By Rick Mullen, Maintenance Sales News Associate Editor
In his presentation titled “Understanding the 21st Century Customer,” Ron Segura, speaking to an audience primarily of cleaning industry professionals, said, “Who is the 21st century customer? It is you and I. In fact, when we look at the way we buy and the type of service we expect, we can really see we have changed over the years.”
Segura, a cleaning industry expert/consultant, and president/founder of Segura & Associates, gave his remarks via a video presentation, which was part of the recent ISSA Show North America Virtual Experience.
To illustrate how the buying process and the service expected by consumers and customers has changed over the years, Segura alluded to his experiences while buying an automobile.
“One of the most traumatic experiences for me has always been purchasing a vehicle,” Segura said.
To prepare for car shopping, Segura would devise a strategy. He would set a ceiling on the price he was willing to pay, as well as listing the features he would like.
“Once I formulated a plan and it was finalized, off I went to the car dealership,” Segura said, adding, when a person goes to the car dealership, plan in hand, often an “amazing thing happens.”
“When your foot takes that first step onto the dealership property, all the strategy disintegrates, and you get caught in the vortex of buying a car,” he said. “We have all been there. The salesman takes you into a room and talks to you a little bit. Then, he goes away to talk to the sales manager to see if he can get the deal you want. After that, the sales manager comes out, and then he goes into another room and out comes the finance manager.
“At the end of the car buying session, three to four hours have passed. That is the way we used to buy — very traumatic.”
The way people approach buying today is much different — no more going to the yellow pages to find a store that sells what a person wants to buy, Segura said. Rather, the modern day customer and industry buyer rely on the internet.
“By going to the internet, you can find exactly what you want, at exactly what you want to pay and you don’t even have to pick it up — you can have it delivered,” Segura said.
For those who are still skeptical about how widespread and popular shopping online is, Segura suggested, “Pop your head outside your door one day and count all the UPS, FedEx and Amazon trucks that are making deliveries to people who have purchased products online.”
In the context of the cleaning industry, cleaning contractors and jan/san distributors deal with similar types of customers, Segura said.
“The 21st century customer is an individual who wants service providers that are proactive,” Segura said. “When we make a presentation and emphasize that we are going to be a customer’s partner, the 21st century customer is going to hold us to it.”
In dealing with the 21st century customer, Segura suggested to stick to what is promised.
“In the heat of the battle of obtaining a new account, we may throw things on the table that we know we are never going to able to do. We hope that, somewhere along the line, maybe those promises will be forgotten. The 21st century customer is going to hold you to it. So, only promise what you are able to deliver.”
Therefore, Segura said, it is important to make it clear to the customer what he/she can expect in the way of service. To do so, a company must look within and be clear on what it can, and cannot, successfully accomplish.
“We really need to know our company. What are the things that make us good? What are the things that separate us from the rest of the pack? These are the things the customer wants to know,” Segura said.
THE EVOLUTION OF COMMUNICATIONS
Another crucial aspect of dealing with the 21st century customer is understanding how communications between companies and their clients have evolved over the years.
“What happens when you text someone and he/she doesn’t respond within a few minutes? Do you get anxious? Do you start to think about what is wrong with that person, ‘It has been five minutes since I texted him/her?’” Segura asked. “We are in an age when people want instant responses.
“I’ve been in this business nearly 55 years. When I was on the contracting side 40 years ago, we didn’t have instant communication. There was a form called ‘while you were out.’ The customer would call and a receptionist would write the information on the form. If a customer called in the morning, he/she knew you would call back by the end of the day. That would never fly today, because that’s not the way we communicate.”
In this age of instant response, engaging with customers beyond regular routine visits, while letting them know their vendor or contractor is focusing on their needs, is critical.
“When we are able to respond to the 21st century customer quickly, it starts to build loyalty, and that is what we need,” Segura said. “Instant communication is also what we (contractors or distributors) expect, so we always need to remain connected.”
