Cleaning & Restoration Association News

"This Place Smells Terrible!"

May 14, 2007
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“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”
-Vladimir Nabokov

Technology is great. I’m sure you are aware of some of the fantastic advances made in the whole odor-control area. But don’t let all this slick, whiz-bang technology lead you astray from one central principle of indoor air quality. As a very smart expert in smoke damage restoration told me years ago, “People smell what they expect to smell.”

Think about your last fire restoration project. You removed all the char and smoke residue, sealed all the surfaces and thermal fogged and ozoned till your face was blue. And yet, the first time the homeowners walked into the home they blurted out, “We can still smell the smoke!” And they did...because they expected to smell smoke.

Now to be honest, their home very likely did smell terrible. After all, there were huge amounts of off-gassing hydrocarbons present from the new carpet, the new paint and the new furnishings. But the house did not smell like smoke! Yet very sincerely your clients smelled the smoke...emotionally.

Simply put, 90 percent of odor is psychological in nature. This emotional aspect of indoor air quality is doubly difficult when you factor in the highly stressed, semi-hysterical atmosphere of the typical fire restoration situation (and it isn’t much different with the lynch-mob mentality of office workers with a “sick building” perception!). Remember, you are not dealing with rational human beings here; your typical restoration client is a suspicious, traumatized and at times hostile emotional basket case. And yet keeping this messed-up individual under control is why the adjuster promotes your services. If the homeowner complains about the “smoke smell,” then the adjuster loses his motivation to call you in for his or her next loss.

By working with the Emotional Dynamics of the customer, their olfactory nerves will stay quiet and happy, which in turn means a “Cheerleader Adjuster” for you. However, bear in mind that ED complements the technical side of odor removal. Nothing beats doing a good, competent technical job. But on the other hand, if your customer feels like their home still smells like smoke, then the job will stink for you! So can focusing on the ED of the loss change the expectations of the client so that they expect to not smell smoke? Yes.
  1. Above all else, listen. On even a small restoration loss I would schedule two hours for the pre-inspection. The first hour would be dedicated to both listening to and interviewing the customer. When listening, be sure to take immediate action on every statement or request the customer makes. The simplest and best immediate action? Write it down. When the customer sees you writing down what they say, this is both very flattering and extremely reassuring to them that you will follow up on the conversation. Once the conversation dries up it is time to...
  2. Soothe through education before you start the job. Remember that clients are ignorant of both the principles of odor removal/neutralization and the techniques you use to accomplish them. So carry a photo album showing the equipment and techniques you use for complete odor removal. Explain the principles of odor removal. If possible, have a handout explaining your procedures to leave with your client. During this “orientation session” refer back to your customer interview notes and reassure the customer with specific details on how you will resolve their concerns. Much of this conversation will need to be repeated because right after the loss...
  3. Your client is in shock and trauma. So expect the homeowner to be tentative and confused. Talk slowly, give them time to respond and of course display a sincere attitude of care and concern. Plan to review all of your original conversation with the customer in two or three days after the shock has worn off and they are more lucid. Of course, the best defense is a good offense so you should...
  4. Anticipate the “Instant Experts.” Your customer will be beset by all the “Instant Experts” that magically appear after every loss. These no doubt well-meaning relatives, friends and neighbors utter beauties like, “You know, Charlie, it would have been better if it had burned to the ground!” Or the ever reliable, “My Aunt Martha had a fire in her home back in 1964 and you can still smell the smoke in there!” (totally ignoring the fact that Aunt Martha has been a three-pack-a-day chain smoker for the last 50 years!) So you should mention common “old wives tales” and why they aren’t true. But remember, it shouldn’t be “all about you.” You must also...
  5. Get your entire company on board. The raw and traumatized emotions of a typical fire loss customer means he or she will be extremely sensitive to any “dissonant chords” within your organization. Just the slightest hint that a technician isn’t sure about how to proceed or even worse doesn’t really care and yup, the homeowner will still smell the smoke odor after restoration is complete. Once again, they will smell what they expect to smell and the perception of incompetence or indifference is an olfactory death knell for your customer’s satisfaction.
  6. Maintain communication throughout the loss. Remember that customers are worried and suspicious about what is happening in their home and what the final results will be. These negative emotions are heightened if during the loss your client feels shut out from daily work decisions and details. So give the homeowner the illusion of control by involving them in job choices and continually orienting them on job progress and your projected timetable. Your goal is to promote a “partnership” type of relationship. The bonus here is if the homeowner has approved your work schedule they can hardly complain about it later. But more importantly, a customer who has felt in control of the loss will also be much happier with your odor control efforts. A customer left in the dark will always assume the worst. So how can you give a customer the illusion of control?
  • Schedule a daily briefing, in person and on-site if possible. If not, then over the telephone. In your initial meeting explain to the homeowner that you want them to know what is going on and ask what time of day and where you can meet. Then be sure to fulfill this obligation like clockwork.
  • Urge your client to contact you at any hour. Make sure your customer has your home and cell phone numbers. (Hint: create a great Moment of Truth by writing your home phone number on the back of your business card instead of having it pre-printed on the front. This way your client feels “special”!) Stress that you want to be called with whatever question they at any time. After all, you want them to call you instead of the adjuster.
  • Ask permission whenever possible. Start giving your client the illusion of control during your initial walk through of the home. Ask permission before opening a cabinet door or going into another part of the house. As the loss progresses whenever possible let the customer make the decision on how to do the work or on the final appearance of the home. Everyone wants to feel in control.
  • Involve the homeowner in your production paper work. We kept all of our “Room Sheets” that detailed what had been done each day on the job and who had signed off on each job right by the front door. This way the homeowner could come in at any hour and see what had been done and who had checked it in our company. This routine system of “checks and balances” was incredibly reassuring to a nervous homeowner and paid off big time at the end of the job!
  • Build trust by using “credibility through confession.” Instead of hiding little job delays and problems we would discuss them with the homeowner and ask their advice on resolving them. This open, “partnership” type communication leads the customer to believe that you will also confess any major issues on resolving their odor control issues.

So always use the latest technology and do the most detailed, quality work possible on all smoke losses. Never rely on Emotional Dynamics to cover up poor, slip-shod and non-caring work practices. However, if you will build your daily work procedures around your customer’s ED, the loss will go smoother for all concerned, and you (and your adjuster) will hear those wonderful words, “This place smells great!”

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