Q & A with David Kiser

There are lots of reasons why people hire a specific residential cleaning service, but only two reasons why they fire one: (1) poor cleaning quality, or (2) something else. Which is to say that cleaning companies commonly lose business for things that go wrong that have nothing to do with the cleaning itself. Value is determined by the customer and defined differently by each. So much responsibility rests on the relationship of house cleaning technicians to their customers and their ability to know what each customer really wants and meet those needs.

How do cleaning business owners hire and keep the cleaning pros that can assume this level of responsibility in the home? The culture you create has a lot to do with attracting the kind of team member with a customer-centered approach to cleaning. So CBT sought out the insights of subject matter expert David Kiser, former owner of Champagne Cleaning Services in northern Virginia and current consultant to the cleaning industry. We wanted to hear the approach that worked for him in building a multi-million dollar residential cleaning company. And we wanted to learn some practical techniques for giving visibility to this intangible and subjective, but vital, piece of your success so that your employees experience and reinforce the productive, profitable culture you created on a daily basis. Here are highlights of our conversation:

CBT: There’s an old adage that says that what occupies the space between action and reaction are values and character. If that’s true then values and character govern behavior. And when values, character and behavior are such a huge component of the service cleaning businesses provide – how does a cleaning business owner ensure he or she can meet this expectation?

DK: House cleaning involves remote management of an unsupervised activity, performed by a “low skill” worker. Think of that – and yet their level of responsibility in the home is enormous! Compared to staff members in similar paying jobs, it requires a higher level of maturity and accountability. Wanting to have the tools and the skills and the development to understand what is needed in the home – and delivering it – starts at the top. And in order to get buy-in from everyone in the organization, so that all march in lockstep toward the same objective, the cleaning business owner must think about how the company culture demonstrates and reinforces the values and behavior he or she wants.

CBT: Culture is a form of internal branding. It’s a way to distinguish your brand when competing for quality candidates for employment.

DK: Yes but it doesn’t stop there. Culture thinking should be part of every component of the employee experience. It’s like a horse pulling contest.

CBT: Whoa. Didn’t see that coming.

DK: I spent lots of my formative years on a farm, and I got to see my share of horse-pulling contests. What struck me about these remarkable feats of strength and coordination was that winning was not about having the biggest horse or the thickest whip. It really wasn’t the horses at all. It was the master. Was he smart enough to match the horses in their temperament? Was he patient in his training? Was he gentle but firm in the way he handled his horses? Did he use yelling or trust to get his horses to perform in coordinated teams? Because if he could do this well, he could get his horses to perform in lock-step.

I believe people are so much more important and valuable than horses! Reflecting on those experiences and many others where I observed or read books like Influencer, The Power to Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et al, about how people excelled when they were treated with respect, dignity and kindness. Taking that principle, I thought what if? What if we made new hires feel safe and nudged out of their comfort zone by showing them, having them practice, kindly correcting them and having fun while doing it.

If you expect excellence and help the person achieve it with proper training and reinforcement, then you are a true leader. A true master!

CBT: Your comment conjures the image of cleaning professionals performing in a consistent, choreographed manner.

DK: There is a term – full pull – that describes the maximum outcome in horse pulling contests. All horses are choreographed and synchronized in a way that makes the whole team greater than the sum of their strengths.

CBT: In your analogy you mentioned the importance of matching the horses. If culture is how you attract and keep employees that can understand and support and take pride in the responsibility placed on them – what steps to you take to “match” your employees to your culture?

DK: We relied on our employees to be a key aspect of that matching process. Two ways we put this into action were in our employee referral program and in our screening process. By incentivizing employees to talk up their jobs to family, friends, and neighbors who might be looking for honest, steady work we could more easily find like-minded job applicants.

CBT: They were pre-vetted. The employee parallel to finding new customers that were look-alikes to your best customers. When we’re talking about values and character, people tend to gravitate towards those that share theirs.

DK: Yes. Our employees knew the best people suited for the work and our culture. And we made sure they knew that the new hires would not be taking customers away from them. That’s the level of engagement we had. Our technicians thought of the customers as theirs because we were able to cultivate and strengthen their innate sense of accountability.

The second way employees got involved in creating our culture was in screening. Our process included an interview with three employees – a supervisor, a trainer and an employee of long-standing. We wanted our screeners to decide first-hand whether the candidate was a match. And if it wasn’t unanimous, we did not move forward with that candidate.

CBT: You put an enormous decision in the hands of some trusted employees.

DK: They were better equipped to know what it was like to work for us and what was needed to do well at Champagne Cleaning Services. Which brings us to on-boarding. These employees could speak authentically to our candidates about the ways in which they were supported with the best tools, training, development and compensation we could provide. And that employees were valued and recognized for doing a good job.

CBT: On-boarding is where many hires are lost. If on-boarding isn’t well planned fall-out can increase at this phase. You’ve said that your average employee tenure was 8.3 years on average. What part of that success was due to your on-boarding practices?

DK: New hires are lost at this phase because their experience with the company does not match their expectation. They don’t feel what their neighbor or friend or family member promised they would feel about working for that cleaning company. So an essential element of our success was our buddy program – each employee in training was paired with a more veteran employee to take them under their wing. Introducing them to other team members, answering questions, and reinforcing our confidence in them made a big difference.

CBT: Cleaning business owners hire new employees because there is not enough time in the day to meet consumer need. And often there is not enough time in the day to properly train new hires. That’s why it can be so tempting to sit a new hire down in front of some training videos and go off to do something else – which doesn’t work so well. How did you approach new employee training and what did you do to achieve “lock step” results?

DK: We really invested in training. It’s painful to take the time necessary to train properly to the high level of accountability we were asking. But you can’t succeed without it. We made time for a two-week long orientation. And everything was set up to help the trainee succeed. The orientation wasn’t to train how to clean, but how to do well at Champagne.

On-boarding started with a big welcome sign with their name on it. Remember, their experience must match their expectation. Then we took them through the two-week orientation. Day one was office orientation, paperwork and policies, and expectations. Then they received demonstrations with the tools and chemistry we were using. They were taught how to wipe things down, how to fold cloths, how to use microfibers, vacuum use and care, mixing solutions. Then we took them into the field. First they observed a member of the team who was certified as a house cleaning technician for a full day. They learned not only what the technician was doing but why. They were taught not only how to clean but why they were learning each task in a specific order. By the end of the training, the new hire was doing all the cleaning while the trainer did all the watching – observing and coaching.

CBT: Application without knowledge can lead to damage or injury. And cleaning decisions have gotten increasingly complex with so many new and different surfaces in homes today.

DK:  Right. There must be a component that ties together the soil to the surface to the solution or tool. The trainee must have a context for the material being learned. How can you know when to use a certain tool or technique if you don’t know why it works or what soil and surface you are cleaning? That’s why hands-on, in the field training is essential to the idea of lock step.

CBT: You talked about the importance of the master’s demeanor to get the horses to achieve full pull. How does that relate to your top down approach to culture as a cleaning business owner?

DK: The most important things is to get new employees – all employees, really – to understand that quality is the goal, not speed in cleaning. Similarly, we don’t rush the training. The patient, gentle-but-firm demeanor of the master is behind full pull performance. Business owners should demonstrate that they trust the employee’s ability to do a good job equipping them with everything needed to succeed. When employees trust their owners for support they will perform beautifully. And just like in the horse pulling contest, full pull occurs when every member of the staff trusts each other, the process and the ultimate goal – taking pride in the importance of the role the house cleaning technician provides and the level of service one provides.

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