Cleaning & Restoration Association News

Customer Communication

March 8, 2005
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Successful cleaners hear what their clients are really telling them


The ultimate success of any service business is rooted in having a strong base of satisfied, happy customers that will both call back for future services and recommend you to their friends and family.

Looking a little deeper, we see that the definition of a satisfied customer is one whose expectations were either met or exceeded by the service provided. In order to meet or exceed customer expectations, it is imperative that we fully understand those expectations before we start work and, if they are beyond our reach, we either find a way to adjust them into reality or else respectfully decline the work. Nothing will hurt a business more than an unsatisfied customer spreading the word that you did not meet their expectations. I heard somewhere that the average satisfied customer will tell four other people about their experience, while the typical unsatisfied customer will tell 14.

The IICRC's Carpet Cleaning Technician certification class emphasizes the importance of qualifying each job before starting any work. This involves walking the area to be serviced, identifying any potential concerns and addressing them with the customer. Joey Pickett, a respected colleague and IICRC instructor, has a saying that I like to use with clients, something like, "Challenges and concerns that are identified and addressed before starting work are considered customer education, but those same issues addressed after completing the work are thought to be excuses."

I have found that you can significantly adjust or set your customers expectations through good communication and qualification of the job. Whenever possible, adjust the expectations slightly lower than you think you can achieve, so that the results actually exceed the new expectations.

I understand that sometimes you will be faced with the issue of not knowing exactly what results to expect until you first give it a try. This is where I use my favorite phrase, "It's been my experience that ..." This little phrase lets the customer know that you have experience with a particular situation and have a reasonable idea of what to expect, but it does not promise any specific results.

Always remember that your words put pictures in the client's mind. So be very selective of the words or phrases you use. For example, use the term "soil" instead of "dirt" when referring to unwanted contaminant. In the dictionary, soil and dirt are the same thing, but the picture placed in the customers mind when you tell her that the carpet is dirty is different from the picture she gets when you say it is soiled. Dirty somehow implies a negative aspect of the cleanliness and healthiness of the overall home and lifestyle, while soil is just something that happens in normal use. I liken it to the comparison of perspiration and sweat, two words that mean the same thing but put different pictures in the mind of the listener. Other terms you should consider include:

  • agitation instead of scrubbing.
  • extract instead of suck out.
  • cleaning agents instead of chemicals.
  • fiber rinse or conditioner instead of acid rinse (just think of the picture the word acid might put in their mind).

    There are many more of these "soft" words and phrases that can be very useful in explaining your services and adjusting client expectations. It might be a good exercise to brainstorm with you staff and see how many of these special communication phrases you can identify.

    The other half of communication is listening. Make sure you take the time to really listen to what your customer says as you qualify the job. Try to identify exactly why they are having this service done at this time. Sometimes it's an event, like a visiting relative, a graduation, or a wedding, and sometimes it's because something just happened, like a spilled pitcher of grape juice. If the reason the customer called was because of a particular spot, you can provide excellent workmanship throughout the job, but if you don't address that spot to their expectations, they will not be satisfied. Other reasons for carpet cleaning include specific odors, warranty maintenance requirements, allergies, or moving.

    Sometimes listening means going beyond the actual words being said. For example, in many cases, "How much will it cost?" really means "What is it worth?" These are two completely different questions. The general public has demonstrated time and time again that they will pay more for quality services as long as they can see the value. So, "How much will it cost?" should be viewed as an opportunity to create value through a concise and clear explanation of your services and why they are worth the price.

    The second most commonly asked question by carpet cleaning clients is, "How long will it take to dry?" It has been my experience that this question is not really asking when the moisture content in the carpet will be at equilibrium with the specific humidity in the ambient environment (a water-damage restoration technician's definition of dry). What they are really asking is, "When can I use my carpet?" They have likely heard horror stories about carpets staying wet for days after cleaning, and they are concerned. The answer to this question is best phrased something like, "You can walk on the carpet with clean feet right after cleaning; however, it will feel moist to the touch for a few hours, and please don't remove the blocks or tabs from under furniture until tomorrow. In the unlikely event that it still feels moist or damp after 24 hours, please give us a call so we can check to make sure no additional action needs to be taken." This answer assures the client that they don't need to move out for a few days, yet leaves room for those unusual situations that may occur.

    Another question that means more than what's on the surface is, "When can you come?" or "When are you available?" On first glance, it seems as though the customer is asking about your schedule, but the question is really about their schedule. What they are really asking here is, "Can this service be convenient to me?" or "Are you willing to fit into my schedule?" When the customer asks about scheduling, try to get them to tell you when they would prefer the service, and see if you can accommodate them.

    Good customer communication is key to adjusting their expectations. Meeting or exceeding the customer's expectations is what leads to a satisfied clientele and builds up that all-important repeat and referral business. Take the time to listen and talk to your clients. Practice key phrases and terminology. It's time well spent.

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