Business School Experiment Pays Off…How Green Cleaning Became A Platform For Customer Experience

I met with Stephanie Toler of Sage Clean this week and I have to say: House cleaning hasn’t been this upbeat or bright a topic since Carol Burnett sat on a bucket to watch her own show.

Even as I write this, I am trying to characterize her energy, enthusiasm and belief in herself and her business. Had she been selling something to me in that moment, I would have bought a dozen “whatevers” right there on the spot. And it wasn’t because she was actively pitching me anything, it was because she is the absolute opposite of what you’d expect someone in house cleaning to represent. She was offering more than a housecleaning—she was offering an experience-and one she believes in.

Most people’s history with house cleaning is similar to the stereotypes from books like Nickel & Dimed…the classic car full of Merry Maids, overworked, (sometimes illegal) women who don’t have a college degree, have reached the end of the line in terms of job options and are probably driving up to 2 hours from an unsafe neighborhood to come clean your house. Securing a service usually begs two questions from a customer: will the service meet my standards and will these people steal from me?

It’s unfortunate that house cleaning has such a bad rap. No one wants to do it. I confess that there are times my eyes roll to the back of my head at having to drag “Jaws” (my vacuum) out for its weekly spin. How often do you hear about someone in house cleaning focusing on the core values of their company: excellence, integrity and quality customer experience – and believe them? The two questions you have after talking to Stephanie are: how much and when can you start? For the most part, people want to be surrounded by and work with those who have potential.

Someone like Toler whose focus is not on the 60-yard line, but the end zone, is inspiring and it will be interesting to watch her business plan develop over time. Toler has worked hard to build her business, her brand and her team. “I have a team of 7 and they are professionals. My clients are happy. The employees are excited about the growth of the company. We are focused on excellence, striving to be the best. Initially our edge was in being green—but everyone is doing that now (which is a good thing and shows us there is a market), but now we focus on a high quality level of service. We communicate with our clients so they know what they can expect.”

When people deliver a quality service, do good work and are able to get their clients to notice – a relationship based on common understanding and standards is born. Toler’s focus on the experience affords her the opportunity to talk about her ability to deliver something besides a clean house. It’s that focus that changes perceptions in an industry.

Sage Clean: Overview
The company’s mission is to reduce the footprint of hazardous chemicals by using natural, biodegradable, and non-toxic products; to deliver superior customer service and develop solid relationships with its customers; and to develop a company that rewards dependability, integrity, safety, and provides for the training and development of all employees.

Pretty straightforward? Yes.

About Stephanie Toler
After serving ten years in the Air National Guard doing electronics installations Toler decided to get her college degree. While going to school (and in the reserves), she waited tables but was looking for a more reliable income—relying on the kindness of strangers (tips) has too much fluctuation. A friend of hers was cleaning houses and needed an extra pair of hands. Toler pitched in. “She was using all these chemicals and our eyes were burning and our hands were red, and I just thought ‘There must be another way.’”

Frustrated with the theoretical aspect of her business degree, looking at alternative cleaning options and needing a more stable income that had flexible hours helped her decide to build her own business. “I wanted a place to apply what I learned in school, a place to think through the details.” She’s taken a chapter from information systems to concentrate on efficiency and her prior air force work helped her to effectively break tasks down in a way that makes sense.

How They Give Back
Toler has a young business, about 2 years old – so not much budget to play with. However, her mission fully embraces the people, planet, profit model. She invests in her culture by ensuring a reliable schedule, social get togethers, and materials to focus, inspire and lead. She educates customers on the affects of toxic chemicals and uses green based products which reduce the number of harmful chemicals. And, she is looking to make a profit.

Toler is looking to incorporate a more Social ROI to her balance sheet by starting to measure “social” metrics she and her team invest in the community. Her plans for the upcoming fiscal year are to donate cleanings to recipients of her local CCS Volunteer Chore Services program. Their mission is similar to Meals On Wheels, keeping seniors in their own homes. Sage Clean is looking to donate four cleanings per month.

