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The fallacy of reducing cleaning frequencies to cut costs

Sep 7, 2023 | Public | 0 comments

Janitor cleaning white desk in modern office

The professional cleaning industry has historically been called “recession-resistant,” a term that was developed in the mid-1980s because even through downturns, the cleaning industry remained strong. However, over the years and several economic downturns later, that term is rarely used. Why does it no longer apply to cleaners?

Today, economic downturns do, in fact, impact the cleaning industry. What tends to happen these days is that building managers scale back on cleaning frequencies to reduce costs, leaving cleaners with fewer opportunities to bring in revenue. Sometimes, these measures work, but many times, they do not.

However, what we are witnessing today in a post-COVID era is much worse than any of the economic downturns the industry experienced in the 1980s, and it is impacting the industry more than ever before. Building occupancy has become relevant: many staffers in Canada, and far more in the U.S., are simply not returning to the office. On top of this, many tenants have moved out or reduced the amount of office space they rent. These factors are having severe repercussions on building operating budgets.

To deal with this dilemma, managers are looking at all ways to reduce operating expenses, and making cuts to cleaning and cleaning frequencies is often the result, however, this can cause some severe repercussions.

Case in point

To prove this point, I will refer to a personal case study. At one time, my company cleaned all the branches of a bank in California, which included about 20 locations. During a particularly harsh economic downturn, the locations’ operational manager reduced cleaning frequencies from five days per week to three days per week. This idea worked well, as many of these locations did not need to be cleaned every night.

But then, as the downturn continued, the frequencies were reduced again down to two nights per week. This schedule was manageable, but some branch managers soon complained that their locations needed to be cleaned more effectively and frequently than twice per week.

Ignoring these complaints, the operations manager went one step further. All 20 locations adopted a once-per-week cleaning schedule, to take place over the weekend. Additionally, as another cost-cutting move, services such as carpet cleaning, window cleaning, and floor refinishing, once performed twice yearly, were now only to be completed upon request.

Cleaning typically makes up 25 to 35 per cent of a facility’s budget, so by applying this strategy to the branches, the operations manager could significantly reduce cleaning costs in all the locations.

However, soon, repercussions began to surface. Initially, the operations manager expected complaints about reduced cleaning from branch managers. What he did not expect was that the bank’s customers would complain about the cleaning – with their feet.

They began closing their accounts, with some customers openly communicating that their local branch had become embarrassingly unclean and unkempt, saying that they did not want to do business with that location anymore.

Some other customers were nervous that the lack of cleaning meant that the bank was trying to save money because they were financially unstable. These customers believed their best bet was to close their accounts and move them to a more stable (and likely much cleaner) banking institution. Many others just closed their accounts and moved on, without even communicating to the bank what was behind the move. So while the manager wanted to cut costs, he went too far, discouraging customers from visiting and hurting the bottom line.

A snowball effect

Another example of this effect was described to me many years ago at a seminar I attended.

The story was about a large fast-food chain and its reduced cleaning frequencies. Although the head of the company did not want to take that step, his accounting department convinced him they had to cut costs – and to start with cleaning.

Cleaning frequencies were reduced (over his objections) in thousands of franchise locations, but after a few months, it was noted that many of the franchise sales were down, sometimes significantly.

Initially, they could not find a reason for this. Many of these franchises were in cities with strong economies, so there was no economic reason for the downturn. The company had not raised its prices, nor had its competitors. So, what happened?

The only change the company had made was to cut cleaning frequencies. Doing so made many customers feel uncomfortable about the food they purchased at the franchises, thinking that if the state of the dining room was undesirable, so must the kitchen be, too.

Seeing the financial figures drop, the head of the company demanded that the cleaning return to its previous frequency. Plus, he instructed all franchise owners to tell their staff, “If you’re leaning, you should be cleaning,” meaning if they were not busy, their time should be spent cleaning – and in time, sales numbers did increase.

Applying this to today

The COVID pandemic has had a significant impact on building owners and managers in North America. Some have, once again, opted to reduce frequencies to cut costs.

However, in a post-COVID era, tenants now demand more effective hygiene measures, rather than less. Rather than simply decreasing the frequency, managers should consider meeting this demand by hiring a cleaning expert or janitorial distributor to inspect their facility for cost-saving cleaning solutions while maintaining cleanliness and hygiene. Cutting frequencies could just be hurting the businesses’ bottom line.

Managers should keep in mind that tenants will return, especially in those facilities perceived as clean, healthy, and safe. This means proper cleaning is crucial to their facility’s future.

Robert Kravitz is a former building service contractor and a writer for the cleaning industry. He can be reached at [email protected].

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