The following is a transcript from a Facebook Live chat with New York based commercial cleaner, Steve Pike. He shared lots of great info including how he built his business, makes use of VLM, pursues large accounts and more. Steve has a built a very successful business in a very short amount of time. We appreciate the time he took to share his story. Please note: you may notice time stamps occasionally showing up in the transcript. This was due to audio issues we had during the event. However, the dialogue is easy to follow. You can find the original chat in our Facebook group, Pad Life.
ES: Hey everybody. Hello. Steve, you’re actually at a job site, aren’t you?
SP: I am. Hold on. [pans camera around room]. We’re at a hotel.
ES: Very nice. How are you Steve?
SP: I’m good how are you guys doing?
ES: All right Steve, I’m going to ask you a question, and then you can answer it. Tell us a little about your background and what lead to deciding on a floor cleaning business.
SP: OK. In my first life I managed stadiums and arenas. I went to college. I worked at a concession stand. I was a porter, and pushed kegs around the stadium. And I liked the business well enough that after college I asked if there was a management training program. A week later I was working at the Boston Garden, so that was pretty cool.
So I did that for about 12 years. I managed Pilot Field in Buffalo, which is a pretty famous stadium in the minor league Triple A stadium system. And then I went to Milwaukee for the Brewers. We managed that stadium for the Brewers.
I pretty much burned out. I had 850 employees and eight department heads. It was more like social work than management. So I decided to move back to Buffalo and I interviewed for a job that was basically a country club with tennis instead of golf. That was in Rochester NY. I did that for 18 years.
So I always wanted to own my own business. I saw a video from the Masters Touch tile and grout cleaning program. As soon as I saw that, I saw how clean tile could get. I could never get my floors clean at the stadium. At the concession stands they had clay dust all over the place. I said “That’s my kind of business.” So I talked to my wife and three weeks later we were in Arizona doing training. We started the business in February, five years ago.
ES: You’ve had great success with a commercial only model. What was your initial plan to get work out of the gate?
SP: Yes, for several reasons. First of all, there was my background with the connections in the community. I felt that commercial would be more beneficial for me. Secondly, I didn’t have didn’t have the patience to build up my position and brand awareness. I didn’t want so spend money on SEO, websites, all those things that a residential operation has to have. With commerical cleaning I could get my direct selling immediately. Of course you have to wait for the money, which is a big issue for a lot of residential carpet cleaners. But once you get through the selling cycle, and you’re used to waiting for 30, 60 or 90 days and you develop your cash flow, it’s less of an issue.
And I had all the time in the world to do sales when I first started. I didn’t like the undependability of residential cleaning, whether people are going to get a cleaning once a year or once every three years, or once every two years. And also with my limited experience I was worried about getting out stains, or even being able to clean carpets effectively. For me, commercial cleaning looks like and has been like an annuity program. Almost all my accounts clean at least yearly.
So as soon as I get an account, every year I know that I’m going to have that amount of money. As I grow it, 10 percent a year, 20 percent a year, 30 percent a year, as long as I maintain my existing clients at a high level, I have automatic built in growth.
Also I find that although I don’t have a lot of experience with residential cleaning, I believe it’s easier to hire and train for commercial cleaning.
ES: How soon until you found yourself working steady?
SP: Our first month we did $2000. Our second month we did $4000. We were fortunate at about out 6 month mark. I landed a hotel that cleaned every corridor, which is about a $25000 a year account. So I though, “OK this is going to work.” At the six month level we had confidence. At about the 8 month level, I wasn’t working 5 days a week, by any means, but we were pretty steady. I think we ended up the year with $100,000, with ten months of work. I was really happy, because I was budgeting for $60,000.
EC: That’s huge. And you attribute that to going out and [? 10:43].
SP: Yes. I actually didn’t call on a lot of my connections in the beginning, because I wanted to get some integrity and experience before I started calling people. Early on we had some success with a couple of hotel groups and I focused on hotels a lot in the beginning, and the one thing I like about commercial is its volume. I get two jobs a week, I can do $3000. So obviously we’re doing a lot more than that, but in the beginning that was huge. It would give me the other five days a week to keep marketing.
