In the world of professional residential cleaning, the majority of cleaning companies remain trapped under the glass ceiling of around 5 to 10 cleaners, never breaking through into the realm of truly scalable growth.
Plenty might sputter ahead for a little while on the backs of an overextended owner and a few burnt-out star employees. However, these sorts of card-castle situations are never sustainable because they rely on personality, not systems. Growth is never sustainable in personality-based cleaning companies because it relies on everyone involved performing at their personal peak 24/7 and for all new hires to be ready-made rockstars, making hiring near impossible and personal challenges devastating to the bottom line.
If you found your way to this page, it’s likely that you are trapped in a charisma cleaning company. You’re doing your best to operate on all cylinders all the time, keeping your fingers in all the holes in the damn, and putting out fires left and right because. The only real foundation of your business is you and the few awesome cleaners you found along the way.
You don’t know how to really teach what you do to an average new employee so that you can count on it getting done right without you. So you stay trapped, hoping for magic, ready-made rockstars to reply to your help-wanted ads and blaming their absence for your lack of growth.
If this resonates with you and you're sick of trying to hold up your card castle business on your shoulders, take this article as your call to action to make your business stand on its own two feet finally.
Charisma cleaning companies usually start with a talented owner, who through their pluck and determination, builds a small stable of thrilled customers. But they never set the boundaries, procedures, and documentation necessary to create scale. They’re used to being able to promise almost anything to anyone because they know they can push themselves to the limit to pull it off.
Since likes attract likes, charismatic owners usually draw in a few fellow rockstars, allowing the business to grow temporarily. But it’s a cotton candy high without substance. Eventually, everyone gets too busy. So the company has to try to operate like a normal business and hire managers, and place “help-wanted” ads for cleaners, which is where the sugar crash begins.
Without the right structures in place, new hires are set up for failure and leave as fast as they came, aggravating loyal clients with every turn of the rotating door. Charismatic owners who lack introspection will stall out at this stage, decrying the lack of good workers these days, never recognizing their structure is to blame.
Without structure, every act and decision in the charismatic cleaning business has to be done by feeling. Cleaners scrub till it feels clean enough. They pack what feels like enough supplies. Managers assuage upset clients with what feels like a fair solution. And everyone does what feels right to them at the moment, never considering the domino effect of their decisions.
Nothing is replicable or teachable, so when a new cleaner or manager tries to share the load, their output inevitably differs, leaving clients frustrated. Unrealistic expectations set by one cleaner make the next look bad. Unreasonable promises made to the first client leave the second in a lurch, and so on, till things start unraveling everywhere. The charismatic owner decries, “This is what I get for not doing it myself,” rather than recognizing their lack of direction is causing their employees to pull in opposite directions till the business tears to shreds. If you’re ready to face the fact that your business isn’t designed to grow and untangle the snarl of competing promises and unrealistic expectations you’ve made, you’ve found the right article series. In this article, we will explore the key foundational elements of what it takes to design a cleaning business structured for scalable growth.
Some of these elements may seem simple, while others are daunting and complex. But they’re all interdependent, like the gears in a grandfather clock, so they can’t be skipped based on preference. The goal of this article is to identify the main gears and give you a preview of what correcting them might entail, so you can select the key issues you need to prioritize. Future articles will dive deep into each of these key elements and their offshoots, so you can find the detailed support you need to take your cleaning business to the next level.
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While everyone likes to envision eye-catching branding, captivating marketing, futuristic tech, and so on, the foundations of a high-growth cleaning business are far less sexy. It comes down to well-documented procedures, highly coordinated policies, standardized supplies, clear communication, balanced books, consistent marketing, and prioritized employees.
Eye-catching logos, enticing coupons, and snazzy websites might lure new customers in, but if your company can’t produce the goods, clients will leave as fast as they came. Making realistic promises and then delivering on them consistently is what makes people stay, and procedures, policies, and standardization is the only way that happens.
No charismatic entrepreneur opens a business because they love writing policies and manuals. But unfortunately, it’s the unavoidable underpinning to that business ever growing beyond the stretch of that owner's fingers. To make the process as palatable as possible, we’ll spoon-feed you what each of these key elements looks like, one bite at a time, so you can get a taste of the work ahead to create these foundations in your own business.
