Early investments in employee development and engagement lead to 48 weeks “out of the office” a year.
CBT: Tell us about when and why you started Maid to Clean.
CB: With a name like mine – Cinderella – it’s no surprise that I own my own cleaning company. I started Maid to Clean in 1996. At the time, I was cleaning part-time for extra cash, mostly turnover properties for a property management company. One day I just had an epiphany that I should turn my passion into my business, and I started the work of opening a cleaning company. It was an easy decision, because I honestly love to clean.
CBT: How large is your company now and how big would you like it to be?
CB: When I first started, I set goals for myself — a practice that became key to Maid to Clean’s successful growth. I knew I wanted to grow at a rate of one team per year; Maid to Clean operates in teams of three. My initial plan was to stay small, with a maximum of 12 teams. With 12 teams, the company would be under 50 employees, allowing me to keep operations simple.
When I reached my goal of 12 teams and 50 employees, I re-evaluated the company. I asked myself “what would it take to be bigger than 50 employees? How would it change operations? How would it change things like insurance, Worker’s Compensation, and our ability to easily comply with other governmental regulations? I did some research, and decided that we were ready for growth and change. So I set a new goal of growing to 15 teams and about 60 employees, while still keeping it simple. We’re currently operating 14 teams, and when we hire, train, and schedule our fifteenth team, I’ll re-evaluate again based on my vision.
When I re-evaluate, what I’m looking at are the changes that take place internally and whether there are changes in our customer service: are we still operating effectively and efficiently? I want to make sure that as I grow, I’m not taking on more than I can handle. That’s why I take it slow, and see how the small changes feel; I live with that change before setting a new goal.
CBT: You’re among a very small group of cleaning service owners who publish your rates online. Have you always made your rates public? What is your rationale for publishing your rates?
CB: When we go to ARCSI education and networking events and we’re talking to people, we learn at the end of the day that we’re all charging about the same rate. So in my mind, customers will have the same experience when they’re shopping around; they’ll realize most cleaning companies’ rates are roughly the same. By publishing rates on my website, I’m saying right up front: “Here’s my rate. Anyone else is going to charge you about the same.”
Before we started publishing rates, about 80% of our phone and in-person quotes were too high for the client. We’d prefer to spend time on those who can afford us, and we are fortunate enough to be working in Washington, DC, an area where clients have discretionary income.
Publishing our rate on the website lets me work more efficiently. We’ve already eliminated clients who are price shopping, so no one’s time is wasted – not mine and not theirs either. Instead of price-shopping phone calls, we tend to get calls from prospects who are more knowledgeable and who are familiar with what rates should be. We get prospects who already a have a budget for long term cleaning. So, we use our time more efficiently, engaging in a conversation where the client is asking “can you meet my expectations?” rather than, “are you in my price range?” This increased efficiency allows us to get straight to the nuts and bolts of cleaning. We can spend more time engaging in customer relations: talking about expectations and the service we provide. We’re no longer doing a sales pitch.
If you’re spending time worrying about your rates, you’re not focusing on what you can provide the client. If your vision is focused on long-term clients, establish your rates to get long-term clients. The cleaning industry is a healthy industry, because people are busy, they have money, and they want their home cleaned. If they can’t afford it, really, I’m not the best service for them.
CBT: You manage a lot of customer communication electronically – mainly through web forms and email. How do you manage all of that data and customer service?
CB: When I started Maid to Clean, I talked to 99% of clients by phone. Today, we might talk with 40% by phone; all other communication is handled by email.
To ensure successful client communication, we use email response templates—not just to address common customer requests, but also to remind clients of our policies and procedures. In large part, we created the templates because my awesome office manager wasn’t always as technically proficient as she is now; the templates were an easy copy-and-paste way for us to make sure that our communication was consistent, on message, well written, and useful. Today, we use about 50 email templates to respond the 60% of customers who prefer the ease and convenience of electronic communication. Our templates address the most common and expected customer interactions, like requests to reschedule a cleaning, add or drop a particular extra service, cancel a cleaning, report a broken or missing item, and more.
