Lessons in Leadership From The Men’s Room

Technology by itself is not enough… Restroom management takes leadership!

Business opportunity and insight can come from the most unlikely places. A few years ago I visited my daughter at her workplace. She’s a Barista at Starbucks, so I wasn’t the only one stopping by that day. In fact, there was a very long line of customers waiting to get their daily fix of Joe.

Like many Starbucks customers, I decided to hit the restroom before I picked up my coffee. Unfortunately, that day the men’s room was a total disaster. The trash can was overflowing with paper towels, the overhead light was flickering on and off and there was disgusting wet toilet paper all over the floor.

That experience was my inspiration for a tech startup that would create a Restroom Management System to help businesses provide consistently clean, well-stocked and fully functional restrooms.

It turns out there are over 30 million public restrooms in the US, and they all need to be monitored and cleaned 24/7. Luckily, there are also 250 million very helpful people carrying text-capable phones into those same restrooms. Our big idea was to provide an easy way for customers to let businesses know when and how often their restrooms need attention.

It’s all about the customer experience

My partner and I both come from marketing and we see these 30 million public restrooms as an often overlooked customer touchpoint for organizations. Our clients have come to include restaurant chains, high-rise office buildings, international airports, government facilities, well-known hospitals and even public library systems.

Most executives and facility managers will obviously agree that clean restrooms are good business. Marketing people also recognize restroom cleanliness is an important part of their brand’s overall “customer experience” and it can dramatically affect repeat business.

Think about it… when you go out to a restaurant, a dirty restroom may make you think twice about the condition of their kitchen. Worse yet, you may even feel compelled to post a warning rant (with pics) on Yelp.

We all worry about germs when visiting a friend or family member in the hospital, so blood or urine on a restroom floor, or even an empty soap dispenser, completely creeps us out.

When traveling, an airport restroom is one of the last places you go before you board, and it’s also the first place you hit when you get off the plane. The cleanliness of those restrooms can influence your perception of an entire city.

Leadership by the numbers

Because our software collects thousands of customer comments every month, we get a unique behind-the-scenes look at how different industries, organizations, and teams actually deliver on their customer experience. We also get to see exactly what types of restroom issues customers are most bothered by. It turns out that missing supply items and cleanliness account for more than 70 percent of the complaints we process, with the remaining 30 percent being broken fixtures or other repair items.

We are not trying to throw our subscribers under the bus here, so it’s important to note that ANY restroom is only guaranteed clean until the next customer uses it. There will always be issues to report and problems to resolve, even in the most well-managed facilities.

In years past, many organizations used paper log sheets on the back of restroom doors to track staff inspection, cleaning and restocking activity. Needless to say, those logs only work if they are filled out and someone in management actually takes the time to collect and review them.

Today, all businesses live and die by the numbers in every aspect of their operations. Now, technology brings real-time customer feedback and activity metrics to restroom management. For managers, it’s easy to see what’s actually going on and learn that every restroom has it’s own traffic counts and unique service requirements.

Same technology, very different results

After a few years of reading thousands of customer comments and watching activity metrics, we were shocked to see such a huge difference in results from one organization or location to another. One company might reduce restroom complaints by 90 percent or more, and the next would see virtually no reduction in complaints month after month. For some locations, it was almost like the fire alarm was going off, but their employees would just turn off the alarm and not bother to put out the fire!

Connecting the dots

At first we struggled to understand why our system worked perfectly for one business or location and not at all for another. What became clear was that it’s the leadership and culture that matters the most. Technology is only as powerful as those that use it. Someone at the top has to care about the customer.

It takes leadership to get a minimum wage worker to fully understand the connection between clean restrooms and selling a burger or cup of coffee. Without leadership cleaning the men’s room is almost viewed as punishment for being the lowest worker on the totem pole. A leader has to share the vision and get fully involved in the process.

“Lessons Learned” from our most successful users

Share the Vision — Leaders have to regularly and repeatedly share the passion and vision for delivering a remarkable “Customer Experience”. Those leaders with an insatiable hunger for information are also the most likely to inspire a team and drive continuous improvement.

Set Clear Goals— Set clear performance goals and metrics and share them in regular meetings. Many of our highest performing organizations hold weekly meetings to review customer feedback messages (good and bad), alert response times, and scheduled task metrics. We provide a weekly “leaderboard” report that lets everyone on the team know who’s carrying the load and where improvement and better resource allocation might be needed.

Explain The Process — Make sure everyone on the team knows your process and how to use the tools, and that includes all supervisors and top level managers. Don’t assume everyone knows what to do and how to do it. Training and retraining team members helps build teamwork and professionalism.

Share The Importance — All team members need to know that their contribution and efforts do matter to the overall success of the business. Give regular recognition for their hard work and hold them personally accountable to both management and their co-workers.

Get Everybody Involved — The team needs to know the top levels of management and everyone up and down the ladder are involved and participating. Regular QC checks by managers, with both positive and corrective feedback, demonstrate that hands-on involvement.

Leadership always matters, even in the Men’s Room

You can have all the high-tech tools in the world, but without leadership, you’ll never reach your goals. I know that sounds like the headline from a cheesy wall poster, but we are certain it makes a difference in the men’s room — and we have the data to prove it!

Rod Dornsife is the CEO and CoFounder of Restroom Alert, LLC, a software company focused on technologies and best practices for public restroom management. (rod@restroomalert.com)

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