Documented Cleaning Procedures
How clean is clean enough? It’s an age-old question with an answer that is unique to every client based on their family history, region of origin, social class, time in history, and more.
The reality is there is no magic formula to create a cleaning procedure that will produce a level of clean that will satisfy every possible client. Even if you resigned yourself to just cleaning everything to its utmost limits so everyone is satisfied, the process would take too long to charge any client profitably.
To succeed, you must look at what criteria will satisfy the average client of the customer base you’ve chosen to curate. What surfaces do they expect to be touched? How deep of a clean do they expect on those surfaces? What can you just dust, and what will they be thrilled that you scrubbed?
Are these the expectations of my true average client, or just the pickiest ones whose complaints live rent-free in my head? Room by room, document the end result your clients expect, as this is your new brand standard.
Once you know where you’re going, getting there is far easier! With your new cleaning brand standards in hand, write out, in order, how your cleaners can consistently produce that end result. No cleaner will ever read the novel you’ll inevitably write, but the exercise is critical to helping you and your trainers recognize just how many steps you were unrealistically expecting new cleaners just to get intuitively.
Once you can stare at it all, you can start to streamline it, cut out what’s nice versus necessary, risky for injury and damage claims versus easy for a newbie to master. Wrestling with this document will help you boil down your training for your brand standard.
The end result can be presentations, booklets, or videos, the key is that it lives outside your head, so it can be shared with every new hire without you having to be in the room. And no, just data dumping into your trainer’s head doesn’t count, as they, too, would like to be able to take a vacation someday without the world falling apart in their absence.
If you are struggling with extracting yourself from cleaning to actually working full time as the owner of your cleaning company, The E-Myth Revisited is a must read book for you.
It'll help you understand the true pitfalls of only mastering the ability to produce the product your business sells (aka cleaning) instead of mastering the ability to run a successful business and teach others to produce the product for you. You can even buy it as an audiobook to listen to while you drive to cleaning jobs to motivate you to stop!
Highly Coordinated Policies
Everyone knows the classic advice “underpromise overdeliver,” but as a new small cleaning business, it’s so hard to stick to. Every customer wants to be cleaned at 9:00 AM on Friday morning and a free clean if their cleaner is 15 minutes late or any crumb is missed.
“The customer is always right” is an unfinished phrase that never cautions, “only if the customer is aware of all the factors going into and effects coming out of their demands!” Customers rarely have any clue as to how their seemingly harmless requests could wreak havoc on the businesses they love, which is why it is the owner's job to think ahead and offer well-coordinated options that meet their needs without causing chaos.
Ask yourself basic things like:
What times of day can you realistically book a cleaning?
How narrow an arrival window can you consistently promise, given the traffic patterns in your area?
What form of access to the home do you need to ensure you can start cleaning on time and not be late to the next home?
How many hours of cleaning can I book a cleaner and allow for unexpected messes or traffic and still finish at a reasonable time of day?
How far a distance apart can I book cleanings on the same day to allow a cleaner sufficient time to drive between cleans and finish on time?
How should your client communicate with you if the work done isn’t to their taste?
How will you coordinate correcting the work?
Think linearly and again write it all down, regardless of length. Just like with cleaning procedures, staring at everything will force you to admit what you've made is too complex and help you identify what new managers and employees can realistically maintain.
Eventually, you’ll boil it down to things like employee driving zones, arrival windows, and cleaning satisfaction policies that any new employee in the system can act on reliably.
While the most determined cleaners can make any space shine like the top of the Chrysler building with nothing more than a few threadbare rags and some dish soap, expecting employees to impress clients despite their lackluster equipment consistently is one of the most classic cleaning company blunders.
Poor supply management and poor supply quality saps energy and motivation from even the most engaged employees. This also wastes enthusiasm that could have been spent thrilling customers on compensating for terrible tools. If you want your business to grow and employees to stay, their cleaning supplies must lift them up, not hold them back.
