UAE SMEs are changing the role of FM soft services
The gcc’s soft service firms are working to diversify and upgrade the sector’s product mix and perception
It wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to say that regional FM companies are currently on the precipice of change: GCC-based businesses across the board are eyeing reinvention strategies as regional governments look to boost their long-term investments and reduce oil consumption. For FM companies, this economic climate could bring a fresh set of opportunities and challenges, most significant of which will be product perception.
The Facilities Management Business Confidence Monitor 2016 report, released by British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM), I-FM.net, and FM Expo at FM Expo 2016 claims that the perception of FM services is inexact in the Middle East. According to the report, only 57% of its 180 surveyed respondents said the FM environment would improvement in the 12 months following the survey.
“Reasons people gave for this subdued sense of optimism ranged from the growing amount of competition in the marketplace […to] the continued awareness problem that leaves FM providers having to explain that there is more to what they do than maintenance and cleaning,” the report added.
In such an FM environment, it is altogether likely that this perception problem plagues soft services’ providers with far-reaching consequences as well.
According to a document jointly presented by Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) and Cofely on the former’s website, soft services include security management, catering, and landscaping services, in addition to cleaning. However, as Ali R. Deryan, general manager of Tanzifco Emirates explains, the regional perception of soft services tends to omit some key ingredients of this sphere.
“The general perception is that soft services entail cleaning services only,” Deryan tells fmME. “That is partially correct as routine cleaning forms a major part of soft services. However, all kinds of specialised cleaning, be it high-level cleaning, hospital cleaning or marble crystallization – apart from pest control, security, landscaping, and so on – also form a part of soft services.
“In today’s market, soft services are no longer about mopping and dusting or a cloth and broom. They focus on colour coding, sustainability, and additional such concepts that define the FM landscape, in which soft services is a major player.”
Tanzifco’s expertise – including its soft services offering – has been contracted for notable high-profile healthcare developments, such as Abu Dhabi’s Mafraq Hospital and Sheikh Khalifa Medical City.
Deryan expresses optimism about the growth prospects of the Middle East’s specialised soft services sector as regional development plans expand: “It is difficult to say which soft services are most in demand currently, as each of them has its fair market-share in the ever-expanding regional FM sector; be it in Dubai, the UAE or the GCC. As the region witnesses more development, demand is likely to be higher for post-construction cleaning, floor care – including marble polishing and crystallization – and other specialised maintenance and cleaning services.
“Hospital cleaning will always be much demanded, especially since the UAE is fast becoming a regional hub for medical tourism,” Deryan adds.
Changing the perception of soft services will require a reinvention of the role that service providers play in the FM delivery chain. As Samer Hani, general manager for Cleanco’s Abu Dhabi operations explains, both clients and service providers must view their operational relationship as a partnership in order to succeed: “Soft services aren’t all about cleaning, because the services we provide are a mix of different elements such as people, materials, tools and equipment, and technology.
“All these components create the bundle of soft services that we offer. Companies like ours even offer training, which is very important from the employee point of view. If you give an operator a machine, then they might be able to use it, but for the final results to meet client needs, it is important that workers are aware of all elements of soft services and are supervised and trained to deliver them. We are a part of customers’ operations and must be accepted as partners that help them better deliver their services.”
Hani’s views on partnership are shared by Ali Cagatay Ozcan and Kerem Kuyucu, co-founders of Justmop, an online cleaning and home maintenance portal. The company’s cleaning services have been deployed for local palaces, penthouses, and five-star hotels, as well as apartments in Burj Khalifa.
Responding to fmME’s query about whether the market for home maintenance services in the UAE is underserved, Ozcan says: “Let’s define underserved first; it means lacking the required quality or quantity. The market is well-off in terms of quantity – there is a new cleaning service provider opening every hour.
“Expats in UAE have a high disposable income and they are comfortable outsourcing their needs whenever possible and convenient. It is obvious that cleaning is one of the most popular services, so businesses are trying to take advantage of that.
“But when it comes to quality, the market has been underserved. When we entered the market, most service providers did not know much about customer service. There was almost no mechanism to follow up on feedback ratings and customer satisfaction in a systematic way. We are [changing] it now and are doing our best to bring a certain standard to the market,” Ozcan adds.
