In this article, Mike Boxall of Sitemark discusses the role of best practice benchmarking for raising standards within the cleaning industry.
Benchmarking is a term that crops up regularly – it’s debated at conferences, often present in bid documents and regularly discussed across all different kinds of business media. Despite its ubiquity, however, benchmarking is still a misunderstood process that is mistakenly treated as an exercise in cost reduction.
Nowadays, most support service providers are exposed to some degree of risk and uncertainty, with many under pressure to perform at or near the same level as their competitors. In one sense, this explains why benchmarking is so often mischaracterised. After all, a business wants to know where it sits against others and ultimately where it can make improvements to the bottom line.
Yet in a highly commoditised market, like cleaning, the need for contractors to differentiate beyond cost becomes increasingly important, especially when that same market suffers from ‘race to the bottom’ bidding. The ability to uncover unique aspects of service provision can help elevate organisations from the pack and demonstrate a deeper, more strategic type of thinking to prospective clients.
So, what is best practice benchmarking?
In essence, best practice benchmarking is a comparison of performance and process on a strict like-for-like basis. Anything and everything can be benchmarked – teams, divisions, products, methods of working, or even entire organisations so long as the reference point has been clearly defined.
The exercise not only allows organisations to see where they stand on a scale but also gives tangible evidence of improvement, providing the benchmark is revisited at a later date. Indeed, revisiting the process gives organisations the best shot at improving service using objective evidence and not some subjective understanding of best practice, which is itself always open to changes in opinion.
Services like cleaning are typically dynamic in nature, meaning no two reviews are ever the same. The key to a successful ongoing benchmarking exercise is therefore to choose the correct frequency, which is generally between six and eight months. It should be often enough that updates can be carried out quickly and cost effectively, but not so often that it becomes disruptive to the everyday running of the business. Regularity will uncover issues they become too embedded in a business’s practices as well as allowing the benchmark to become an intrinsic part of the management function.
What about cleaning?
Perhaps the most importance aspect of benchmarking for cleaning is its wide range of application. It can be used by in-house teams, clients with contracted cleaning providers, or contractors themselves. By using an agreed industry standard, challenges can be identified and measured to determine the overall level and consistency of service, and evidence-based improvements can then be put in place. This approach applies to client organisations that are dissatisfied with their service partner, as well the cleaning companies that are looking to sharpen up.
It’s not just standards, however, that can be benchmarked but also the specification itself. A thorough exercise will look at an entire facility, analysing how different areas are cleaned, when they are cleaned, and whether current practice is efficient and cost effective. This stage will also factor in the types of products used and whether an organisation’s processes are fully compliant. This procedure applies to client organisations that are dissatisfied with their service partner, as well cleaning companies that are looking to sharpen up.
It should be noted that the best benchmarking procedures will look to assess the ‘softer’ less-quantifiable elements of service, like staff satisfaction and training and development, as it will help to build a clearer picture of where an organisation can uncover further improvement. In cleaning, for example, benchmarking has helped to determine the positive impact of paying operatives the Living Wage. With a baseline in place, this particular customer was able to accurately determine how this introduction influenced staff retention, overall levels of productivity and staff engagement, as well as the impact on turnover.
While not yet commonplace, there is a growing consensus that the cheapest cleaning service may not necessarily be the best choice in the long run. This change is shifting the emphasis away from how much service providers cost and instead towards what differentiates them as a potential business partner. While benchmarking cannot guarantee future outcomes based on previous efforts, it does give organisations the best opportunity to raise standards and demonstrate what makes them unique in a crowded market.
Mike Boxall is MD of Sitemark