like, ‘I’m not going to that job. I can’t do that. I’m not trained to do that.’ They start running your company for you. They tell you what they will and won’t do. This is the type of employee you probably will not be able to get back when you let him or her get to that point.”
Trotter said there are employees who struggle with change. For example, the difficult employee will likely make excuses why he or she cannot deal with a change in schedule.
“In one such scenario, an employee calls in sick and you have to change up the schedule a little,” Trotter said. “You might say to another employee, ‘Sorry, you were scheduled to clean a medical building on Fourth Street, but, instead, we need you to go over to the new construction site on Madison at 11 a.m.’ The employee responds, ‘I’m not prepared for that. I don’t know who to report to, etc.’
“On the flip side (toxic) is the employee who absolutely cannot handle change, saying, ‘I’m not doing that. No, I can’t do that.’ Again, that person is controlling your company.”
Trotter contrasted toxic and difficult employees who don’t know how to accept responsibility for things that go wrong.
“You say to an employee, ‘I got a complaint from Mr. Bishop and he said the trash can wasn’t moved and it looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in three months.’
“The difficult employee says, ‘I’m not the one who cleans over there. That’s not my area.’ The toxic employee replies, ‘That’s not me. I didn’t do that.’ Obviously, he or she left dirt behind the trash can. This is a toxic worker. Toxic employees can’t accept responsibility. They just aren’t wired that way — bye, bye.”
Still another type of difficult and toxic worker is one who becomes reflectively defensive.
“The only thing that comes to the difficult employee’s mind is to defend him or herself — ‘Well, I was in another room. So and so told me to do that.’
“The toxic employee says, ‘I was the one who did it the right way. Everyone is picking on me. You always give me the hard jobs.’ You guys (the audience) know these people. What are you going to say to them? — bye, bye.”
■ Negative Nelly — if there’s a little something wrong, then it’s all wrong;
■ The Martyr — it’s always his or her job to cover the others’ mistakes but not get credit for it; and,
■ The Gossip — if it was important enough for so-and-so to tell her, it’s important for her to tell you, too.
■ Drama Queen/King — everything is a big deal and needs to be expressed vocally and visually;
■ The victim — it’s always someone else’s fault that he or she couldn’t do a good job; and,
■ The Anti-Authoritarian — breaks rules just to show that he or she won’t follow any but his or her own.
Christian compared the differences between difficult and toxic customers.
“Unfortunately, it’s just not employees who can be toxic,” he said. “Sometimes the way you create customer retention is to eject bad customers. There is such a thing as a toxic customer."
The first example Christian gave are customers who have “impossible” standards.
“They (the toxic ones) do exist, and they will never be happy,” Christian said.
He added, the toxic clients need to be “fired,” just like a toxic employee. He warned, however, the failure to recognize the difference between difficult clients from toxic ones can be detrimental to a company.
“I want you to be really careful not to jump too quickly to label a client as toxic, because a lot of people will very frequently get rid of people who complain,” Christian said. “I want you to understand there are difficult clients with high standards, but if you are honest with yourself, when the client complained, an employee probably did do something wrong.”
Christian gave the example of a customer who requested a rug in her home be placed with its design facing a certain way after a cleaning. The person called his office and complained the rug had been consistently turned the wrong way.
Christian’s first thought was to express a little exasperation with the difficult client — “You called me because the rug is facing the wrong way? Bend over and turn it.”
He added: “If I’m honest with myself, I will admit, yes, we did it wrong. She gave us instructions for cleaning her house. Turning the rug in a certain direction was listed on her work order, and my employees didn’t do it. Difficult customers can make you better over time. This particular client has been a customer for a long time. Yes, she is a little more demanding. No matter how good we do, she finds the next level of detail we got wrong. We keep trying to meet that because it makes us a better company.”
Another category of difficult and toxic clients is those who frequently ask for extras.
“Customers do frequently ask for extras. How many people here are annoyed by customers constantly asking for freebies?” Christian asked the audience. “I’m one of them.
“If a customer is asking for extras all the time, and you are having difficulty dealing with it, it is probably because you haven’t trained your people.”
At her company, Trotter said employees are trained how to react to customers who ask cleaners to do something extra.
“The employee would say, ‘He or she would be glad to. Let me call the office real quick and find out how much that extra cleaning costs,” Trotter said. “Some clients try to sneak in that free stuff and their plan is to not pay —that’s toxic.”
Christian added: “Consider a person a toxic customer who demands extra things be done, or they cheat, or they keep putting your employees in impossible situations.”
The last type of customers Christian and Trotter discussed are those who frequently complain.
“For me, the person who calls the office or fills out a form with negative feedback is a good customer,” Christian said.
Derek Christian and Liz Trotter
While negative feedback can help a company be better, Christian draws the line with customers who demean his employees — these clients are toxic.
"If somebody demeans my employees, I will give them one chance. If it happens again, I will consider that client toxic,” Christian said. “If a customer is toxic, over time, he or she will run off your employees. If a customer is that toxic, he or she is detrimental to my company.
