By most people’s measure, I run a successful cleaning business, All Star Cleaning Services. In a service area with a 250k population we do right around 2.5 million in revenue, with 750 recurring customers and 45 employees. Just because I have found success doesn’t mean I don’t fail though – often and sometimes spectacularly! The secret to my success has been my continued ability to stand back up.
This is the true story of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day when I fired 1/3 of my company, and why it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to us.
It was the last week of January, 2019, and I was walking down Sixth Street in Austin. I was away at the convention for my second business, Handyman Connection of Fort Collins, and was looking for somewhere to have dinner when I got a message from my youngest sister who worked for me at the time. She asked if I was home, and I said nope, I’m in Texas, what’s up?
And the bottom fell out of my life.
She sent me a single screen shot of a conversation that it was immediately clear a LOT of my cleaning staff were involved in. She said it had been forwarded to her, and she was going to have the person who sent it to her message me the rest directly. Next thing I knew I had screen shots coming in faster than I could keep up with them. I sat down on the street corner and started reading. It started raining. I kept reading. My dinner companion tried to gently nudge me off the street and toward a restaurant, or any kind of shelter at all really… but I kept reading.
Now let me please preface this by saying I believed at the time that I was a very good and fair employer. We paid on the high end of average wages, we provided company vehicles (which I let many of my car-less employees take home overnight), we provide full benefits with health/dental/401k, lots of incentive programs, and I feed them all breakfast every single day. Not too shabby of a gig, right?
But discontentment was brewing, and had been for quite some time. Back in 2015 Derek Christian wrote an article where he coined the term “on-board terrorist”. We all have them from time to time. The ones that do perfect work, and the customers LOVE them, but they make you miserable. I have never forgotten that article and it’s something my general manager Ajia and I discuss regularly. Just before leaving for my conference her and I had had a meeting and we had named all of our pot-stirring, drama causing, headache inducing employees, and talked about needing to find a way to move them out when I got back before they poisoned the pot. We thought there were maybe 6.
As it turned out there were 13, now nicknamed the Ocean’s 13 (I’ve never seen the movie so I don’t fully understand the reference, but I have been assured it fits.) A few of the folks we had suspected started a group chat, and just kept adding more and more of my employees. The things they were discussing still make me sick to my stomach when I think about them – they considered the idea of tanking my reviews online and then trying to take all of my customers – one woman estimated as a group they could take half. They considered using my company cars to barricade the parking lot so no teams could leave, hoping to scare off anyone who didn’t stand with them. They wanted to put me out of business. This was a Saturday evening, and as I read it became obvious this wasn’t just talk – they had held a planning meeting at one of my employee’s homes that morning, and they were laying these plans for that Monday, knowing I was out of town and Ajia would be on her own.
Sounds like your worst nightmare, right? Yeah, mine too.
Their complaints were varied, but it was mostly along the lines of we don’t care about them, we are just profiting off their labor, etc. We had just done raises and several of them were angry they didn’t get larger increases. One woman even stated that of the $45 per hour we were charging she thought they should be being paid $40. I had always truthfully just sort of ignored that kind of grumbling, telling myself they didn’t understand how business worked and I needed to just not take it personally. I had actually attempted to explain some of the math of overhead to them a couple weeks prior, but it had not gone well. So, I told myself their opinions were none of my business and put it out of my mind. WRONG.
So, back to the street corner in Austin. Once I caught up on the general plot of my real-life drama, I called my general manager Ajia. We immediately agreed that it was important to show strength, and decided we needed to let go of everyone who had participated in the conversation. To this day I am so grateful to the courage of my GM, as well as my whistle blower. Those two ladies have my heart forever.
Things moved quickly from there. Since the plan was for Monday we knew we had to handle it the next day. Ajia went in Sunday morning and drafted an email spelling out their termination for cause, and attached every single screenshot to the bottom. Then she called them one by one and informed them verbally (of course only the first one answered, and after that she was sent straight to voicemail as the word got out), and followed up each call with the email. They were instructed that the police would be called if they set foot on our property outside of the designated time of Tuesday from 10am to noon, when final checks would be available. We enlisted my dad to work security that day, as we assumed they would all show up at the same time in an attempt to overwhelm my office staff (they did.) We contacted our attorney and had cease and desist letters mailed out the next day. And then we turned our attention to Monday itself and the big question of – now what?
Losing 1/3 of your company at once is terrifying. It’s also empowering. We did not hide and we did not shrink. We called every employee who had left us in the last year and asked them to come back and temp. We begged our current staff to bring us their friends (hey, it was absolutely in their best interest!) We called other cleaning services, told them what had happened, and ask to borrow their employees. Some actually said yes! (This is why I recommend absolutely everyone befriend your competition. There are plenty of client-fish in the sea, but having peers who have your back is worth more than gold.) We subcontracted to some of my local friends’ cleaning services. And believe it or not we made it. Within about 2 weeks we were able to clean the majority of our houses again. We did have some backslide over the next several months, largely due to clients losing their favorite cleaner and the resulting instability. But that was truly okay. It was all part of the process of putting ourselves back together.
We were worried about a great many things when Monday rolled around, obviously. We knew that likely our entire staff had seen the messages by then. We were worried that they would be like “too much, I’m out!” We were worried about sleeper cells (oh, the thoughts that ran through my head – let me tell you!) We were worried about pretty much everything. It quickly became obvious that the 25 or so that were still there were supportive. We wanted to make sure it stayed that way, and that it NEVER happened again though, so we brought in the pros. I hired Liz Trotter with Cleaning Business Builders to come out for 3 days and help us bridge the communication gap we had with our staff.
Let me tell you, when something like this happens, it IS your fault. It being entirely my fault did not make their behavior acceptable, but it doesn’t change the fact that it was indeed my fault. The fish stinks from the head first. Bummer, huh? As the leader though it is our job to set proper expectations, communicate effectively, and address concerns before they boil over. Having Liz come out changed the whole game for us. Not only did she teach us loads of new skills that we have taken and run with, but in a situation like this having a 3rd party really helps ease tensions as well.
In the end Ocean’s 13 was one of our most pivotal moments as a company. My staff now are happy. Quality is through the roof. Communication is beautiful. And we have learned to recognize seeds of discontent and address them immediately. It’s been 9 months since Ocean’s 13 and my revenue has recovered. But the story will live on forever in my company as cautionary tale, and that my friends, was worth it.
Laura Smith is the owner of All Star Cleaning Services. In 2018 Laura pulled together a group of the largest and most successful cleaning business owners in the country to create a Mastermind Group to help each other to grow their business to the next level. It was kicked off with an invite-only conference in Fort Collins, CO called the Native Genius Summit. She did this 100% at her own cost and just because she wanted to be in a room with some of the smartest business owners she knew.
On November 12th, 2019, Laura Lambert Smith took her daughter, Juno, to the doctor for a follow up on an illness that wasn’t getting better. Juno was diagnosed with B-cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) along with a Philadelphia Chromosome or BRC/ABL, a rare form of leukemia for children. When this happened to Laura we wanted to help her as much as she has helped us. We decided to offer this event as a way to raise funds to help Laura and Juno with their battle. Details are here