Whenever some of my friends ask me what’s the most important skill to succeed in my business, I never fail to surprise them with my answer – “communication skills”. Most people don’t understand that the cleaning industry is about communication – with your team and, more importantly, with your customers. However, some situations test your patience and go into the realm of the ridiculous. Let me give you an example.
A few years ago, I was running the North London department of one of London’s leading carpet cleaning providers. My job was to choose the proper cleaners for a respective job and keep a watch on the incoming log of appointments. I also had to operate as a transmission between the customer support team and the cleaners for specific jobs – large-scale cleaning, corporate customers, high-profile clients and so on.
It was Friday late afternoon in the middle of August – arguably the slowest season for any London cleaning company. I had already begun making plans for the weekend and intended to call it an early end of the day when one of our rookie phone operators found me with an apologetic look on her face. “What did you mess up?” I jokingly asked, trying to diffuse a potentially stressful situation. “I am not sure I got all the required information from a customer. She was cutting me off every five seconds, insisting we should send someone right away. She is planning a big party and wants her house to be in perfect shape, but I couldn’t get any concrete details from her.”
I sighed and nodded. New phone operators often get overwhelmed by imperious customers who think their cleaning appointment is more important than a G-7 summit. “Did you get her address, at least?” The girl nodded and handed me a piece of paper.
It could have ended there and then. I could have simply returned the call and sorted out the mess in probably 30 seconds, but the address on the piece of paper got my attention. You see, after a few years in the business, you can almost automatically visualise an address by its postcode. Here is a residential high-rise; this is a high-end commercial area; a sleepy block of attached houses, and so on. I was looking at a place in one of the most exclusive residential areas in Hampstead, potentially a mansion-size house. You do not get quote requests like this one every day.
“Let me handle this. You did the right thing coming to me immediately. Go back to your desk.” Apparently, it was not going to be an early end of the working week.
My expectations were correct. When I arrived at the address, I found a huge three-floor country house with a sprawling garden and a Roman-style atrium in the backyard. A personal security unit let me through the front gate (I always find these guys unsettling). I was a few yards away from the front entrance when the large oak-panelled door opened, and the lady of the house appeared in all her glory.
She was probably in her late thirties, dressed in stylish yet casual clothes. The woman invited me in, and it took me about ten seconds to realise she was not British. Don’t get me wrong, her English was perfect – perhaps a bit too perfect. But she was making no effort to cover her Eastern European (Russian, if I had to guess) accent.
“I am organising a dinner party for 25-30 of my friends, and I need the premises to look perfect, inside and out. I would like a thorough floor cleaning on the first floor and the backyard before and especially after the party. Would that be a problem?”
While she asked the question rhetorically, I had already figured out that my blind greed for a massive quote had led me into a blunder. All I could see were marble floors in the front salon and the living room, and mentioning the backyard only confirmed my suspicion. My “customer” was looking for hard-floor, not carpet cleaning. I could switch the fault for this disaster to my phone operator, but the fact of the matter was I had no one else to blame but myself. Now, I had to find a polite way to extricate my greedy behind from this minefield.
“With all due respect, Ma’am”, I interrupted my host mid-sentence, “I believe there has been a misunderstanding. We are a carpet cleaning contractor, and you are looking for hard-floor treatment.” She gave me a blank stare. “We work on textile surfaces. The equipment and methods we use are thoroughly unsuitable for marble floors.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you cannot do the job?” I could see that the mere notion of someone NOT doing what she wanted seemed absurd to her. But I quickly realised the situation could turn into an even bigger disaster. A negative rumour for the company from such a source would be a catastrophe. So I had to engage in damage control, and fast!
“Here is what I can do for you. I have the contacts of the best hard-floor cleaning company in North London. I am confident that I can convince them to give your case a priority status. It would be just as quick and efficient as if you were hiring us.”
“And what would that cost me?”
“Nothing on my end. But if you or some of your friends ever get to need carpet cleaning, our company will be your first call.”
The slightest of smiles appeared on her lips, and she nodded in approval. “You are a good businessman. I would appreciate it if you made that call.”
A few months later, we did get one of the biggest quotes for the year when friends of hers booked us for a thorough carpet cleaning overhaul of their Richmond suburban mansion. You never know how a near-disaster can turn into an opportunity.