When we first started it was just me and my wife. And then as we grew we just put ads part time. [? 11:38] we added a part time person.
ES: How many vans and employees do you have now?
SP: Right now we have two vans, and the odds are that we will probably do 90% of our business with one van. The second van is for driving extra guys around, or me. I also use it for sales. But now we’re using the two vans for all the bigger jobs. We do a lot with just one van. A lot more than you can do with residential jobs. You use the second van if the first van breaks down.
So we have three full time techs, and myself. My wife does the books and helps on big jobs. We have a weekend guy that I use as well. And then we can pull part time people in as needed.
ES: What services have you added and/or dropped?
SP: We started just cleaning tile. That was our focus because that’s what Master’s Touch trains you for. And I like to find competitive advantages. There are millions of carpet cleaners out there there’s not millions of tile cleaners. There are lots of pressure washers, but we focused on gum removal for Walmart. We went out and bought special equipment for that. For the time that kind of work was around it was great.
As we started doing hotels again, they started asking us to do the carpet, and that’s where we got into VLM. For two reasons: one, we cleaned a hotel early on that had [? 13:40]. Watching the carpet cleaner’s page, and Joel (Riggs) and Ashley (McKendree) . When I first got into that group, they mentioned Cimex and the OP’s and that kind of stuff. And I researched that and picked one of them up. And then I just found two things. One, that the hotels loved that the carpets were dryer quicker and also that it took care of a lot of the wick back problems that I had with this one account. And we can get more production, and that’s the key with low moisture. It’s a game changer. We do thousands and thousands and thousands of square feet of carpet that we would never do with hot water.
So one of the things I do is. I really am a niche cleaner; because I have all these little niches that I get involved in to solve problems. I’ve done the odor… which is great for hotels. I’ve also done anti slip treatments. And now recently I’m involved with a sealing product that we put over tile and grout, that’s really taken off for us with the large supermarket chains.
So other than that I really haven’t dropped too many. If anything we’re dropping residential. I do a little bit to keep my commercial clients happy. But there isn’t really anything I’ve dropped.
One of the things I’ve focused on is what my clients need. They come to me with a problem, and that’s where I’ve learned a lot of these niche things. It’s a great way to get a new client, and it’s a great way to increase revenue with an existing client.
ES: Are there any services you see possibly adding in the future?
SP: The next thing that we are looking at is ceiling tile cleaning. I’ve done a little bit of that, again to solve problems for existing clients but now that we’re in with a supermarket they have tons and tons of ceiling tiles. And if I ask that what kinds of service they need help with, things that they’re not happy with, those are the kinds of things that come up.
ES: Many fear the cold call approach – whether this be over the phone or in-person – what have you found to be some of the better ways to break the ice and build contacts?
SP: I like just going in and introducing myself. I don’t like phone calls. It’s too easy for people to get off the phone, or too hard to get past the gatekeeper. I know Shane (Deubell) is very successful with it. My approach is just walking in. I go for not necessarily low hanging fruit, but I go for places [dead air]
I like to be face to face and in person myself, because one of the things is if you can get in touch with someone , I find it much easier than if you call first rather than trying to get through the gatekeeper. I’m much less comfortable on the phone than I am in person. I try to not overthink things. In the beginning I used to think I needed to have every word perfect. It was like “I have to go in and sell them and overcome objections.” These days I just walk in and introduce myself “Hello my name is Steve Pike from ReNu. We are a commercial floor care company and I was wondering if I could take to the person in charge of your floor care.” Pretty simple. Depending on how they answer, like if they say “we do it all in-house” then you approach it in the most appropriate way. But once you introduce yourself and start talking to them, you can introduce them of other similar clients you have.
I try to get marketing hub. Wegman’s is a supermarket we do. Everybody knows Wegman’s in my area. We do several hotels that everyone knows in my area. We do the baseball team, everybody knows the baseball team. We have higher end restaurants we do, even though I hate restaurants. But all those things give you legitimacy.
