After leaving an executive position at Procter and Gamble, I bought a small cleaning business called My Maid Service about three years ago. At the time, it had 16 staff, and annual revenues around $260,000.
It isn't that difficult to find people to come and work for my company. The trouble was getting them to stay. Very few people really want to be cleaners, and as a result, they'd leave for better jobs, or simply because they were sick of the work. So I decided to try a new incentive program: I'd help them find more prestigious positions if they committed to sticking with my company for two years.
Most of my employees are single mothers, usually in their 20s or 30s. Many of them are high-school dropouts, and they don't have a lot of employment options. They choose cleaning because the hours are family-friendly. Still, it's difficult work and our customers don't always treat them with the respect that they deserve. So most of my cleaners used to leave within four months -- though two out of three new hires didn't even make it through our initial training period.
The staff turnover was having a huge negative impact on the business. If the whole crew was experienced, we could send cleaners out individually, but we weren't able to do that because no one knew the routine well enough. The quality level suffered, too: I had to really dumb down the service, and almost mechanize it.
Customers didn't like it, either. They didn't want a bunch of different people in their house every week -- they didn't feel like they could trust our service, and were worried about the risk of theft. I knew I'd need to do something to reduce turnover to ensure the business' long-term success.
The two-year plan
I asked my cleaners to make a commitment to me, and I'd make a commitment to them: If they agreed to work for My Maid Service for two years, then I would help them get the experience and education they needed to find better, more prestigious work.
The idea came out of talking to them about their goals. Of course, I want them to keep working for me, but there's not a whole lot I can offer them. The pay for a job like this only goes so high, though I increased wages a fair amount when I took over the business. Most people don't want to do this job for the rest of their lives. I can understand that: If I was their father, I wouldn't want them cleaning houses for their whole lives, either.
When I asked my cleaning crew what they wanted to do, most of them said they wanted to work in offices. There's no room in my office -- I have just three office employees, who have no plans to leave, compared with 43 cleaners in the field. So I told them, "If you stay for two years, I'll rotate you into my office once a week and give you the experience you need to get an office job somewhere else."
Procter and Gamble, redux
When I worked at Procter and Gamble, I'd sit down with a supervisor to talk about my three- and five-year plans, as well as what skills I'd need to reach my goals. I'm doing a smaller-scale version of that with my employees.
After someone's been cleaning for me for a year, I'll have a conversation about how I can help her to get the job she really wants. It's not as formal as writing a check for community college, though I will pay for specific training courses, such as classes in desktop publishing or Excel. Most classes cost $100 or less, so it's not a huge expense.
Together, we outline the steps the employee needs to take to reach her goal. Then I'll provide her with opportunities to answer customer calls, learn computer software or design marketing programs for my business. I'll also provide them with references they can share with potential employers.
More than a maid
Since I created this two-year plan in 2007, I've already had a handful of maids "graduate" and move on to other jobs. A few of them have become receptionists or administrators, and one is in the process of starting a pet-sitting business. Another woman is working on a medical coding program.
Now, there's virtually no turnover in the business. My workers are happier, and so are my customers. I'm no longer spending all my time training new cleaners, and I've even changed my business model so that I can send cleaners out on the job individually instead of in groups of four, which is far more cost-efficient: We're now making $980,000 in annual revenues at the Cincinnati location, and have opened an additional branch in Dallas.
Even though I know I'll lose good workers at the end of the two-year period, I'm thrilled with the results. My people are my product, so having well-trained, motivated and skilled workers is everything to me.
Before purchasing My Maid Service, Derek Christian was an account executive for Procter and Gamble's commercial products group, representing cleaning products including Comet and Mr. Clean.
-- As told to Kathryn Hawkins