To Vacuum or Not to Vacuum - Part I

December 1, 2006
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There has always been debate among carpet cleaners about pre-vacuuming before carpet cleaning. Let’s get this out of the way: there is overwhelming evidence that pre-vacuuming dramatically improves results and makes cleaning easier for the carpet cleaner.

Industry experts state that 74 percent to 79 percent of carpet soils are dry particulate matter, and are best removed by dry vacuuming. That’s why the IICRC carpet-cleaning standards list dry soil removal as the first principle.

Now, this sounds nice in the textbooks and the seminars, but let’s get to the real world. The fact is that most carpet cleaners do not pre-vacuum. Estimates run as high as 70 percent, and some say it is even higher. Most carpet cleaners that do not pre-vacuum believe their equipment removes the dry soil during cleaning. This puzzling situation warrants a closer look.

If you take a pile of dirt and dump it in the center of a room and then go after it with a vacuum cleaner, it may take some time but you will remove that dry soil.

Now take the same pile of dirt and dump a bucket of water on it. Trying to vacuum up the mud is total lunacy. So applying pre-spray without dry vacuuming is just making the job that much harder.

But the real reason most cleaners don’t pre-vacuum is marketing. They have positioned themselves where price is the most important factor in being chosen by the customer. What this means is that they’re not charging enough to take the time to pre-vacuum.

Many cleaners will say that they tell their customers to vacuum before they arrive. In fact, when I ran a large department store carpet-cleaning operation that was the way we did it. But we discovered that “vacuuming” was widely interpreted by our customers, and could mean that they pushed a straw broom across the carpet or did nothing at all.

Nevertheless, we went in there and did our job. And when we were done, the carpet looked good. But like most cleaners, we were always trying to find ways to achieve better cleaning results. And so one day we decided to take a challenge presented to me by Jeff Bishop.

We had a customer whose home we cleaned on a regular basis. On our next job we vacuumed half the carpet in the house, and then cleaned all of it. I received a call from the customer less than three months later that something was wrong with her carpet. Now, we normally cleaned her carpet every six months, and I knew she was a pretty good housekeeper. When I went back to inspect the problem, I couldn’t believe what I saw.

The areas we did not vacuum were noticeably more soiled than the areas where we had pre-vacuumed. Her living room and dining room were adjacent to each other, and we had purposely vacuumed the opposite ends of each room; the poor woman’s house looked like a checkerboard! Naturally, we re-cleaned her carpet – pre-vacuuming all of it this time.

Now that I had seen for myself the true cleaning results obtained by pre-vacuuming, I tried to develop ways to charge extra for it so I could include it in our cleaning procedures. I discovered I couldn’t. The sad truth dawned on me that I had positioned my company in such a way that my customers wouldn’t pay for a decent job. So I was faced with a challenge: I could do what I now knew was an inferior job; I could increase my costs by pre-vacuuming and not get paid for it, which meant I would be cutting my already razor-thin profits to nothing; or, I could go after a whole new set of customers.

As I was wrestling with these questions I had a stroke of good fortune. I had the opportunity to discuss this problem with the late Ed York. Ed, for those of you who did not know him, had a way of saying things that made you want to take him out to the parking lot for further “discussion.” But three days later, you would wake up at 2 a.m. and realize the genius in what he had said.

Ed told me that I was pretty darned stupid, that I wasn’t using my head. If I’d do things his way instead, I’d make some money. He explained there are customers who want a $19.95-a-room job, customers who want a $49.95-a-room job and customers who want a $99-a-room job. I was dealing with the $19.95 customer, and that’s all I was going to get from them. What I was giving them was what they wanted and expected.

You’re not likely to sell a lot of protector or extras like upholstery cleaning or tile and grout cleaning to clients like these. Your customers will simply call you every time their carpets get dirty – you know, every three or four years.

Take a look at companies that do charge enough to pre-vacuum without worrying about the added cost. They’re dealing with a customer that wants a superior job. So, the cleaner goes in and vacuums. What they usually discover is that they end up with a vacuum bag full of dirt and debris from the house. But many cleaners are not doing the best job possible, instead making one of the same mistakes that many of their customers do.

Last week I went with a technician to clean about 1,500 square feet of carpet in a house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. The technician put a new bag in the vacuum before we started. When the bag was two-thirds full, he replaced it. As he kept vacuuming, the bag kept filling. By the time he had vacuumed this medium-size house he had used four vacuum bags!

This was a mystery we had to solve. Not only did this customer own a vacuum cleaner, she had a maid that came in once a week and vacuumed regularly. So we checked the bag in her vacuum cleaner; it was as solid as a rock and so full it might have weighed 5 pounds. It probably hadn’t been replaced in six months!

I realized that because the tech was only changing the vacuum bag in the vacuum cleaner he was using on the job two or three times a week at the most, he was probably not doing anywhere near as good a job pre-vacuuming as he could be. He decided then and there that he would check his bag before every job, and check his customer’s bag as a value-added service. He then asked me how he could turn this into a positive experience.

I asked him what he meant. He said he was trying to figure out how he could make money from this experience. And here’s the mistake I mentioned earlier: if you use any equipment that looks like something the customer can buy at Wal-Mart, they’re not going to look at you as a professional, or want to pay for the service you provide with it.

I suggested he get a true HEPA-filtration vacuum cleaner different than anything his customer has ever seen. And, instead of telling the customer that he’s pre-vacuuming, he should explain that he is performing dry soil extraction using a true HEPA-filtration vacuum cleaner, using the vacuum cleaner as a powerful marketing weapon and not just an appliance to remove dry soil. Not only does using a unique vacuum cleaner impress the daylights out of your customers, it creates an important opening to a number of other high-profit services, including dramatic increases in upholstery cleaning, mattress cleaning, anti-allergen cleaning and more.

Best of all, it contributes to repeat and referral business, something all us cleaners know is the real key to our success.

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