Let’s Not Undermine Our Industry’s New-Found Reputation

Maybe it’s just a minority of instances, but I’ve been hearing some rather worrying stories about a gradual resurgence of unsustainable price cutting on cleaning tenders in the private sector. In some ways it’s understandable that customers are retendering coming out of the pandemic.

Their businesses may not have fared so well – high street retail, hospitality and managed offices where tenants have left or reduced their space requirements being obvious examples. It’s also possible, of course, that all FM services are being retendered, not just cleaning. Nonetheless, I’m somewhat saddened that despite the magnificent support our industry provided during the worst of the pandemic – becoming known as the ‘fourth emergency service’ in some quarters – we should now be facing a potential slide back to the old perception of ‘cleaning is just cleaning’ and the price competition that comes with it.

Of course, we live in a commercial world and I fully appreciate that there are cleaning and FM contractors out there who have lost business and are now having to rebuild. You could argue that they are making a strategic decision to gain volume at low or zero margin as a way of offsetting overhead. But there are three concerns here. The first is the reality that hours will be slashed in an effort to recoup margin, leading to the inevitable reputational damage to our industry if we see a ‘race to the bottom’ on price. The second, related to this, is the simmering issue of recruitment. A lot of good work has taken place over the last couple of years encouraging customers to sanction the payment of the Real (LWF) Living Wage. However, unless tenders are issued with a specific requirement to allow for this, it is hard to see how the good momentum on LWF rates will be maintained. The third, and most important in my view, is that the added value we have been able to build up over the last few years, generated by the high levels of service that come with investment in training, staff development, technology and of course anti-viral protection, will gradually be eroded. Amongst all the stress of working through Covid, a real positive was the realisation amongst many customers that good cleaning comes at a cost. It would be such a crying shame if we threw that away.

How do we head off any return to the bad old days? The answer is there are lots of ways, but primarily we should use whatever channels we can to encourage procurement and FM managers to think hard about the hidden costs of letting cleaning contracts that are inadequately resourced and, dare I say it, suggesting to them that they introduce ways of monitoring contractual requirements so that under-delivery of the service does not go undetected. The simple fact is that there are real costs associated with poor cleaning. These include risk to the health and safety of customer employees, the dissatisfaction of both customer staff and cleaning staff themselves that results from cleaning staff being expected to cover too much work at too low a pay rate, and the very real cost of having to go out tender to solve the problem of an underperforming contract.

So, let’s hope that pressure from customers to save costs is a temporary post-pandemic reaction and that the hard-earned gratitude shown to the cleaning industry in the last eighteen months is not quickly forgotten. We need our industry to sing its own praises and we won’t achieve this by dropping our guard and taking on unsustainable contracts.

Published in November issue of Cleaning & Maintenance.