[Risk Management] Watching Your Step

Features - Business Strategy

Risk management in the pest control industry has changed over the years. Here are some of the most common industry pitfalls, and what you can do to avoid them.

January 29, 2013
Jennifer O'Keef

Effective risk management requires identifying — and then managing — the pitfalls or threats that could severely impact an organization. In the pest management industry, the risks have dramatically changed over time, according to Fred Whitford, coordinator for the Purdue Pesticide Programs.

“When I first began working with the pest management industry, the focus was solely on risks related to safety and environmental issues,” Whitford said. “And while we still need to manage those risks, the business has changed so much that now when we talk about risk, we focus on business principles and less on chemicals and chemical applications.”

The Purdue Pesticide Programs is part of the university’s Cooperative Extension Service, which provides pesticide education outreach programs for user groups and the general public. Whitford offered a number of tips and insights to navigate a changing risk landscape in the pest control industry.

Whitford says today’s risks come from issues relating to employees, customers, business practices and pesticide applications. What follows are some of the common industry pitfalls PMPs ought to understand, and how they can be avoided.

Undervaluing the Profession.
One major industry pitfall is an employee mindset that undervalues the importance of the pest management profession. “The men and women who are brought into the industry need to be educated about what PMPs do,” Whitford says. “It’s a higher level of thinking — this is a profession, not just a job. Pest control technicians don’t just spread chemicals and kill bugs, they protect homes, health, food and pets each and every day.”

In some ways, pest management professionals almost can be considered part of the medical health profession, Whitford says. “Consider the health threat posed by cockroaches, spiders, mosquitoes, rats, mice and even bed bugs,” he said. “Pest control is not about killing these bugs and pests, it’s about protecting health.”

Company owners and the industry as a whole must work hard to instill the value of the work done by the industry’s professionals.

Employee Turnover. Failure to instill the value of pest management will result in employee turnover, Whitford said. “Employees who don’t understand the value of what the job is all about will come and go.”

Employee turnover has both direct and indirect impacts on a company. Estimates of direct costs measured in dollars lost vary, but WebProNews (a news/information website) suggests that employee turnover can cost an employer 30 to 50 percent of the annual salary of an entry-level employee, 150 percent of a mid-level employee’s salary, and up to 400 percent of the salary of a specialized, high-level employee.

As well, there are costs associated with the loss of experience and institutional knowledge, according to Whitford. “Pest management is a business based on on-the-job training, supplemented with book knowledge — not book knowledge supplemented with field experience,” he said. “When an employee leaves, they take their knowledge and experience with them.”

Whitford estimated that it takes roughly three to four years of on-the-job experience to train a technician to the point they are competent professionals who know the business and how to provide solutions to a range of pest problems and situations.

The loss of knowledge can be very specific to the type of technician who leaves. “A residential professional provides continuity to a homeowner,” says Whitford. “A good technician brings a personal touch and knows not only what needs to be done now and where to inspect for potential future issues, but also knows the kids and pets and the homeowners’ preferences.”

Commercial technicians have very site-specific and often complex knowledge of their clients’ needs. “Food-processing plants, for instance, rely on the pest management industry to help them pass inspection,” Whitford said. “A commercial technician has invaluable knowledge of the plant layout and unique issues and who to see to get things done.”

The loss of any technician can have a ripple effect among employees and customers alike. Reduced morale can occur when the ex-employee is missed and when those who remain are asked to pick up the slack. Some may even begin to consider greener pastures themselves. Similarly, customers who have built trust and a relationship with their technician may not have a sense of loyalty to the organization itself.

“The company and office support provides the framework, but today’s technician is on the front line, where the action is,” Whitford said. “Companies need to value their quality workers and work to retain them for the good of their business, and the industry.”

Hiring for Today.
Some employee turnover is inevitable, which creates another risk — according to a Harvard Business Review study, as much as 80 percent of turnover is due to poor hiring.

“If you hire right the first time, you won’t spend time fixing problems,” Whitford said, adding that even if the need to hire arises during the busy season, companies need to avoid hiring any warm body for the job, but instead must take the time to hire the right person for the long-term. “Pest management companies need to hire for a 30-year career, not a short-term job.”

Slighting the Customer. While hiring and retaining quality employees who understand and believe in the value of the profession will help companies avoid some of today’s industry pitfalls, attention to the customer also plays an important role in managing risk.

“Not all customers have equal value to your company’s bottom line,” says Whitford, “but pest management companies need to treat all customers as valuable.”

For instance, a commercial account that brings in tens of thousands of dollars is likely to become a premium customer who receives premium attention and a quick response. However, a smaller account still needs to feel valued to remain loyal.

The same is true for long-term versus new clients. “The cable industry provides a good example of this,” Whitford said. “Cable companies offer lots of incentives to new customers, but not always the same deals to long-term customers. Pest management companies need to consider how they can treat new customers as special, but also reward long-term customers for their business, loyalty and support.”

Dumb Mistakes.
While the landscape of risk in the industry may be changing, PMPs still need to manage the technical risks of the business. Whitford cautions that technicians still need to apply common sense and avoid simple errors.

“I’ve seen sippy cups used as application devices,” he said. “One technician wrapped a sippy cup in paper, filled it with insecticide, and then left it behind in a house where three young children lived.”

Whitford continues to encourage better techniques to minimize exposure. “Pest management professionals need to avoid practices like using pressurized sprayers in schools, spraying underneath cots in day-care centers, leaving lots of visible residue or leaving rodent baits accessible for kids or pets,” he said. “There are situations where baits and other integrated treatments are better options. They may be harder to use, but the industry needs to continue to challenge itself to use the best solution to limit exposure.”

Dishonest Business Practices. Tough economic times may make it tempting to cut corners, and dishonest firms can even succeed — but only for a while. Eventually, word will get out and make it difficult to grow the company, or worse. Honesty remains the best policy.

“If a company sells termite inspections, for instance, the work needs to be done and done thoroughly,” Whitford says. “The company shouldn’t just collect the fee.”

Similarly, when there is a problem, companies need to own up to it, fix it and move on. “Eventually, a company will face some kind of problem situation,” Whitford said. “A truck accident, a spill, a pet that dies after a property has been treated — the key is owning the problem and making things right.”

Falling Behind. While the bar has been raised for today’s pest management professionals, the industry can’t afford to stop moving forward.

“The industry has evolved over time, but looking ahead, the next generation needs to continue to advance and improve the profession,” Whitford says.

Continual evolution is necessary for companies to meet their customers’ ever-increasing expectations. “Today’s customer is better educated about pest management and their options. If a company can’t change with the times, its customers may turn to someone more progressive,” Whitford said.

Owners and technicians ought to tap into the wealth of resources available to help educate today’s professionals. “Whether its certification and accreditation training, industry publications and conferences, or newsletters and trade magazines, each one provides important information about how to do the job better, safer or cleaner,” he said. “It may be a minor tip or a major innovation, but the information is out there. It’s the industry’s responsibility to find the new ideas, implement them and continue to move forward.”

Whitford also sees opportunity to learn from industry role models like the annual PCT Technicians of the Year. “The industry will need to hold all technicians to a higher standard,” he said. “The Technicians of the Year represent holistic employees that give 120 percent at their jobs and are also involved in their community. They understand their job and the contribution to the lives of others that they make.”

Editor’s note: To read more about PCT’s annual Technician of the Year awards, sponsored by BASF Pest Control Solutions, check out the December 2012 issue of PCT.


The author is a Milwaukee, Wis.-based freelance writer. She can be reached a jokeef@giemedia.com.