Here’s the important point: before you manage data, you have to understand who your clients are, what they expect from you, and what is needed. In the early days of my company, I was there day to day, and I kept notes of situations that happened, because I knew they would come up over and over and over again. This practice let me anticipate client situations, so I could prepare for them by training new staff members who knew how to deal with them consistently and professionally. The key is taking time to understand your service from the client’s point of view and being proactive: anticipate needs and prepare for them.
CBT: What is the most important investment an entrepreneur can make in his/her business?
CB: What’s most important is to have a vision for your company and yourself. Then have a vision for your staff, and create a staff development program, which could include anything from internal staff training, to driver training, to self-development courses. Another important investment for me has been to hire people I know are a right fit for my company. You can hire a super star, but they’ll be with you for a shorttime before moving on to the next best thing. When I hired my staff, they weren’t always the best fit at the point I hired them, but I saw that they had potential. I knew that when I invested in them, they’d become long-term, loyal employees. Of the five people on my management team, three have been with me for 16 years. The key is to keep employees engaged, to challenge them intellectually, and to develop their skills.
I have spent 18 years developing five individuals into a management team who can run the day-to-day business. While the implementation of a management team allows me to work from home or the beach or even another country, more importantly, it also frees me to do my job as CEO: overseeing the company and making sure all of the pieces are working together. I stay in charge of social media and website and ensure the financials are strong and stable, but I don’t need to be on site day to day to do it.
To get to this point, I had to learn to delegate, and I have relinquished some of my responsibilities to my management team. They are motivated: they want to use their brains and problem solve. I had to be willing to trust them and occasionally to let them make mistakes. That’s the way we learn.
Collectively, I’m in the office for about three weeks a year these days. Back when I started Maid to Clean, I was there every day, working long hours, handling each piece of the business and being a micromanager. I really came to understand what it takes to do the job of every position on my staff; so I know what to require of and expect from each employee. This in-depth understanding allows me to schedule expertly, based on what my team can do.
CBT: After 18 years in the industry and with a growing and expanding business, what business goals are you after now?
CB: To be honest, my business goal today is the same as my business goal 18 years ago: to be a leader in the cleaning industry. To do that, I have to know what it takes to run a business successfully right here, right now. Eighteen years ago was the Stone Age; the internet changes the way we do business, so it’s still a brand new industry. My job today is to figure out what’s different now: social media, SEO/websites. To be a leader today, in addition to providing superlative customer service, I also have to have a great website, be open to technological advances, and embrace new methods of client communication like text and email.
One goal that has not changed is my desire to continue developing my staff. I have to keep them engaged, positive, and open to professional growth. I want to give them the incentive to stay with the company long term.
CBT: What do you do for yourself to keep growing as a business owner?
CB: To have a successful business, I’ve taken professional development classes and even personal therapy to really understand myself. What ends up happening is that you hire people who are almost a direct reflection of who you are. So if you have baggage, you’ll hire employees with baggage. When you take the time to know yourself and to clear up your baggage, you can hire better people – build a better team.
A key outcome of the investment in my own development is my ability to take ownership for things, and realize that most problems stem from some shortcoming I have. So whether the problem is with staff or with clients, I focus on how to I address it: better training, better communication, being proactive in the future, and more. What I don’t do is punish employees when they do something wrong; I start by finding out where I did not do something right.
CBT: What have you learned that you think will help other business owners build their businesses?
CB: When I hear other business owners talk, what I hear is that they’re not making any money and don’t have any money to expand or to hire staff. As a business owner, you have to be ready to not make a profit, and instead invest that money in staff training and development, and in marketing tools, like a website. Your business is a long-term investment. If all you’re interested in is a salary, you’re going to be making that same salary 10 years from now.
For the first eight years, many of my employees made more money than I did, because I invested my salary back into the company rather than pay myself. Use your salary to hire a consultant, build a website, and put your logo on the company cars.