Take a brutally hard look at your current supplies and ask yourself honestly, are these really the best products I could find, or did I skip over something I know could make my cleaners’ work faster, easier, safer, or more effective because I was nervous about the cost?
Cleaning supplies are usually only 2-4% of revenues for cleaning companies, but they control the outcome of the most expensive element of the business: employee labor. Being stingy on supplies, either in quality or quantity, is always a losing game if it burns out staff or decreases their performance. Once you’re sure you have the right tools for the job, figure out, on average, how much of each item a cleaner needs to clean an average size job in your territory. Add to that a 25% buffer, and that’s the standard allotment of supplies each employee should receive per clean.
Now comes the fun task of selecting bags, caddies, and other containers to hold these standard allotments, so supplies can be divvied out to staff accurately and consistently every time. Then comes the far less fun task of documenting the packing lists, and delegating the tasks of packing, unpacking, laundering, and maintaining these supplies.
No one thinks of managing supplies as a key to business growth, but once you’ve gotten your first one-star review on Google for losing a client's keys or arriving to the clean with a broken vacuum, you’ll get it.
Whether it’s your manager setting expectations with your customers or you setting expectations with your managers, miscommunication is often at the root of most business mistakes and lost revenue.
When cleaning companies are small, communication is easy because key leadership is able to speak regularly to all the clients and employees, keeping everything on track. Once you get too big to keep your fingers in every hole in the damn, leaks are inevitable until you establish standardized channels for communication and documentation.
Luckily, the past decade has brought with it a plethora of new software options for cleaning companies that try to take the complexity out of tracking and sharing information with clients and cleaners. Depending on your budget, there are programs that can do everything from track schedules to send out standardized customer emails to produce work orders and more.
Regardless of how modest your budget, the reality is that in this day and age, you will need to put aside at least a small portion of your operating revenues towards software if you expect to grow. Customers and employees will no longer tolerate the disorganization that comes from running your business out of a paper calendar or, worse, your own addled brain.
Once you’ve selected your software, don’t mistake it for clear communication, as it is only the vessel. Clear communication is all about what you put into your software, not what emails and forms it spits out.
Like with every other step in the process, start by asking yourself linear questions like:
As a new potential client, what information does my consumer need to make them close the sale?
As a new customer, what information does my client need to enjoy their first clean?
What information does my cleaner need when they arrive at their home to finish their clean successfully and personalize it to that client’s taste?
How can my client give me feedback about their cleaning?
How do I get that feedback to their cleaner, so they can make changes at the next clean and not forget?
The answers to these questions build your standard drip emails and text campaigns for customers, employee work orders, customer feedback forms, and more.
At the end of the day, if your customer can easily let you know what they like, your employee acts on it, then the customer gives further feedback on that improved work. Your employee will then act on that too, and you’ve created the perfect customer-employee symbiotic loop that no clients ever have a reason to leave.
Tracking expenses and analyzing reports often feels like busy work for business owners trying to grow when in reality, it’s the foundation of the growth they’re trying to build. Without a clear understanding of the numbers of your business, growth will never be enough and will always be unsustainable.
If you’re spending too much on advertising and not on wages, you’ll have excited clients being served by miserable high turnover staff. If you’re undercharging clients, you won’t be able to afford the quality supplies, software, and managers that keep them happy, and they’ll leave anyway, no matter how cheap the clean is.
Mismanaged money kills growth on all sides of the equation, from customer satisfaction to employee retention to reputation management and more. If you’re a business owner that dreads entering expenses and crunching the numbers, hiring an accountant might be the single most important decision you make to set your business up for growth.
Accountants or bookkeepers might feel like an expense only meant for larger cleaning companies. Still, when you finally grow weary of constantly hiring new employees because your wages aren’t competitive or docking your own pay to ensure you can cover the insurance payment, you’ll realize well-attended books are meant for every size company.
There are plenty of resources online that will give you average expenses and expectations on what a healthy P&L should look like for a well-run cleaning company. But beyond looking at the averages, there are still some key questions you should explore yourself to customize those averages to the needs of your unique cleaning business.
