Sometimes it doesn’t matter if the client and the cleaners are right…if the system is wrong or broken.

Owning a cleaning business is a never-ending series of learning experiences. We often hear variations of the statement that complaints are a gift but sometimes they are difficult gifts to accept. And the worst kind of complaint seems to be the one that pits a long-term client against your best cleaner or team.

A Long-term Client Gets Ugly

After eight years of being cleaned by one of our best teams, a long-term client had become increasingly more difficult to please over the past two years. When we started service for her, she was very demanding, but gradually she had seemed to be unhappy, so much so that she itemized and was very specific in her requests and complaints. The list grew each week, and she became harder and harder to please.

Recently, she became angry with the team and took her frustration out on them in a 30-minute rant; my team refused to go back.  My managers demanded we drop the client because she was abusive towards our people. In one last effort to turn the situation around, we sent her the best team in the entire company; if they could not make her happy, then no one could.  Their assessment: we needed to drop the “evil” woman and be done with it.

Investigating “Why” Things Went Bad

I had a little bit of a different view on things.  Whenever something happens, I seek to understand what happened.   The US Army has a great practice for this called “After Action Reports”.  An After Action Report is a structured debrief that seeks to explain what happened, why something happened, and how something can be better in the future.

I wanted to do an After Action Report on this client.  Yes, she had been down-right mean as of late, but we had worked for her for over eight years cleaning her home weekly.  She had never been an easy client to please, but she was never impossible.  She was the kind of client who made my cleaners complain about how difficult the house was to clean, but if I tried to take the client away, they would refuse because she tipped each week and $500 at Christmas.   Something had clearly changed in our relationship.

But if I could have an eight-year relationship with a client go this bad, I needed to know why. So I requested a meeting with her.  This actually upset much of my staff because they felt that I was not supporting them and I was more concerned about keeping this client than I was about keeping them.

Discovering the Root of the Problem

Just the fact I wanted to meet with her seemed like a betrayal at first, but I learned a lot from the meeting.  This client was being driven crazy in her mind because my people were constantly saying no to her requests:

  • Can you clean the dishes in my sink?
  • Can you open the drawers and wipe down the lip on top of each drawer?
  • Can you dust the doors with a cloth instead of a duster?
  • Can you boil some lemon water in my microwave to deodorize it?

These are just examples of many small requests, but each time she was met with “We cannot do that; it is against company policy.”   Over time this began to drive her nuts because she felt any request was met with this statement, and she said she eventually lost her temper.

As she listed all these examples, I knew exactly what had gone wrong.   My team was not wrong; each of her requests was outside our normal policy, but in each case I could also see where either a simple accommodation could have been made or an explanation of the policy could have prevented the snowballing confusion and frustration that our client experienced. 

When No One’s Wrong – Check the System

We had done this to her.  We had ruined our relationship, and we had done it with nothing but good intentions.  All of those policies were created to protect clients from damages, theft complaints, and breakage, but they had driven a good customer crazy because we had not taught our employees the why of each policy.  We had not explained to them why these policies existed so they could use their judgment in the field to accommodate or explain to the client why policy was a good thing, there to protect them.

We needed to change our training program in the future to make sure we corrected this issue.  I do not know if it will be too late to save the relationship with this client because of how it escalated at the end, but I am so very happy I was able to meet with her to understand the what, why, and how so I can make sure it never happens this way again.

Derek Christian is a partner in Castle Keepers House Cleaning, one of the largest and fastest growing independent house cleaning companies in America. Derek is Co-publisher and Director of Business Development & Sales for Cleaning Business Today, and a partner in Cleaning Business Builders. He founded My Maid Service in Cincinnati, OH and spent twelve years at P&G working on household cleaning products. 

Cleaning Business Today
is a publication of Tom Stewart and Derek Christian, who also partner in Castle Keepers House Cleaning, one of the fastest growing professional house cleaning services in the US.