Monday morning, the textile rental salesperson is again on the road. The first objective is clear, the dustmat business at Anytown Services is up for grabs. With suitable downward price tweaking, it should not be difficult to capture. Important business that will expand the company’s market share, she thinks.

But is the business really worth having? Maybe not.

In the UK, rental dust-mat profitability has slipped during the last few years. Too much business is carried out at sub-economic levels. It is time to regain lost ground.

Whether or not the UK dustmat market has grown over the past decade. is open to question.

According to Neville de Sousa, director of marketing at mat manufacturer WOM International, the market has expanded only in proportion to population growth. The statistic of ‘12 rental mats in use for every 1000 people’ has not changed.

However, Roy Russell, who heads the sales operation of mat producer Golden Star Europa, maintains the market has positively grown, with specialist companies leading the way. As the image-conscious service sector has expanded, the logo mat has helped drive business up.

Undoubtedly, there is huge growth to aim for. In Scandinavia, where the case for using dustmats has been well argued and accepted, and on average there are 27 rental mats on the floor for every 1000 people.

Profit matters

A key to developing the mat rental market would be to set a deliberate pattern of growth. But higher sales growth and increased sales reach are not enough to develop the market.

Renters should examine closely the precise value of each piece of their mat business. They need to focus clearly on how profits can be channelled into resources that will increase profitability still further.

Progress in the UK mat rental sector will be most striking in businesses where providing a mat service is seen as a core skill.

Where a large organisation has strong single branding, it can be argued that this should be used across a range of core skills to give more leverage to activities.

However, if this is taken too far, the brand impact may be reduced simply because it takes in too much.

Focusing on a specific business area, and supporting it with the right resources is the path to real growth.

Textile rental company members of the Textile Services Association are realising that the dustmat market has significant growth potential. According to Murray Simpson, the TSA’s chief executive, we will see a greater number of mat-dedicated operations with the emphasis on product innovation and service. However, some renters have been preoccupied with workwear and flatwork and so opportunities in the mat market have been missed.

Specialist route

The biggest growth in mat rental in Europe over the past five years, says WOM’s Neville de Sousa, has come from mat-specialists and from laundries that have promoted mat services in their own business area.

In Scandinavia mats and handcare/ hygiene services have been separated from workwear and flatwork business and each area has its own management and sales team.

Roy Russell, at Golden Star, also stresses the value of specialisation. A dustmat operation with a dedicated sales force and logistics achieves more market penetration. Renters should not dismiss expanding business through mat sales and direct leasing. There is demand for low-cost mats and it is better for the mat renter to generate revenue by meeting this than than to lose business to another supplier.

Industry observers note that some companies with a wide range of rental services are losing out on mat placement opportunities in the high street, because they ignore the value of serving a number of separate businesses from a single point.

By contrast, mat specialists are effective high street operators because they do not restrict themselves by setting minimum business levels for potential customers.

It is still evident that a substandard service can wreak long-term damage. If mats are not changed at the right frequency, the value of the service is undermined. The customer may even decide that mats do not work, so will not renew the contract and stop using rental mats altogether.

Research needed

Managers of dustmat services will often make assumptions about customer needs. Theories abound, but few companies carry out research to back or reject such ideas.

Establishing what customers need from the service is very different from finding out how satisfied they are with the products.

Those companies which conduct research regularly have found that customers will provide all the right information, provided the correct questions are asked.

The danger in research is dwelling on the benefits and disadvantages of existing products and services. Customers will readily give their opinion on these, but the interviewer should also try to find out what the customer’s real needs are and how they might be addressed, otherwise the value of the interview is reduced.

Sales talk

If sales people are to be involved in conducting the research, they need careful tuition. Their close relationship with customers makes them valuable, but they must not be allowed to indulge in “sales conversations” during interview sessions.

The purpose of the research is developing the service, not extracting product endorsements or making sales.

Before interviews start, it is essential to review information held about the specific customer and the interviewer’s knowledge of customers in general. How knowledgeable are they on technical aspects of dust control? How well are they performing in their business sectors and how are these sectors developing? What are the customers’ ambitions? To ensure optimum results, customers must see a personal benefit in sparing time to help with the research. They must trust the person conducting the interview. The researcher must be a good listener.

Gaining trust involves explaining the reasons for the research, for example one approach could be: ”We need to make sure we are keeping up to date with our customers’ needs and I would be most grateful if you could spare a short time to talk about you and your business.” To make sure customers are rewarded for giving their time, they could be given information that is useful to their business or they might have a preview of a new product or service.

The value of research is underlined by the TSA which acknowledges the role it has to play in increasing knowledge about end-user requirements. Murray Simpson indicates that the association’s on-going commitment to research will, in due course, cover dust control mats and washroom services.

Much mat development work has been manufacturer-led, and product specifications sometimes have to be a compromise, so that the requirements of both the mat rental companies and end-users are met.

A mat that gives end users the best possible performance, may have disadvantages from the point of view of the renter, for example it may take longer than average to dry. However the satisfaction balance is tipped in favour of the end-users. If they are not happy with the product then mat rental business is likely to suffer.