ZIFFPAGE TITLESpotting Problems

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2005-01-13 Print this article Print

The $2.4 billion cleaning and maintenance service gave its window washers, janitors and engineers a single way of doing business with customers. But selling all of its services at the same time is still elusive.

Spotting Problems

Now there is a companywide credit collection process where the company had none, so unpaid bills can be pursued in a uniform fashion, and there's an automated means of processing cash receipts, so amounts can be applied quickly against unpaid bills.

Plus, there are productivity gains in the executive and managerial ranks. The approach "provides great means to provide access from home or any location," says chief financial officer George Sundby. "You get your desktop ... from anywhere."

In addition, compliance with the strictures of Sarbanes-Oxley financial reporting legislation has not been a backbreaker. All changes to systems are made in one place, saving time and making it easier to certify that the proper processes are in effect. Audit trails are easy to pursue.

But the biggest benefit comes in daily operation of its "non-blue-chip" business. "The key thing in the service business is speed and accuracy of information at the point of decision making," says Slipsager. "You don't want a flood in the basement and four-and-a-half hours later, a reaction."

A standard system of communicating makes such service more rigorous and routine, he says. Each night, an inspector in a given office building that ABM serves can collate issues that need to be corrected and provide a clear set of instructions for a cleaning crew. "The key thing when people come in the next morning," he says, "is to know whether you forgot [to clean] a floor or a carpet or what have you."

Managing that "list of deficiencies" is key to keeping customers satisfied—particularly in unusual circumstances, when reputations are made or broken.

"You can't go out, see there's a flood and say, 'We'll be back Monday,'" he says.

But there are limits.

"I don't think you can see a spot of coffee on the carpet and say it's because the information system didn't work," Slipsager points out.

The changeover has not, by itself, turned around ABM's bottom line. The company's income from continuing operations peaked at $46.7 million in the year ended Oct. 31, 2002, according to an ABM financial filing. In the year that ended Oct. 31, 2004, income from continuing operations is expected to come in at $41.9 million, the company said on Dec. 14.

Nor has there been a discernible impact on the top line: sales. Neither Slipsager nor Sundby has seen signs that ABM's different businesses have used the new system in any concerted fashion to sell services from other business units.

As Sundby says: "I don't think we've gotten the benefit of cross-selling just yet."

Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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