I try to walk the facility when I get there so if I see something that needs attention, I can ask them if I can demo those areas. “Would you mind if I helped you with this spot over here. Could I clean that for you?” Those sorts of things.
Real simply, build your confidence, put yourself at ease. Don’t worry too much about what you’re saying or how you’re saying it. Just keep it simple: “here’s what we offer. Can we help you with your floor care?” If it’s spring, a lot of people are looking for spring cleaning, and those are an easy sell. “Yeah give me a quote.”
But if I walk into a place and they say “sure I’ll take your quote”, I don’t put a lot of energy into places like that, because they are getting quotes all the time. Also I know that if they are getting their carpets cleaned by another cleaner I respect, I don’t submit a bid, because I don’t want us to get into a bidding war. There’s plenty of work around.
ES: What’s your follow-up process? How often do you contact leads? How often do you reach out to existing clients? Are most of these contacts made via email, phone or in-person?
SP: I do some emails, but I prefer warm introductions so I try to find people who know the people I plan to email. I go after multi-unit accounts. I’ll go after a hotel chain that has seven hotels, or a dentist office that has five locations. I do that because it’s just as easy to get five locations as it is to get one location, if you have a chain. So I’ll land the deal with one location, and send emails to the other four locations in the chain. If the first location is happy, it’s easier to sell the others. This strategy has helped us grow quickly.
ES: Approximately how long does it take to cultivate a prospect from cold lead to client?
SP: Again, that’s why I go in person, because it goes a lot quicker . If you’re calling a big facility like a call center on the phone, they’re not going to just roll out the red carpet and say “oh yes, come on down.” Face to face meetings makes things happen quicker. In spring, when hotels needs carpets cleaned, my turn around time is three days. Golf clubs clean in the late winter/early spring before they open. Schools clean in the summer. So I focus on those kinds of places, places that get cleaning at the same time every year. If I can talk to them personally and at the right time, I can get a lot of business out of them that simple emailing won’t do.
I don’t have as much time to market as I wish I did. But when I do, I do it to fill up my slow time. I’m always looking for business in January and February. I don’t need to market as much in spring and fall because we have lots of work from hotels.
But that Wegman’s ceiling job, that took two and a half years. I never give up, if I lose a client or a bid, I’ll keep in contact with them. I’ll go back there and I’ll find stuff the other cleaner missed, demo them by cleaning those spots, and get the client back. I’ve done this with several hotels.
One of the good things about being dedicated to commercial cleaning is the fact that combination commercial/residential cleaners can’t respond as quickly their commercial clients’ needs. They’ll say “I can’t get to you for another two weeks.” Commercial clients don’t want to hear that. If they have an inspection coming, they want you there the same day or tomorrow at the latest.
One of the drawbacks to commercial cleaning is sometimes there are really slow weeks where you have almost nothing. I have clients I can call and ask if they need work, but with residential, you have people calling and booking you all the time.
But sometimes turnaround is quick, and other times, you’re planting seeds for the future.
ES: What’s your follow-up process? Are most of these contacts made via email, phone or in-person? How often do you contact leads? How often do you reach out to existing clients?
SP: Constantly. After I get home from work, I sit down at the computer and I’m emailing them. Depending on the time of year, I’ll send out reminders asking if they need anything to be cleaned. But I don’t just contact them for business, I reach out to them for birthdays, or just to say “hey I found a product you might want to use.” Little tips, those kinds of things.
I do this for a number of reasons. One is to keep in touch so I can find out if someone has left, because that’s the big issue for me. Sometimes a business gets a new maintenance man or new management, and they bring in the people they know.
I try to get to know all the corporate and regional VPs. I copy them on all my emails because they can refer you to other people. Keeping in touch with VPs can also prevent new lower level people from bringing in new cleaners. If the VP likes you, he or she will override the people lower down the ladder in your favor. “We’re going to stay with ReNu.”
I friend all of my customers on Facebook. I contact clients on LinkedIn. I learn when they leave their jobs, and I can then contact the person who replaced them, and I still contact them at their new job. A lot of my evenings are spent doing this kind of thing.
