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Beating the Wintertime Blues

November 11, 2006
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Don't get me wrong. I like snow as much as the next guy. In fact, over 30 years ago Sioux and I moved to a small Colorado mountain town based on two burning desires: to ski full time and work as little as possible in the process!

However, as our business grew larger, winter - and the freezing temperatures and the snow it brought - brought a lot of grief.

With four truckmounts on (and off!) the road, we were on a first-name basis with our tow truck driver. And the freezing cold was a constant headache for solution lines and high-pressure pumps. But maybe the biggest challenge for our carpet cleaning crews working in the winter was...there wasn't any work! We quickly learned that residential cleaning during the heavy snow/mud season virtually came to a standstill.

I fought the winter "no residential-cleaning blues" for several years using traditional tactics. I tested winter specials and/or mailing to our regular customer base and even tried offering a long "unpaid vacation" to our full-time employees (none of these tactics worked well). Finally, the brutal truth came into focus: with few exceptions, my customers just weren't interested in having their carpets cleaned from right after Christmas till mid April when the spring thaw usually had dried up.

So what to do? My employees (as well as my own growing family) had fallen into the habit of:
  • eating three times per day, and
  • receiving a weekly paycheck that permitted them to continue doing so.


In a fit of desperation I checked out the regular commercial-contract carpet cleaning market. Commercial cleaning just took off for my company, and we never looked back.

In addition to beating the wintertime blues, regular commercial-contract carpet cleaning brought us many other advantages:

1. Routine, pre-planned cash flow. I can't describe how good it felt mid-January to find a $1,200 commercial account check in the mailbox as I stood in snow up to my knees!

2. Emotionally "easy" work. Over the years we had become experts in the Emotional Dynamics of working on the Home Front. We learned that homeowners felt trapped, invaded and vulnerable as our technicians worked in their home. Sure, Value Added Service techniques went a long way to soothing those negative emotions. But it was nice sometimes to just work without fretting over how the customer was viewing our technicians. Commercial work was also a great place for me to use my reliable, hardworking but "non-social" employees.

3. Fewer bosses. The higher amount of commercial work, along with the greater frequency of cleanings, meant that I could generate the same yearly dollars with fewer bosses. Every additional person you work for adds the potential for customer problems. Speaking honestly, working for more homeowners just means more problems. Even better, unlike a homeowner, commercial owners and managers are not "emotionally invested" in their work environment and are more reasonable when it comes to carpet-cleaning results.

4. Amortize your job start-up costs. If you really want a scare sometime, figure out what it costs you to acquire a residential carpet-cleaning job - one that may never call you again. Add up all of your advertising costs for last year, including the Yellow Pages, and divide by the number of first time jobs you booked. The idea is, most of your general marketing is aimed toward capturing new business. Theoretically you should not have to use mass media to remind your existing customers of your existence.

5. Much faster, more efficient production. In the residential environment you must always remember the customer is watching. So no running down the homeowner's hall with the scrub wand! But on the other hand, we scripted our regular commercial accounts to click like an efficient ballet, and our crews moved out! I always told my people, "If the scrub wand isn't moving we aren't making any money!" Our goal in a typical commercial contract job was to actually have the wand cleaning carpet within 3 minutes of driving up. You can't do that in a residential job with the homeowner looking on!

6. Better use of your equipment. It wasn't unusual for a residential crew to pull in at the end of the day and not even turn the engine off. A commercial crew would be waiting, and they'd restock the van and roar out of the parking lot for a full night of profitable cleaning. Now that is efficient use of your equipment! Don't forget that if you diversify into commercial your fixed overhead costs will remain virtually the same- thereby lowering your cost-of-doing-business percentage substantially.

7. Less "bait and switch" competition. Sure, the commercial sector is a low-bid environment. But business managers won't put up with the games that your unethical competition plays with homeowners. So, at the very least, you are on a level playing field. Plus many carpet cleaners don't like commercial work, which means you don't have as many competitors in this field.

Yes, there are huge advantages to diversifying into regular, contract commercial carpet cleaning. But, to be fair, this sector brings some unique challenges. Let's examine how to resolve these potential problems:

Low, low pricing. If you are a high-end cleaner the low per-square-foot pricing found in the commercial sector will shock you. But please, don't set your pricing emotionally. Put the pencil to both your lower costs and the much higher production rates found in commercial contract cleaning. Determine what your costs are and your cleaning footage per hour, and calculate your commercial-square-footage prices accordingly. We found we could cut our residential prices by 60 percent to 80 percent on some regular commercial work and still make more profit per hour than we did working in customer's homes.

Bad hours. Inevitably, most commercial work needs to be done when you want to be playing/sleeping/spending time with your family. So many owner/operators quite understandably avoid business jobs. We dealt with this problem in two ways.

1. Use creative scheduling. For example, many restaurants and bars don't open till the middle of the day. We would schedule a day residential crew to clean the establishment starting at 6 a.m. The carpets would be finished by 8 a.m. and dry well before the business opened. And our crew would begin their first residential job with $200 to $300 to their credit. Not a bad way to start the day (Many doctor's offices are closed one or more working days of the week. Until you have a separate commercial crew, your regular residential workers can do these jobs during normal working hours as part of their day work).

2. Add a separate commercial crew. As quickly as possible achieve "critical mass" with enough business accounts to justify a commercial route staffed with different employees. Remember, commercial cleaning is where you put your workers who are uncomfortable interacting with homeowners. Notice the word "crew." We found that both the fast, intense production and the late hours of commercial work quickly demoralized even the most dedicated employee working alone. So we always scheduled at least two people on a commercial route.

The only thing they share in common is a scrub wand. Remember, commercial work in many ways is a totally different business. In commercial it is all about production, so you must focus much more on efficient equipment, chemicals and techniques than in residential. Your magic production word for many commercial jobs? Encapsulation!

My biggest challenges were the buying emotions found in the business world: Apathy and inertia. I found that carpet cleaning was way down a business manager's totem pole of priorities. This apathy and inertia was a double-edged sword. While it made it harder to get the contract signed, the general business climate of disinterest in carpet maintenance will protect your accounts once you get them!

Ah, yes - getting the account. Next time I'll look at techniques and ideas on breaking through the business manager's apathy to get their signature on the dotted line.

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