In the evolution of how companies and clients communicated, the next step up from a phone call to the main office and the “while you were out” pad involved an electronic tool.
“Somebody came up with a device that we hooked to our hip — a pager. Some of you may have had voice pagers, where we could get information from customers. Of course, we also had the regular mail,” Segura said. “Technology really took off when we started to use fax machines. We thought that was the best. It could never get better than that. Then we got email, and we were able to communicate instantly, anywhere in the world.
“Now, we have cellphones that also enable us to have instant communication with our customers, which is what is needed.”
It is attractive to the 21st century customer when a company is able to sell and market its ability to instantly communicate with customers, by way of modern technologies, Segura said.
Indeed, according to Segura, the 21st century customer seeks to work with contractors/distributors that take his/her problems personally.
“When you receive a request or complaint from a customer, he/she must have the confidence that you are going to act on it right away, and not just put it to the side,” Segura said.
THE 21st CENTURY SALES PROCESS
Segura told the story of how, in the “old days,” the process of letting bids was accomplished.
“In the old days of our industry, when it was time to go out to bid, we would go to the file cabinet and pull out a folder,” Segura said. “In that folder were marketing or sales materials that had been sent to us during the past couple of years. We would contact all of those people and invite them to participate in the bid process.
“It wasn’t unusual to have maybe 10 to 15 companies or more participate in bid walks. The interesting thing was, out of the 10 to 15 companies, about 7 percent might not have been capable of providing the service that was expected.”
Again, the 21st century customer relies on the internet. In his consultation work, Segura helps companies put their projects out for bids. He encourages clients to peruse websites of potential bidders.
“We want to see what ‘benefits’ of doing business with a particular company are posted on its website — what points are highlighted,” Segura said.
The goal is to determine if a particular website only lists and highlights the ‘features’ of a business, rather than its “benefits.” Segura pointed out there is a difference between a “benefit” and a “feature.”
“Go back to the purchasing of an automobile. What would be a feature of an automobile?” Segura asked. “Features would include the type of tires, an automatic or manual transmission, air conditioning, power windows, a radio, etc. But, do features motivate a person to purchase a vehicle? In most cases, no.
“You need to look at your website. What are the features a potential buyer would see?”
One common feature companies list on their websites is a statement about how long they have been in business.
“Let’s say a company has been in business for 50 years, and has that highlighted on its website. Is that a feature or a benefit?” Segura asked. “It is a feature — you have been in business a long time.”
The 21st century customer is looking for benefits. How might a company tie the feature of longevity in business to a benefit?
“A company could say something like, ‘During those 50 years in business, we have been able to identify what needs to be done to minimize repetitive problems. We have developed systems and processes so we are able to have maximum communication with our contacts, which has been very beneficial to them,’” Segura said. “That is showing the benefit the customer would receive.”
Another common feature companies list on websites is, “We use the latest technologies.”
“That seems like a pretty good statement,” Segura said. “But what are the benefits of using the latest technologies?”
Segura gave the example of a company offering the latest in high-tech vacuums. The company might emphasize its vacuums have the latest filtration technology, which results in a more dust-free environment.
“A company might also highlight the benefits of the chemicals it offers by saying, ‘We use chemicals that don’t impact people who have asthma and allergies, which has a positive impact on workers,’” Segura said. “‘We use the latest technologies that have a positive impact on the health of employees. They also contribute to productivity within your organization, and it helps us to continually raise the level of service that we provide.’
“Another feature commonly listed is, ‘We are a green company. We use green chemicals and equipment.’ What does that mean? What is the benefit I’m going to receive from that feature?
“The answer could be, ‘We are not only creating a healthier workplace by using green products, we are also having a tremendous impact on the world that we live in.’
“It is easy to bombard your customers with the features of your service, but, always remember, they want to know how the features are beneficial to them. It is not features, but benefits that really sell.”
THE IMPACT OF COVID-19
The way companies buy and the service that is expected has, indeed, changed the cleaning industry as the second decade of the still young 21st century has just ended. Additionally, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the cleaning segment.