Start by doing competitive research to find out what the going rates are for other cleaning companies in your area, breaking their prices down to a per human per hour rate. Next research the going rates for cleaning employee labor in your market, again breaking down the numbers to a per human per hour rate.
Next comes the hardest decision most businesses make, deciding if they want to be the premium, mid-tier, or bargain choice in their marketplace. This takes a lot of introspection about how good you realistically think your business services can be and what sales pitch you feel most confident making.
Are you the best deal in town type of business, the best value for the dollar type of business, or the best service in the city type of business? There’s no wrong answer, as every market needs all three.
Once you decide though, it’ll determine your price range, which will determine how competitive your hourly wage can be, which will set your remaining marketing budget, and so on, as all the numbers flow from the industry averages married with your pricing tier preference.
Once you know what your numbers should be, tracking them and measuring against them becomes far more cut and dry.
Marketing is an obvious part of growing a successful cleaning business, as everyone knows they need to market to reach new clients. Still, few understand the discipline it takes to become a household name in their market for both consumers and employees.
Most smaller cleaning companies make the classic mistake of relying too heavily on referrals and sporadic bursts of advertising when they see their client count slip, not realizing the work necessary to get new consumers to think of them as the company to call needed to happen months before their client numbers started to dip.
On the employee side, it’s often even worse, with business owners waiting till their best employees are all burnt out, and the inmates are running the asylum before begrudgingly placing an ad.
In professional cleaning, all marketing for both customers and cleaners rests on the foundation of strong reputation management. No amount of marketing money and clever ads will keep a customer from seeing your Three-Star Google Average and moving on to greener pastures.
Similarly, a no sign-on bonus will attract any cleaners worth their salt to a business with a terrible Glassdoor rep.
If your cleaning business is strapped for cash and cannot spend on online banner ads or direct mail campaigns, the single most important place you can spend your time is driving more current consumers to leave your business positive reviews. It’s equally important for you to reach out to negative reviews and mend fences enough to get their reviews updated or deleted.
Every half-star your review average climbs makes every dollar you spend in marketing infinitely more effective. Even as your business grows, keeping the discipline to manage your online reputation and keep it part of your daily routine is a must, as just trying in fits and spurts when a bad review comes in is already too late.
To succeed in professional cleaning, the goal must generate enough of a steady stream of positive reviews that the occasional Negative Nelly can no longer hold your reputation hostage.
Once your online reputation is solid enough that you won’t wince when a potential customer Google’s you after they’ve seen your ad, it’s time to get serious about paid advertising.
Again, like with operations software, there’s been a huge expansion of companies that can help small businesses run highly effective PPC campaigns and social media pages once reserved only for the big chains. So, don’t be shy about delegating what you know you’re not an expert in.
Capturing top rankings in today's competitive online landscape is complex, ever-changing, and not for the faint of heart. So if you insist on DIYing it, be prepared to watch a lot of YouTube videos, podcasts, and more to stay on top of changing trends.
The key to effective marketing is having a consistent plan that keeps you in front of your next new customer or employee at a rate that is endearing without smothering, which, frankly, most people over or undershoot without professional guidance.
Especially on the employee side, getting comfortable with placing help wanted ads even when you’re fully staffed is a real struggle for most business owners. Still, the experts will gladly tell you it’s the only way to stay poised for growth and to keep the power of replaceability over current staff.
Whether you hire a professional service or manage your marketing yourself, just remember that people often make the decision to hire or switch cleaning companies (or switch cleaning jobs) in a fit of emotion from some negative stimuli. So if you’re not already on their mind as a company worth calling when they snap, you’ve already missed the window.
Even if they are Googling for new companies to consider, businesses that have already built trust in their subconscious will be the links they click on, even if they don’t consciously realize it.
Saving the best for last. Any cleaning business looking to grow, especially if they only have time to focus on one thing, should know that the keystone of any cleaning company will always be its employees.
Unlike restaurants or retail, where consumers will tolerate ineffective and miserable workers to get the foods and products they love, in a cleaning business, the cleaners ARE the product, and if they’re unhappy, no one's buying for long.
