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Five Costly Mistakes Made by Cleaners

March 9, 2009
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I ran a fabric cleaning business for about 15 years. I maintained a lot of repeat customers over the years, and I was very successful.  I attribute my business accomplishments to a few simple things: consistent hard work, persistence and trying very hard to avoid some costly mistakes I saw other cleaning companies do all the time.Today, the same mistakes I saw then are still happening on a regular basis. To borrow the old cliché, it seems that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

1. No Pre-inspection
Inspect to know what to expect. And then communicate your findings to your client. A thorough pre-inspection and documentation of the carpet, upholstery or rug you’ll be cleaning is essential in all situations to avoid a variety of costly misunderstandings. When damage or potential problems are discovered during pre-inspection, you should document the condition in writing, notify your client and obtain proper authorization before performing cleaning, repair or restoration services. If you clarify potential problems up front, then when they happen, you’ve given an explanation, not an excuse.

2. Lack of Knowledge of Fiber Types and Characteristics
Each fiber type has certain characteristics that affect performance and appearance over a period of time and traffic. Some fiber characteristics may be blamed on cleaners, if they don’t know what they’re cleaning. An understanding of fibers allows us to determine how much effort and what cleaning chemicals will be needed to get a carpet clean. It also allows us to predict whether or not spots and stains can be removed and, if they can, how hard it will be.

Probably the classic example is olefin. In some carpet styles, olefin pile yarns are not very resilient. When crushed by traffic, clients want to know why cleaning won’t bring them upright again. Lack of resiliency is simply a characteristic of the fiber. Then there are wool carpet and rugs, which we find in many high-end homes, office and hospitality installations. Wool carpet is often woven and it is expensive, so you can’t afford to take chances cleaning it. Wool has specific performance characteristics, and it requires special knowledge of proper cleaning chemicals and pH.

3. Not Understanding the Chemistry of Cleaning
pH is the relative alkalinity or acidity of a water-based solution. It’s measured in a variety of methods, one of which involves using litmus paper colored with an indicator dye. Alkaline solutions turn the litmus paper dark green or blue, neutral solutions turn the paper green, and acid solutions turn the paper yellow to red, depending on strength.

The problem that cleaners encounter all the time is that highly alkaline cleaners can cause immediate or delayed or progressive bleeding or color loss in nylon or wool carpet. They can also damage wool fiber and eventually, in strong enough concentrations, they dissolve wool fiber completely. That’s not my idea of good customer service!

Now you ask, “Can’t you just neutralize an alkaline residue in carpet by using an acid rinse?” Answer: “Not necessarily.” You see, some alkaline cleaners are buffered. That means their pH is stabilized, and an acid rinse won’t neutralize the alkaline residue. Furthermore, some strong alkaline builders are hygroscopic – that is, they attract humidity from the atmosphere, which causes carpet to re-soil rapidly after cleaning. Another bummer.When cleaning nylon, polyester or olefin carpet, the recommended pH of the pre-spray or in-tank solution should be 10 or less. Got that? 10 or less! Rather than increasing pH to clean more aggressively, consider increasing agitation or dwell time. Same result, fewer problems.

For cleaning wool, I highly recommend a product that has been tested and approved for use on wool; generally, that means a neutral or slightly acid pre-conditioner followed by an acid rinse to leave the fiber in its natural state – a pH between 3 and 5.

4. Choosing an Improper Cleaning Technique
There are numerous methods of cleaning. In fact I can name at least ten distinct methods, plus combinations thereof, that I have used over the years. Each has its benefits and limitations. They range from dry solvent cleaning to minimum moisture methods to complete submersion.

A professional cleaning technician should have the knowledge to choose the best cleaning method for the particular situation or item being cleaned. If you don’t have a good understanding of methods, you need to get some education. Get to an IICRC-approved certification class now: go to www.iicrc.org for a listing of classes in your area. And don’t be surprised if you have to travel to go to a quality course. It will be worth every penny you spend, I promise.

5. Not Sweating the Small Stuff
That’s right. It’s the little things that matter, especially to women. If you don’t communicate with your customer both during the job and afterwards, and follow up with a phone call, you’ll wind up with a very unhappy customer.

For example, if you just couldn’t remove a 2-inch stain in the middle of the living room carpet no matter what product you used, explain that some stains are permanent (of course, you laid the groundwork for this with No. 1 above, right?). Give your customer an analogy: compare it to stains on clothing. I promise, she’ll understand and appreciate the fact that you took time to talk to her.

Bottom line, there are a number of simple things you can do that will make you more professional, effective and safe in your cleaning practices, as well as help you have a more successful business. If you’re a trained, contentious, professional, you deserve to be paid well for your services. Believe me, your clients understand that concept!  

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