Justmop works with service providers that meet its eligibility criteria for partnership – a model not unlike what Cleanco’s Hani propounds as well: “We deal with smaller companies on certain projects if we need their support. We understand that every company has its own capabilities, which is why we sometimes partner with our suppliers or other companies for service delivery, materials procurement, and so on.”
However, Justmop is “not in competition with any of the brick and mortar businesses”, Kuyucu asserts, adding: “We see [large service providers] as potential partners and already work with some of them. Justmop partners with companies that meet the criteria needed to join the platform.
“We improve their operations by training them to better serve Justmop’s and their own clients. That’s why we don’t stack up against them, but partner with them to take the home-services industry to a better level.”
The partnership model is also helped by the agility and lean models of SMEs and start-ups, and Ozcan says one of Justmop’s mandates for service delivery is to “standardise the cleaning process”.
He continues: “We hand out cleaning jobs to service provider-partners only after we are sure of the quality of their crew members.
“We are trying to standardise the cleaning process and increase the quality of the cleaning services in all the markets we operate in. We have our own quality checklist to clean a space, and this list [follows] a room-by-room approach.
“We’ve created a manual for every room so the crew members are absolutely aware of the actions they are going to take for the cleanliness of every type of room, from a bathroom to a balcony.”
Hani echoes that it is crucial to understand the individual features of each property class to deliver high-quality soft services: “Each property and facility – be it a school, mall, or airport – has its own standards and each client’s expectations are different. School soft services are different in that we have to be more careful with material, as children might sometimes be less vigilant than adults.
“We train operators about how to use the right materials and chemicals, and even make recommendations to clients about, for instance, which air-freshener is a better choice and won’t harm kids.”
Cleanco’s quality assurance teams report directly to the company’s board, Hani explains. The mechanism ensures that the company’s delivery standards not only match client expectations, but also “exceed market standards”.
Robots and recruitment
Staff education, Hani reiterates, is a significant component of Cleanco’s delivery programmes – more so as technology and automation find solid ground in the regional soft services sector: “I think the future is coming to technology in terms of machines and equipment. Educating a workforce about how to use technology is also important, which is why our training centre focuses on modules about machine usage, reading and understanding signs, and so on.”
This June, it was revealed that labour costs account for up to 80% of the GCC’s total cleaning expenditure. As a result, automated cleaning technologies are expected to grow in the region due to their relatively lower operational and labour costs, the organisers of Middle East Cleaning Technology Week 2016 said.
However, the increased uptake of cleaning technologies could also pave the way for more stringent demands whilst recruiting for soft services.
Facilities Management Business Confidence Monitor 2016’s findings suggest that staff training remains among the industry’s largest concerns.
Furthermore, a shortage of qualified staff – in addition to the challenge of recruiting them – remains a “pressing barrier to the FM business”, the report adds. Tanzifco’s Deryan agrees that manpower is a significant challenge for the region’s soft services sector: “The challenges of delivering soft services in the GCC are manifold, the biggest of these being the availability of trained and certified manpower at the right time.
“Mobilisation of skilled manpower is a task to reckon with in the GCC, as the region is experiencing exponential growth and clients are on the lookout for trained people who can shoulder responsibilities as per best practices.”
Deryan says Tanzifco’s response to the recruitment challenge is its backward integration through its training centres across the UAE, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and India. Grass-root level education and training for its candidates in these centres means they are orientated to the UAE’s requirements and can hit the ground running for local assignments.
Clearly, shifting recruitment trends in light of increased technological tools will impact the GCC’s soft services sector – and its perception in the Middle East.
This transformation is bound to benefit soft service providers, Deryan asserts: “From a client’s perspective, the top factors while recruiting soft service providers are the credibility and past references that an operator possesses, as this experience will be directly proportional to the standard of service that the firm is capable of.
“A service provider’s certifications and accreditations and its quality commitments are barometers of measuring the [efficiency] of its deliverables. Eventually, customer satisfaction can be successfully mapped only if service providers can think from the clients’ side,” he concludes.