And then when I’m in the area, I always stop in and say hello.
ES: How big of a role does the demo play in obtaining new clients?
SP: Demos are hugely important. If I can demo, I can usually get the account. Just today, we were at this hotel, and they hired us to do their carpet. After we finished up, we demoed a few tile areas, one in the kitchen, one in the lobby, and one in the lobby restrooms, just to show them what we can do. The GM came over and it all went really well. Now I’m here to measure all the tile for the next time we clean.
There are a lot of people who don’t have the tools for the job. Like janitorial companies aren’t really equipped to clean carpets and tile like a professional. If we can demo for companies that use people like that, we can almost always do a better job. When I demo tile and grout, I do it for two reasons. One, to show the customer. Two, to see how difficult the job is and cover myself by making sure I can do the job in a reasonable amount of time. We’ve taken on a few large tile jobs in the past and we kicked ourselves because the job took a lot longer than expected and I didn’t price it right.
ES: Take us through your demo process
SP: I do a lot of before and after demo videos. A lot of people are too busy to stand there for an entire demo process. Or I’ll tell them “Hey let me set up and I’ll text you when I’m ready to go.” Otherwise, I’ll get their card and send them links to demo videos and before and after pics. At least I can keep the lines of communication open.
If I can get them to actually witness the demo, that’s great. But it all boils down to before and after. They don’t need to be there. I can film the demo itself and send them before and after pics. A lot of times I’ll tape the cleaning and send the video to them right there while we’re cleaning. If they’re too busy to come out and see the job personally, sending them a video of their own cleaning job is the next best thing.
Customer contact and communication is essential. I use a ton of videos and before and after pics for this purpose. It’s not essentially about the content of the video of the things you say, it’s about showing them your process and what you can do.
I don’t bother with brochures, because customers don’t bother with brochures. I just give them my card and email and phone. Maybe brochures work for others, but for me it’s the email, the card and especially the demo. And again, it helps if the invites are warm, i.e. they come from other customers.
ES: What two tips would you give to those entering the cleaning business or wanting to take on a commercial only model like yours?
SP: You need a truck mount for tile and grout, and for carpet. You can just do VLM, and there are guys doing a great job with that. But if you have 3000 square feet or 6000 square feet of tile and grout or bathrooms with toilets, you can’t do that with an OP or an Oreck or whatever. You can’t make money at it and it takes too much time. You’re not getting 65 or 75 cents a square foot to clean tile and grout, just like you’re not getting 40 to 50 cents a square foot to clean carpet. To be a volume cleaner, you need to realize that that’s not a price that you’re going to get. You might get it once, but then a lot of guys are going to take it from you.
So I think a truck mount is essential. As far as VLM goes, most people doing carpet cleaning are dual method cleaners anyway.
Another tip: Something that I see that makes people fail is not having enough operating capital. They start the business on a shoe string or they spend all their money on equipment but don’t have enough money to operate. And so when they don’t get all the business they need out of the gate, they run behind on their payments. I had enough money saved when I started my business. I only needed $60k gross my first year. Even though it was stressful, I knew that I only needed $60k, and I knew I would be able to do that.
Another tip: If you can’t sell, find someone who can. I see this a lot with Master’s Touch guys. They can’t sell or market. If you can’t do these things, you need to find someone who can. Selling and marketing is what separates those who fail and those who succeed. I’m not the best cleaner in the world, and I don’t have to be, because I can sell and get clients. You still have to do a good job, but even if you use a Stanley Steamer you can still get clients if you know what to do.
Of all these things operating capital is the most important. With respect to commercial aspects of the business, it’s going to take one to two years to build your base. But once you build the base, you don’t need to stress about where the clients are coming from, because I know that in the spring, for instance, that certain people will be needing cleaning.
I like to go to places that need inspections, because they HAVE to clean. This would include hotels, assisted living, state agencies. Other places need to keep their place clean for demanding members, meaning country clubs, tennis clubs etc.
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