“If someone demeans my staff and cannot provide feedback with courtesy, that is what will make my employees leave. If my employees quit, I don’t have a company.”
Trotter said companies have different levels of acceptance and adaptability with customers.
“Certain people will rub you the wrong way, and those clients could be toxic to your company,” Trotter said. “But, you need to define them at some point. You need to know who your toxic clients are and what you will not tolerate. You need to have a firm line in the sand. If you don’t, you are going to be firing difficult rather than toxic customers.”
Clients need coaching, too:
As is the case with employees, clients also need coaching. Christian pointed out that, at times, the initial perception that a customer is toxic might need to be fleshed out a little more. Communication is often the key.
“If you have a client who you think is toxic, talk to him or her. That person might say, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t mean for your employee to clean around my sink. I don’t know why she assumed that. I didn’t realize she was going to do that.’ The point is you need to have the conversation with the client. Don’t avoid it because you are uncomfortable."
■ Have high standards;
■ Call often with negative feedback;
■ Change their minds but forget to tell you; and,
■ Micromanage (microsupervise) each cleaning.
■ Are regularly demeaning to your staff;
■ Delay or withhold payments;
■ Challenge nearly every invoice; and,
■ Regularly demand more tasks be added at no charge.
Another win-win strategy Christian spoke of is to create a feedback loop. Trotter said the criteria her company follows in setting up an effective feedback loop, is it has to be a formal feedback process, and it must encourage open and honest feedback. A third element is to make sure to take action on feedback.
Employee feedback options
■ Mad-Sad-Glad employee feedback activity; and,
■ Periodic reviews (formal): quarterly, semi-annually, annually.
“Mad-Sad-Glad feedback is super simple,” Trotter said. “Have employees fill out a form saying what upsets them, what are they sad about and what are they glad about. It is the most simple survey you can give your people, and you can get some really good feedback in this format.
“The trick is, if you get feedback indicating an employee is mad about something, make sure you address the situation openly. Otherwise, the person will get more angry. Likewise, if there is anything an employee is sad about, address it, or he or she will not come back.”
In addition to mad-sad-glad feedback, Trotter said periodic, formal evaluations are valuable.
“How do you conduct a formal evaluation? Tell the employee how he or she is doing, and how happy or not you are with the person,” Trotter said. “Give some kind of measure, so the employee knows how he or she is performing. Tell the employee how he or she can be of value to your company in the future.”
Client feedback options:
■ Direct email or phone call after every cleaning with an easy 1-4 or 1-5 rating system; and,
■ Review campaign — ask for online reviews, but only from clients you know are happy or whose concerns you have handled well.
For client feedback options, Trotter suggested contacting a customer by phone or email following a cleaning. Since most companies do not have the manpower to make a phone call to a client every time a cleaning is completed, emails are a better option.
“Make sure when you get feedback you share it with your employees,” Trotter said. “Furthermore, what would happen if a customer gives you feedback and you take no action? Now, you are going to have a really ‘ticked-off’ client. The customer might not have been that upset. He or she might be telling you about a really small issue. If you don’t address the problem and let it go three or four times in a row, that client will begin to go south on you, and can even turn into a toxic customer.”
Another of the win-win strategies is to create a positive workplace culture — what Christian and Trotter call “a culture of growth and promotion.” Indeed, Christian alluded to another presentation he and Trotter conducted on the subject. A story about this presentation appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Maintenance Sales News, and can be viewed at www.maintenancesalesnews.com.
“We need to conduct technical training as it relates to cleaning, but we also need to train with a view to the development of people,” Christian said. “No one wants to feel like he or she is in a dead-end job.
“Unfortunately, what we hear people say about their employees all the time is, ‘I’m paying them. I don’t understand what their problem is. Why can’t they do a quality job?’
“People want to have hope. They want to feel their lives are going somewhere. Even if a person is a lifetime cleaner, he or she wants to be a better cleaner and a better person.
“Just to give you an idea, an annual survey of the best places to work indicates full-time salaried employees typically get 66 hours of training a year from their employer, and full-time hourly employees typically receive 53 hours of training a year.
“Think about how much training you provide and how it compares to the survey. I’m not talking only about training ‘at hire.’ You need to offer ongoing, continuous training. According to the survey, there is a very consistent link between the amount of training employees receive and the likelihood they will rate their places of employment as one of the best places to work.
“The goal is to provide more consistent results to our customers. We want to make it easier to grow our companies by having more stable employees.”
Results of ongoing training:
■ Easier and more consistent growth for your company;
■ More time for you to focus on strategic growth rather than putting out fires;
■ What? An actual vacation?
■ Whatever “success” looks like to you.
Contact: Blue Skies Services,
3959 Lebanon Road,
South Lebanon, OH, 45065.
American Maid Cleaning, LLC, 9419 Tilley Road South, Olympia, WA 98512.