While it’s true that disgruntled employees might occasionally perform an excellent clean out of fear or financial desperation, the reality is that consistent quality performance from service workers always comes from a root of feeling respected, empowered, appreciated, and fairly compensated.
Even if you have already addressed your training documentation such that any new employee can easily determine exactly what you want to be done and how to do it, professional cleaning is an art, and the artist's mood matters.
Like those popular Paint Night Parties, even if every attendee hears the same instructions and drinks the same Chardonnay, each painting of flowers will be slightly different, shaped by each partygoer’s previous skill AND current effort. Inside your business, cleaners with years of experience can easily be outperformed by total newbies that are genuinely thrilled by the job opportunity and eager to please their supportive new management.
If your business is full of cleaners “quiet-quitting,” showing up late, doing the minimum, and leaving as quickly as they came, don’t blame the generational divide or the classic “no one likes to work hard these days” tropes. Instead, take a long hard look in the mirror at all the ways your business is or isn’t communicating the respect and appreciation passionate workers thrive on.
Have you done a competitive wage analysis lately and kept up with necessary wage increases? Pizza parties don’t pay rent, and nothing communicates a lack of respect stronger than pretending comradery compensates for salary.
Are your cleaners set up for success with clear work orders, organized quality supplies, and properly set client expectations? Feeling like a gladiator thrown into a Colosseum full of hungry lions with a dull sword every time you enter a new home burns out everyone’s nerves eventually, no matter how brave.
Are you taking the time to train new customers on how to communicate their constructive criticism effectively? Leaving your cleaners to be belittled and berated hurts not only the worker it happens to but every coworker and no longer potential applicant they share their tale of woe with.
Do you believe in your cleaners enough to hold everyone to the same high standards? If the workers busting their tails to be on time and do their best work are getting the same hours and wages as the ones strolling in late and phoning it in, it won’t be long before even the hardest workers give up on trying, and eventually give up on your business altogether.
Prioritizing employees can involve a lot of steps that feel counterproductive to growth, like raising prices to pay better wages, setting boundaries with unrealistic customer demands, canceling cleans rather than keeping a toxic employee on the payroll, trimming marketing spend to afford higher quality supplies, and so on. But cleaning businesses that have broken the glass ceiling know that investing in employees always pays out in the end.
Much like the sage advice of airline stewardesses, you have to put on your own oxygen mask first before you can survive long enough to help others. In professional cleaning, your cleaners and managers ARE your business, so get their mask on first to allow them to breathe deep so they can then wow your clients, rake in the 5-star reviews, drum up an avalanche of referrals, and tidy up whatever mistakes are made along the way.
Cleaners breathing the thin air of neglect and exploitation will never muster the strength to break ceilings for you, and the breaking hammer spends far more time in their hands than your own.
Where to Begin
If this article struck some uncomfortable chords, don’t despair, as identifying the wrong notes is the only way to get your business in tune.
If this article struck too many cords at once and the cacophony has left you unsure where to start, the clearest first step is subscribing to our email list. At Microfiber Wholesale, we are committed to building out a wide breadth of information and resources for cleaning companies looking to grow, from blog articles to interviews of successful business owners and more, because when you grow, we grow with you.
We’ve figured out that the fastest way to grow our microfiber business is to make our customers more successful and profitable, so they can afford to buy the best, and lots of it.
Search around and come back frequently to see all the new content we’re adding as we dive deeper into all the central themes highlighted in this article, as the answers to your biggest challenge might be only a few clicks away.
If you can’t wait, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, so we can answer your questions directly and maybe even use your email as inspiration for our next piece.
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Melissa Homer is a professional cleaning expert with over 20 years experience in the commercial and residential cleaning industry. She is a highly trained cleaning professional, business consultant, and educator that specializes in cleaning product testing and research, premium surface care, cleaning safety, cleaning procedure efficiency, training documentation, and cleaning damage repair. Melissa has worked for some of the biggest names in the professional residential cleaning industry, including P&G Professional and MaidPro. She has been interviewed and quoted in numerous leading publications such as Martha Stewart Living, Real Simple, Consumer Reports, Better Homes & Gardens, U.S. News & World Report, and The Washington Post.