Now that service technicians have evolved from spray jockeys to multi-skilled specialists the question many pest management professionals are asking is: "How do I best utilize my workforce?"
In the pest control industry, there seems to be two schools of thought: 1.) Provide service technicians with the resources, equipment and support that allow them to specialize in one category of pest control; or 2) Cross-train technicians to become "universal service personnel" (see chart, page 28), meaning they can perform both general household pest control (GHP) and termite work.
Many small operations don’t have the luxury of using specialized technicians. All technicians must be universal to survive. For other companies, however, a variety of factors (see chart, page 30), including routing efficiency, customer service and job quality, will determine how to best use technicians.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND. In the early 1900s, pest control service technicians were "jacks of all trades," providing a wide range of residential and commercial pest control services. While rodent control was the foundation of pest management in those early days, PCOs gradually expanded their service offerings to include such seemingly ubiquitous pests as cockroaches and bed bugs, in addition to flies and stored product insects.
With the advent of "modern-day" pesticides in the post-World War II era, the pest control industry entered its heyday as returning veterans entered the field in droves. DDT and chlordane served as the "fuel" for the industry’s dramatic growth as PCOs developed new business models designed to enhance profitability and grow the market for professional pest control services. A by-product of this trend was a move toward specialized services — particularly in the nation’s "termite belt" — with technicians serving as general pest control or termite technicians, but not necessarily performing both services.
However, with the introduction of termite baiting and the popularity of perimeter pest control programs in the 1990s, the industry is beginning to witness a shift back to universal technicians who provide a broad range of pest control services, including both termite and general pest control treatments.
URBAN VS. RURAL. One of the advantages of universal technicians is that one person (instead of two) can cover one area. And in rural areas where accounts may be spread miles apart, this saves on truck wear-and-tear, fuel and manpower. But in an urban setting, a technician could conceivably spend his or her entire day in a condensed area. In these cases, two technicians — a pest control and a termite control technician — may make more sense.
"In Atlanta, some of our technicians’ whole territory is not more than two miles wide," said Orkin Technical Director Paul Hardy. "In those situations it is more efficient to have those technicians do just residential work. Once you move even just a few miles out and have routes with more driving time, then it becomes more important to consolidate. It’s more important to add bait monitoring, termite re-inspections and other services."
Many of those companies that operate in strictly rural areas have decided to use universal technicians out of necessity.
"We really don’t have a choice because we are in a rural setting. We cover southwest Wisconsin and about 40 percent of Minnesota so our routes are fairly well spread out," said Brad Bergum, area manager, Wil-Kil Pest Control, La Crosse, Wis. "There simply wouldn’t be enough revenue to have routes that are specialized in termite work. There probably wouldn’t be enough dollars unless you covered the entire state of Wisconsin."
If a strictly termite technician were running a rural route and spotted signs of rodents, or if the customer asked him or her to identify an ant that was found in the kitchen, the company would likely have to send a pest control technician out to the home to remedy the situation. But with a universal technician, he or she can make an identification and go to the truck for the necessary tools to perform a treatment.
"In areas where we are servicing homes or businesses that are 70 or 80 miles away you don’t want to drive out there and say, ‘Everything looks good but I didn’t bring out any rodent control materials.’ Or, ‘I was doing ant work and I saw termite tunnels but I don’t have a rig so we have to schedule this,’" said Arrow Exterminators Vice President of Technical Services Rick Bell. "It costs a world of money."
BARRIERS TO ENTRY. While many agree that the idea of a universal technician is a good one, for some there are significant roadblocks to achieving this kind of set-up. Scheduling, having the right personnel and not being held to a specific service type or frequency by your customers may hurt plans to move towards universal technicians.
"The concept is great, especially the relationship building," said Robert John, president of J&J Exterminating, Lafayette, La. "But we’re not set up to do it at this time."
John says his company has many customers who are on a quarterly termite bait monitoring program, which would work well since the company also offers quarterly pest control services. However, if a termite bait station has a hit, the company is required to switch from a quarterly monitoring program to a monthly service.
"If you get an active hit on a termite bait station, we are forced into monthly monitoring," John said. "If we had monthly (pest control) customers it would be easier.
"We were considering using our general pest control technicians to do checks on Sentricon while at the quarterly accounts but it was a scheduling nightmare," John said.
J&J’s technicians schedule their own routes, which makes it tough for the company to look at the "big picture" and condense pest control and termite routes.
"If you have a company that did all of its scheduling in house, it could work," John said. "Our guys do a lot of their own scheduling. If we would have an in-house scheduling process in our company then it would be a lot easier. If a technician has an opening, you know where he is and where the opening is in his area and he is cross trained, then it would work."
REEVALUATING SERVICE. For companies that can choose between using universal technicians and specialized technicians, quality of service is probably the No. 1 deciding factor. Many believe that universal technicians perform better, and thus are able to build stronger relationships with customers.