Espresso Shot Insights what’s this?
– Discover Your Core Values

– Choose To Work With Good People

– Listen, Listen, Listen

Discover Your Core Values
While an career in the Air Force wasn’t for her, she did credit her experience by reflecting on core values. “The air force has 3 core values. I didn’t get the point of core values until about 18 months into the (Sage Clean) business. You need to have values to operate by – they steer you and keep you on course.”

Toler has done her homework and when I mentioned Merry Maids, she immediately finished my sentence “…yes, they are the biggest contender but they only have 11% of the market. There is such opportunity.” Sage Clean is competitive because they “deliver a better experience and focus on building relationships with every client.”

“Merry Maids has a formula. Formulas are good, but they don’t work for everyone and they are constrictive.” You only have to deal with your jury duty appointment, a large bank or a telephone operator of your choice to agree. Remember Ernestine? Formulas don’t allow anyone to think for themselves.

“My team has a clear sense of what my expectations are of them; that is all they need to know to make good decisions for the client and the business. If I didn’t trust their decision making skills they wouldn’t be working for me.” Which brings us back to core values…

Choose To Work With Good People
Most of the time, we rarely think we have this choice, whether we are looking for a job ourselves, or staffing a team. Groups are assembled in many ways: happenstance, through a merging of initiatives, randomly. When looking to hire your first employee (ie 50% of your workforce) it’s important to get along, have the same standards and share The Vision. Toler, like many businesses at the early stage of development, truly loves her team.

She describes them as “amazing, dependable, upbeat”—affirming my belief that people hire in their own image to some degree. When I asked what their stories were and what attracted them to her business she mentioned it was a mixed bag demographically. “One is an art major at the U, another plays in a band and teaches music on the side, we have a few single moms, and another one who is over 60—a complete firecracker! They are all such a pleasure to be around and we enjoy hearing about each others’ experiences.”

“We have a small budget, but I try to invest in my team as much as possible. We support each others’ interests and have frequent barbeques.”

Listen, Listen Listen
I sat somewhat in disbelief as she talked about the culture she was creating, such effort is generally rare but breeds incredible loyalty. Just at the point where I thought I felt a cavity develop at the sweetness of it all, she brought it right back to results.

Being able to lead and motivate people is helpful, but Toler appreciates the value of seeing the big picture, how everyone works together and concentrates on where her operation is spending extra time. “I read somewhere that you only have to be as organized as you need to get the job – I’ve found it be true. Spending too much time thinking about process can have diminishing returns.”

This leaves time for her to more attentively listen to her team. The best ideas come from those who are doing the execution. “Their contribution is an incredible asset. It gives them job satisfaction and ultimately the customer has a better experience.”

Outside perspectives help contribute to overall growth and Stephanie credits several mentors in her personal and professional development. A professor, John Castle, was the one professor who while supportive for the most part, was highly critical of her approach. “He asked all the hard questions. I always left his office shocked and a little offended and then I realized he was right, and I needed it. He helped get me more on track.”

Another influence came from her time in service, Jill Elton, a squadron leader for whom she worked when first joining the guard “had a lot of patience, love, confidence that I could do good work and made me want to work harder (for her and myself).”

Lastly, she recognized close friend Matt McCormick who “models ethics and integrity in everything he does” and “shows me that I have a responsibility to myself and the planet to do good things and make this place better—and a little cleaner.”

One parting thought on this topic: “How are we in an economic downturn and I can’t find employees!?”

An interesting question and brings me back to my initial premise about the misconception of the house cleaning industry: people view it as a dead end job, rather than the opportunity and platform it could be to participate in discussions of delivering a quality customer experience. “Right now, I’ve a waiting list of clients; I would rather have clients on a waiting list than just hire anyone.”

Parting Words…

· My most rewarding business moment was after I had shared the code of conduct with the staff to focus us and let people to know what we were all about. One of my employees said she read it and really took it to heart. It meant a lot that it resonated so deeply with her.
· My scariest business moment was firing my first employee.
· Every entrepreneur should be passionate.
· Success to me means helping people grow.


This profile was completed by social venture labs, a company that leads focus-group style sessions for those leading small mission-driven businesses or organizations looking to create relationships, share ideas and get feedback on common business practices.

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