The Importance of Documentation

November 10, 2009
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Several years ago, when I was still active in my cleaning business, I learned a valuable lesson about customers: some of them, no matter how nice they seem, will try their darnedest to take advantage of you. In one particular situation, a repeat customer brought a heavily urine-contaminated rug in to be cleaned. I explained to her that we could remove the odor and contaminant, but the stains would most likely not improve. She said she understood.

My staff successfully cleaned the rug and delivered it back to her within two weeks. We sent her a bill and, lo and behold, instead of receiving payment, I got a letter that stated she was suing my company for permanently damaging the rug.

The funny thing about this situation was that the stains weren’t the issue. She was claiming I had shrunk the fringe. Of course, I asked to see the rug so I could inspect it again, and sure enough, on one end, the fringe on the right side of the rug was 1 ½ inches shorter than on the left.

Of course, I knew that there was no way that we could have caused such a condition, but because I hadn’t properly documented the variation in fringe length, I could have been held liable for replacing the rug. In the end I was able to prove her claim was unjustified.

The point is, I could have easily eliminated a lot of aggravation if I had just taken the time to properly document the rug’s condition.

Whether you’re cleaning carpet, upholstery, rugs, or hard surfaces, communication, both verbal and written, is one the most important first steps to take with your customers. Remember, regardless of how experienced or how good a communicator you or your technician is, understanding doesn’t exist until a problem or potential problem is documented in writing and acknowledged with the signatures of both parties to the agreement. Upon dating and conveying a copy of the agreement to the customer, you now have a valid contract, or at least some assurance that the basis for a legal contract has been met.

The first objective of the pre-cleaning inspection and documentation is to gather information. Of equal or greater importance is the selling of your professionalism, your knowledge and your expertise.

Proper inspection and evaluation before cleaning separates amateur cleaners from professionals. The client needs assurance that, first, you are a professional who is able to properly care for their investment and, second, you are a person and company they can trust.

Whether you call it a pre-cleaning “survey” or “condition report” as I recommend, documentation should be accomplished in an organized manner. For example, when preparing to clean your customer’s carpet, observe:

Traffic Lanes

Look for entry areas that are worn, heavily soiled and/or impacted with gritty soils. Observe the flow of traffic, not only in major walkways, but also within or near specific rooms such as the kitchen.

Discuss terms associated with traffic that you may not be able to improve with cleaning, such as “shading” or “pooling” if you’re cleaning wool carpet.

Spots and Stains

Look for spots and stains and ask the customer if she can identify them. If the stain is obviously permanent, usually due to the customer’s spot-removal efforts, let the customer know that the stain may be difficult, if not impossible, to remove. Be positive, of course, but also be practical.

Check for the presence of animals in residences, since some 72 percent of homes have at least one pet. If nothing else, ask about pets. Let customers know that odors are amplified by humidity, and since cleaning methods elevate humidity during cleaning and drying procedures, latent pet odors may be activated.

It’s also a good idea to discuss the discoloring effect that animal urine has on many dyes, particularly on nylon or wool pile yarns.


The third area to observe with the customer is the installation. Look at the back of the carpet. Is the secondary backing jute or synthetic? Check for loose or open seams in doorways. Look along wall edges where the carpet might be off the tackless strip.

Carefully check for buckles, ripples or bulges in traffic areas, which might predict the possibility of dramatic carpet expansion during cleaning, or of the existence of a possible delamination problem.

It’s a good idea to take notes, or even better, photos of specific concerns your customer may have; be sure to address each concern before you begin the cleaning process. Refer to recognized industry standards such as IICRC’s and CRI’s, or books written by recognized authors to support your comments. I frequently reference Jeff Bishop’s “CRIS Glossary” for definitions and descriptions, especially when performing carpet inspections.

O.K. I know you’re probably asking yourself, “How long does this pre-cleaning documentation process take? I can’t afford to spend that much time on each job.” The answer is that, you can’t afford not to.

Once you’re comfortable with the procedure and have a general outline of the information clearly in mind, the pre-inspection documentation only takes a few minutes. The second part of the answer is that the inspection doesn’t take time, it saves time!

How, you ask? First, you’ve already identified potential conditions or issues that could turn into problems later on in the cleaning process.

Second, your customer has a better understanding of the cleaning process. Questions have been answered. Therefore, they’re less likely to interrupt cleaning procedures with additional questions that were not answered in advance.

In fact, they may leave and entrust you with their homes or businesses for the duration of work processing, thereby saving even more time.

Third, and probably most important, customers know the job’s limitations, and their expectations are realistic. There is much less likelihood of being called back for a spot that is really a discoloration (color loss), or for dingy traffic areas that are the result of shading (abrading, fading and wear). This saves considerable time and money.

Finally, once you’ve gained a new satisfied customer, the next time you clean for them, you already have your documentation and have given them the pre-cleaning briefing and explanation. Since you shouldn’t have to repeat that process, you’ll save considerable time on future jobs.

One last comment. We live in a very litigious society and, as one of my attorney friends told me, “Anyone can sue anybody for anything, and win.” So when your consumer’s attitude is suspect or their expectations for your work is unreasonably high, and/or their furnishings are in a poor condition to begin with, it may be wise to “Just Say No.”

Remember, if you accept responsibility for cleaning defective goods, no matter how well you document, damage discovered later is always blamed on you…always!

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