Developing SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) from Within

Some custodial workers in a contract cleaning company can’t wait to be placed into a supervisory position so that they can begin training other workers on the fine art of effective, efficient, and proper cleaning.  Let’s call these willing and wanting people SMEs, an acronym for subject matter experts.

Other workers will turn down such promotions.  These employees do not want the recognition or responsibilities of an SME, including training others.

Well, now that we know some people relish being an SME and others do not, does this mean those that do want to teach others will be successful at the job?  Not necessarily.  And in many cases, custodial workers that are hesitant to accept a more advanced position that involves training within a company may find they are actually very good at it and end up liking the role of SME far more than they imagined.

But first, why do companies such as large contract cleaning companies look for SMEs and hire trainers from within?  Among the reasons include:

  • Longer-term custodial workers essentially know the ropes and what is expected of them.  They also know how to effectively perform their jobs, how the company works, along with its culture, and how to make on-the-spot decisions.  And, many have learned some very good customer relations skills along the way.  These people can be the most effective SMEs.
  • Some contractors have reduced their training budgets but still place a high value on training; as a result they search in-house to find trainers.
  • Some custodial workers have taken industry courses, such as ISSA’s CIMS program, IICRC’s training programs, or programs by green certification organizations on implementing a green cleaning strategy.  As an SME, they are asked to share this knowledge.
  • Supervisors are frequently asked to put together cleaning and maintenance programs for new clients.  Once the program has been pieced together, they are asked to teach custodial workers servicing the facility how to perform their cleaning duties specific to the building’s needs.

SME Selections

We have already referenced that whether someone wants or does not want to be an SME does not necessarily mean he or she will be an effective or ineffective trainer.  Therefore, selecting an SME can be a bit of trial-and-error.  View it like hiring a new worker; candidates may be great in the interviews but once on the job, problems arise.  Plus, while many contract cleaners will have some sort of job description, detailing exactly what is expected of the worker, outlining the standard operating procedures for an SME candidate is likely not as easy.

So, realizing the potential issues and obstacles when looking for an SME trainer from within the company, there are three things employers should focus on:

  1. Considerable knowledge of how to properly perform most cleaning duties.
  2. Skills, such as how to effectively use cleaning tools and equipment to help improve worker productivity and promote safety.
  3. Attitude.  Some employers looking for SME candidates put attitude at the top of the list.  Their belief is that the knowledge and skills can be taught, but attitude—more specifically, a strong positive attitude toward the job and working with people—is something either someone has or does not have.

Determining if your candidate has the knowledge, skills, and right attitude to be an effective trainer is typically completed through an interview/assessment process.  This can prove beneficial for the potential trainer as well.

Usually it is done by simply asking a variety of questions.  Some can be task or equipment related.  Other questions could be about how they would handle or not handle a situation or how they would handle different issues that might come up while being a trainer or when working with individual custodians. 

Also, ask candidates to teach you how to perform a cleaning task or operate a machine.  Now you’re getting first-hand experience working with your potential SME.  Many times, the most important thing to look for is the SME candidate’s communication skills.  While effective communication skills can be learned, they are also greatly influenced by a person’s attitude.  

Training the SME Trainer

Let’s say you have found one or more people that you think will be an excellent trainer(s) and, adding to this, have found the worker(s) to be very knowledgeable and skilled in professional cleaning.  Does this mean you just turn them loose and tell them to start training?  No.  The trainer needs training. 

Usually a former trainer within the company or someone brought in specifically for this purpose, such as a cleaning consultant or professional cleaning instructor, will handle this.  It is important that instruction is provided on a number of cleaning tasks; in fact, most any cleaning task that custodial workers typically need to tackle, from caring for floors to cleaning windows, should be covered.  

However, they should also be taught subjects that reflect how cleaning is changing.  We can refer to these as “21st Century Cleaning Techniques” and among them are the following:

  • Water efficiency since using water responsibly is becoming a growing issue in professional cleaning.
  • Stretching refinishing cycles to reduce costs and protect the environment.
  • Green cleaning techniques and procedures, along with product knowledge.
  • Sustainability issues.  This includes not only teaching workers how to protect natural resources when performing their cleaning duties, but also ensuring they have a safe work environment.  Here we are using the word “safety” as a verb…an action.  It is something trainers teach others to do so workers can perform actions that protect themselves and other building users.
  • Understanding product usage and selection.
  • Understanding hazard rules and regulations as well as EPA rules and regulations pertaining to cleaning.

We should note that 21st century SMEs, along with the custodial workers they train, are likely to play a very significant role in helping facilities reduce waste, energy consumption, and water use, as well as implement strategies that take protecting the health of building users to higher levels than is currently being performed.  This is evolving because building owners and managers are realizing the key role custodial workers perform in their facilities and because, in many cases, they know their clients’ buildings better than anyone.

SEM Final Steps

There are also some logistical or technical steps contract cleaners should take before their new trainers begin working with your staff.  First is rehearsal; the trainer should practice their specific training programs before a small group of custodial workers and it should be recorded each time.  Even though many people do not like to watch themselves on a video, the trainers should view them.  These videos can provide a wealth of information and lead to considerable improvement, if necessary.

Additionally, starting with these rehearsals and continuing to when your SME trainer is actually teaching custodial workers, feedback forms should always be passed out and requested.  Ongoing feedback helps ensure these training programs are working for your workers, reinforces the trainer’s strengths, and identifies areas of staff or SME weakness.

Ron Segura is president of Segura Associates. His company works with large organizations to streamline their cleaning and building operations so that they function more effectively and efficiently and realize a cost savings. He can be reached through his company website at