Improved service is the driving force behind Orkin Pest Control’s move towards universal technicians, said Orkin’s Paul Hardy. Specifically, the advent of in-ground termite baiting systems made Orkin take a second look at how the company utilizes its technicians.
"If you’ve got a technician doing (GHP) at one of these (termite-baited) homes, they probably are doing exterior pest control," Hardy says. "They are probably already standing on top of the bait stations, so they may as well look at it.
"We wanted to eliminate these accounts from the bait technician’s route. The universal technicians can look at it, monitor it, whatever they need to do. In most cases they can install additional monitoring stations or auxiliary stations or put in and take out bait. (PCOs should check with their state regulators when performing pest control and termite services). It only adds about 10 additional minutes to the job."
Kevin Kordek, president of A-Active Termite & Pest Control, Virginia Beach, Va., said when his company began termite baiting they used separate technicians for pest control and termite work, but he since has decided to make his technicians universal. In addition to improving routing efficiency, Kordek likes the fact that his customers deal with the same technician.
"Some of our clients like to be present when the stations are being monitored," Kordek says. "This is a good opportunity for our technicians to communicate perimeter pest control services. It is an opportunity to build value into their service."
Many also see the value in having technicians specialize in one type of pest control.
Billy Tesh, president of Greensboro, N.C.-based Pest Management Systems Inc., employs some technicians who primarily do pest control and others that multi-task. "To me, it is an issue that is technician-dependent," he says. "I have technicians that prefer to do the full gamut and I have those that just like doing general pest control. I think you need to mold the model around the individual rather than mold the person around the model. This way we have been able to keep our employees happier, and thus longer."
Atlanta-based Arrow Exterminators uses some universal technicians, primarily for rural accounts, but the majority specialize in either termite work, termite baiting, GHP, or renewals (both residential and commercial). Arrow Exterminators’ Bell says his company’s philosophy is "the more technicians deal with a particular issue the better they become in dealing with it."
"I think that technicians that go and look at different types of construction and visit termite problems have greater insights as opposed to those that do only two to four calls per week," he says. "They might be thinking about a flea application at that house and whether or not Mrs. Jones removed everything from her closet."
Still, Bell added that Arrow evaluates technicians individually and tries to match them with a route that best suits their abilities, including universal routes. Bell says Arrow also realizes the benefits of universal technicians and he says that as Arrow continues to refine its practices, it is considering using universal technicians on a larger scale.
And being universal doesn’t necessarily mean the technician performs all aspects of termite work. George Rambo, president of George Rambo Consulting Services, Central, S.C., says a trend he’s observed is pest control companies using "hybrid" universal technicians, meaning that the technician would be capable of at least checking the termite bait monitoring stations.
"If they are not able to treat at least they can set up a treatment for a later date," Rambo says. "So one technician might inspect the station and another would return to do the treatment. This is especially the case when companies are using the stations to monitor but treating with a liquid termiticide."
Some companies, however, may use universal technicians to perform liquid termite treatments as well.
BETTER JOB QUALITY. Another important consideration relating to service quality is technician job satisfaction. Many PCOs believe that allowing technicians to be universal improves job satisfaction, and thus performance.
At Wil-Kil Pest Control’s La Crosse, Wis., office, all of the technicians are universal, a critical aspect of the branch’s success, according to area manager Brad Bergum. "It keeps them on top of their game by challenging them to do different things," Bergum says. "They feel more a part of the team and it strengthens the whole organization by getting them all involved. It’s a plus all the way around."
J&J Exterminating’s John sees similar benefits. Currently, J&J has a handful of universal technicians that are sent out to open new branches. However, John is studying the feasibility of using universal technicians on a larger scale.
"Overall, a guy who knows both sides of the business is more knowledgeable and becomes a better employee for the company," he says. "It will improve our company’s reputation."
Breaking up the job with varying responsibilities also can increase a technician’s technical performance, many PCOs believe. For example, although technicians that check in-ground termite baiting stations are working with new technology, even this type of work can become monotonous, says A-Active’s Kordek. "I’ve checked those stations before and I know it can become mundane and that the quality of your work can suffer," he says.
Of course, variety is just one factor in a technician’s overall job satisfaction. How much a technician earns may be a more critical factor. One of the biggest benefits to being universal is the ability to cross sell.
NPMA Acting Technical Director Greg Baumann says being universal allows technicians to establish better relationships with customers.
"They can maintain their income and at the same time expand by selling other services directly," Baumann says. "The advantage for the company is that people with established relationships with technicians aren’t going to price shop."
For example, A-Active’s technicians are cross-trained to sell termite baiting systems to their existing GHP customers. Likewise, A-Active’s technicians servicing termite-baiting systems offer those customers GHP services at a 30 percent discount. "This has allowed our technicians to make more money and it has reduced turnover," Kordek says.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS. Service vehicles are a big consideration for universal technicians (see related story, page 28). How a truck is structured depends on if a technician performs just termite bait work or termite liquid applications as well. Some companies that use spray rigs and other equipment for termite and general pest control insecticide applications aren’t able to put both rigs in a smaller-size truck.
