Avoiding the Hardscrabble Life

April 15, 2011
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“I remember it being green and humid, nothing like this hardscrabble land.”
– Elmore Leonard

The phrase “hardscrabble life” is defined as “a life providing or yielding meagerly in return for much effort; demanding or unrewarding as in: the hardscrabble existence of the typical carpet cleaner!”

OK, so maybe I switched out the words “mountainside farmers” for “the typical carpet cleaner.” But it fit well, didn’t it? Simply put, far too many carpet cleaners just “own a job” that provides a meager, demanding, unrewarding existence! So sad, simply because carpet cleaning can provide a great life if you do it right. In my March “To Your Success” we discovered how to get out of this “confusing survival with success” syndrome. Above all, you and your family must define your goals, dreams and vision of where you want your business to take you. Got it? Then let’s move to our next step…

How am I going to keep the money coming in to fund my vision? Notice the word “keep.” Nothing is harder than keeping a stream of price-shopping, low-dollar residential customers coming in on a regular basis. This irregular cash flow leads to a hardscrabble, boom-and-bust business mentality where you are constantly under the gun to make your phone ring.

I hit this exact agonizing problem early in my business career. I just knew there had to be a better way, and there was:  I invented “Toll Booths” for my company! Think about it: nothing is more boring than a toll booth. You sit there and the people (and the money) come to you. Yep –  boring, predictable and absolutely essential for your business success. Just imagine: routine cash flow that happens without your constant effort. Here are two Toll Booths I installed in my company …

Toll Booth #1: Regular Contract Commercial Work

I discovered my first Toll Booth concept almost by accident. At the very first restaurant job I ever sold, the steak house owner asked me, “How often should I have my carpets cleaned?”

I frantically thought for a second and stammered out, “Once a month, sir!” I really had no idea since this regular cleaning idea had never occurred to me. Sixteen years later when I sold my company, we had cleaned this restaurant’s carpets almost 200 times. Voila – a cash flow Toll Booth!

Never give a commercial proposal for a one time cleaning only. Always submit at least three different options based on your interview with the property manager. Your highest quoted price should be for an as-needed “resurrection cleaning” where they call you only when they can’t stomach the carpets anymore (or when the health inspector is threatening to close them down!)  But also include an intermediate frequency plus your recommended cleaning schedule and, if you really want the regular contract, you can sweeten your proposal by offering to do the initial cleaning at the lower contract price.

So how do you sign up these commercial contract Toll Booths?
  1. Start up a routine, face-to-face marketing program where you contact at least 20 new commercial prospects per week. With proper planning you can do this in one long morning.
  2. Don’t get trapped by the “How much do you charge per square foot?” question. Instead, ask your commercial contact to give you a quick tour of the premises while you fill out a Commercial Carpet Analysis (CCA) form. For a copy of the form I used, go to http://tiny.cc/SFScca
  3. Based on your CCA profile, develop a detailed analysis of the account’s maintenance requirements and the three different options detailed above.
  4. Do a demo of your cleaning abilities and sign the prospect up.
  5. Count your Toll Booth money as the years roll by!
Note: I always left my commercial Service Agreements “open-ended” by never specifying a contract term. We learned the hard way that if the business didn’t want us cleaning their carpets, they totally ignore the contract terms and would dump us no matter what! So I made the contract “easy to sign” by explaining to my prospect that we knew our superb, reliable service would keep the account. So instead of trying to tie them up legally, they could terminate our services at any time. Few did!

By focusing on regular contract commercial work, we eventually received 30% of our gross business income from these Toll Booth contracts. This routine, predictable cash flow that I could count on went a long way toward getting me out of the typical carpet cleaner’s hardscrabble existence. But then I wondered if this routine Toll Booth concept could be applied to homeowners…

Toll Booth #2: Regular Contract Residential Work

I discovered that my problem was not with the homeowner. Properly structured and explained homeowners love pre-planned, prepaid maintenance service contract Toll Booths. The problem was right between my ears: I simply didn’t believe my residential clients would pay me on a routine basis for future work. I was wrong!

I finally developed a residential maintenance concept I called the Stay Beautiful program where my clients pre-paid for routine cleanings in the future. Here is how it worked:

After receiving the customer’s check for the initial cleaning the tech would just ask, “Have you heard about our Stay Beautiful program?” He would then explain that for just 10% per month of the normal cleaning price, we would clean their carpets twice per year. So six months from the initial service we would clean all the open areas that we had just cleaned. And then one year from the original service date we would re-clean all the covered areas, including moving the furniture just like we had done in the first cleaning.

A good deal for my customer, but an even better Toll Booth for me! We would painlessly take the Stay Beautiful payment out of the customer’s checking account or credit card (their choice) and handle all of the scheduling for them. For a complete overview of the Stay Beautiful program go to http://tiny.cc/SFSsb. Note: We motivated our employees to sell the Stay Beautiful program by giving them the first month’s payment as a bonus! Since our average Stay Beautiful account ran $30 to $40 per month, the tech could easily add a hundred bucks or more to his weekly paycheck just by mentioning the program.

With the Stay Beautiful program the carpets now cleaned in a flash, and I could schedule the work when I was already in their neighborhood. The more-frequent cleanings, faster production and much less drive time meant we actually made more money per hour on our Stay Beautiful accounts than we did on our higher-priced, as-needed residential work. More importantly, I now was enjoying routine, predictable cash flow from a second business Toll Booth.

The Toll Booth concept can be easily applied to other areas of the cleaning industry. Entrance mat rentals, window washing routes, duct cleaning contracts and of course the old Toll Booth standby of regular janitorial contracts can all add consistent, routine cash flow to your company.  And obviously, tile and grout cleaning can be easily and profitably added to the commercial and residential carpet cleaning Toll Booths in this article.

So please, think carefully on how you can get out of the hardscrabble existence of constantly scrambling to keep your schedule full and the cash flowing in. Sure, it takes time and focused energy to get these business Toll Booths going. But as the years go by and the “tolls” you collect mount, you will realize it was all worthwhile.

And don’t forget the long-term “hidden benefit” of each Toll Booth account you set up. If and when you decide to sell your company and retire, the one feature business buyers will consistently pay a premium for is – you guessed it – routine, regular, reliable cash flow they can count on. Sounds like a plan to me!

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