“I want you (the viewing audience) to really appreciate that today’s customers want what you have — you have something that they need,” Segura said.
And what might that be? — knowledge and expertise.
Segura said he has attended a number of meetings lately where what to do when companies begin to reoccupy their facilities was discussed.
Questions asked included, “How do we make buildings safe? How do we get across to the occupants of a building that it is going to be safe and healthy?”
“That is where you (cleaning professionals) come in,” Segura said. “You have the ability to educate customers about what cleaning, sanitation and disinfection are, and how they all play a part together.
“Keep in mind that a lot of potential and new customers have been home. They have been watching all the news channels. They understand when they go back to work, that their building has to be disinfected.”
One of the first things Segura suggested is meeting with customers to explain the difference between “deep” cleaning and “disinfecting.”
“For example, you might get a call from a customer who says, ‘We need to have you (a contract cleaning company) come in and do a deep cleaning. The reason we need to have a deep cleaning is because we had some people test positive,’” Segura said.
It is important to meet with such a customer and make sure he/she understands what deep cleaning entails, and that it doesn’t necessarily include disinfecting, Segura said.
“I had a person relate an incident to me where a person wanted deep cleaning, but he didn’t feel disinfecting was needed,” Segura said. “This is where we become the experts to this 21st century customer, because we can sit down and we can tell him, here’s the difference.
“Disinfecting is really what that person needs in order to make his building safe, and that information will come from us.
“Our customers have had to change how they operate during this pandemic. For example, hotels and convention centers have meeting spaces. It used to be that the salesperson from these venues would deal with the a meeting planner for a company wanting to use the meeting rooms. Not anymore. Included in that discussion are risk management and safety people.”
Customers want to be educated about what to do to keep their buildings safe. They want to be shown how to sanitize properly during the times between disinfecting, Segura said.
“You have an opportunity to be the experts,” Segura said. “Now market that expertise to customers. The vendor the 21st century customer seeks is one that can adapt quickly, be serious about what they do and always be ready for challenges that arise.”
‘YOU’VE COME A LONG WAY, BABY’
While 2020 will be remembered as a time of social upheaval, unprecedented societal changes and incredible challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Segura reminded his audience the cleaning industry is no stranger when it comes to dealing with change.
With the background of adapting how to understand and best serve the 21st century customer in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, Segura took his audience on a little trip down memory lane to emphasize the industry’s resilience.
“One thing we always want to keep in mind is, we have come so far and have changed so many times,” Segura said. “I can remember when we would use ammoniated products and chemicals with 25 percent hydrochloric acid. Our floor machines were so heavy that two or three people had to take them off a truck. But all that has changed now.”
Segura said the pandemic has shown how the cleaning industry is able to “pull together” to navigate the negative impact of the crisis.
Segura also recalled when he first started in the industry and was asked the question, “What do you do?”
“I can remember the looks I got — ‘Poor guy. Doesn’t know how to do anything else, so he has to clean and be a janitor,’” Segura said.
As the industry has grown and evolved over the years, so has its image as a viable career path for those seeking a meaningful profession.
Many people whose parents may have wanted them to be lawyers, accountants, chemists, etc., have opted for careers in the cleaning industry, Segura said.
“Look at what we have today. Second and third generations in the cleaning industry are running companies and taking them to the next level,” Segura said. “We (as an industry) have arrived. We are able to contribute to a healthy environment, to higher scores in schools and increases in productivity due to what we offer. We have raised the bar of professionalism.
“I’ve been in this business for more than 55 years, and I enjoy it now more than ever. I know there is a new generation who will carry this industry to the next level.”
With 17 years of consulting experience, both domestically and internationally, Segura has assisted organizations to be able to perform at maximum efficiencies, while raising the quality of service. He is the author of numerous monthly articles in various trade journals worldwide. He has been a speaker and presenter for cleaning organizations throughout the United States, Mexico, Brazil and elsewhere.