"In a small truck, it is difficult to fit everything you need to do both termite and pest control services, says J&J’s Robert John.
"Equipment is a big issue," according to Bryan Gaspard, J&J’s operations manager. "The last thing you want to do is contaminate bait stations so we try to keep everything as separate as we can."
Many companies separate the types of trucks they use for different services.
"In my company we do so few liquid treatments that equipping a truck with drills, rods, barrels for liquid termiticides and then to equip that truck for (GHP spray pesticides) defeats the purpose," said Kordek. "It is more efficient for us to have a person who specializes in doing actual liquid termiticide treatments because it is a specialty service for us."
Wil-Kil Pest Control’s Bergum, agrees. "We have individual trucks for each category. For example, before we do a termite job we prepare trucks with all of the materials and equipment that are needed. We then will call up the technician and tell him to meet us out at a site. Or if it is a big job we might have a meeting at the office. In other words, we don’t have trucks that can be used for termite work and general pest control but we have both types of trucks, so planning ahead is the key."
CONCLUSION. What’s allowed pest control companies the option of using universal technicians are changes in technology. Today, fewer products can be used in less quantities, which allows technicians to carry more equipment if necessary.
"In 1963 as a lawn technician I’d put out 30 gallons of water per square foot," Hardy says. "Now I can use a hand sprayer (quart bottles) and treat 1,000 square feet with 2½ gallons of water. We don’t need the big large tank with the big engine and the hose."
This trend of adapting one’s services to new products and technology has been repeated throughout the history of the pest control industry. Whether a company chooses to use universal technicians is a case-by-case decision. But it’s certain that manufacturers will continue to push the envelope with new technology, which will allow a variety of service offerings for pest management professionals.
But at the center of this trend are technicians, who may be the ones who ultimately decide how they want to run their routes and whether they’d like to have specialized knowledge about one type of pest or if they’d prefer to have a broad range of knowledge about a wide spectrum of pests.
"I really believe technicians are trained well enough to do both and (being universal) says some positive things about the industry — that our technicians are competent in all areas of pest management," Greg Baumann said.
The authors are Internet editor and editor of PCT magazine, respectively.
What Technicians Are Saying
A universal technician must be trained and knowledgeable in many facets of pest control. Some technicians enjoy being multi-taskers while others prefer specializing in one type of service. Here’s a sampling of what technicians contacted by PCT had to say:
"I think that you can build a great relationship with the client if you’re keeping their home pest free as well as protecting their home from termites. Also, having just one person means less phone calls and less appointments for customers." — Theresa Bartlett, A-Active Termite & Pest Control, Virginia Beach, Va.
"I’ll do all types of pest control but what I really like is termite work. One thing I’ve noticed with (GHP) route work is that customers are in a hurry and you are in more of a hurry. With termite work you have more time at each account so you can talk more and communicate more with the customer." — Eddie Simpson, Pest Management Systems, Greensboro, N.C.
"Sometimes when you do just one type of pest control you can become a little complacent. This way you can expand your knowledge. For example, I’ve learned a lot about construction from doing both termite and residential work. I’ve learned that sometimes when buildings add on, new voids are created and you need to dig into these voids to find roaches and mice." — Greg Peterson, Wil-Kil Pest Control, La Crosse, Wis.
SERVICE PROFESSIONALS KEEP ON TRUCKIN’
When Terminix International decided to create a new truck for service professionals that occasionally service both pest control and termite bait customers, the company wasn’t fooling around.
Terminix officials worked with an engineering firm to design a truck that would try to "maximize productivity and reduce inefficiency," said Stoy Hedges, the company’s manager of technical services.
Terminix’s service professionals occasionally perform general pest control and termite baiting checks but no liquid termite treatments. "Checking termite baits is not a whole lot different than performing general pest control," Hedges said. A separate service professional installs termite baiting systems.
From an electric hose reel to a telescopic ladder, the truck is designed to give service professionals access to everything they need while servicing their routes. Terminix’s new trucks have one spray tank for pest control and two separated boxes that contain liquid products and insect and termite baits. "The baits are in a closed box on one side and are kept as separated as possible," Hedges said.
But the trucks weren’t just designed to combine the talents of termite baiting and general pest control service professionals. They were also designed to make products and equipment easier to retrieve and stow away, thereby decreasing the time spent at each account.
"We worked to try to create something so that service professionals can perform even better service. Two or three minutes at each stop really adds up," Hedges said. "There are so many things that service professionals have to carry but if we can cut out two or three minutes per stop, that’s huge."
The specialized trucks are more expensive than a traditional service vehicle that is frequently put together piecemeal with a spray tank or a toolbox. But when Terminix receives the new trucks, the tanks are already mounted and equipment and products are the only tools that need to be added before the truck can hit the road.