Every pest management company is expected to kill bugs. What sets one company apart from the others is the customer experience.” — Ben Walker, President, Gregory Pest Solutions
IT'S LONG BEEN SAID THAT THE CUSTOMER IS KING, but today’s knowledgeable, tech-savvy customers wield more power than perhaps ever before. Think about it: When a customer brings in a pest management company for service, what’s the one thing they know for sure? That if they aren’t 100 percent satisfied with the experience that company delivers, there are a dozen others waiting in the wings, eager to take their place and fulfill whatever aspect of the experience their competitor did not. Customers can identify (and schedule with) those companies more quickly than ever before through the web, and they have the tools to post, for the whole world to see, negative reviews about the company they left behind.
The good news is that you can flip this script, harnessing the power of the customer experience for the good of your business. Imagine that same customer, this time completely satisfied with the experience your company provided. They not only stay with you but gush with positive reviews and referrals. Business and revenues surge. It’s easy to see why the customer experience, or CX, has become a priority of business leaders across the board.
CX encompasses everything from the services you provide to how you communicate with customers through every touchpoint. Is it easy to schedule with your company? Are your customer service representatives, service technicians and sales representatives friendly, knowledgeable and helpful? Do you provide all of the information your customers seek? Are you readily accessible for questions?
Research illuminates just how critical CX can be to business success. In a recent SalesForce survey of more than 8,000 consumers and business buyers, 84 percent of respondents said that the experiences provided by a company are as important to them as its products and services. Price is a secondary consideration for most, as nearly two-thirds — 66 percent — said they are willing to pay more for a great experience. (Source: State of the Connected Customer, Third Edition, SalesForce, 2019)
Sounds like opportunity.
“There is no better way to grow our businesses than by creating a great client experience. Clients become loyal and tell others, through online reviews and in person, when they’ve enjoyed an exceptional experience,” says Kevin Thorn, president of Thorn Pest Solutions in Pleasant Grove, Utah. “While it may take time for customers to see the results of our services (eliminating pests), the customer experience is immediate. We’re judged on our interactions, so we need to make sure that every one of these is positive.”
Ben Walker’s team at Gregory Pest Solutions (a ServiceMaster company) continually identifies new ways to delight customers. “We believe strongly that it’s not an act but an attitude that wins customers over,” he says. “We hire for that attitude, looking for humility, hunger and smarts — the virtues Patrick Lencioni talks about in his book ‘The Ideal Team Player.’ Then we make sure our leadership team provides our frontline people with all the support they need to create an outstanding customer experience in every leg of their journey with us.”
Thorn says that pest control customers contemplate three things as they evaluate your business: 1) Can I trust you? 2) Are you good at what you do? and 3) Do you care about me? “If they can answer yes to each of these questions about your business, then you are providing them with a positive experience. To ensure we consistently earn these yeses, our team focuses on making each interaction helpful, from our marketing and sales to how we answer the phone, provide service and do our reporting.”
The next several pages will give you a glimpse into what some of your pest management peers are doing to master the customer experience.
MARKETING: Keep Your Brand in the Spotlight
When Joe Hawkins started Earthwise Pest Management in Sacramento, Calif., in 2014, he balked at signing a contract for $350 a month for a page on Yelp. When he finally did, he was blown away by the power of this singular marketing effort. “The phone was ringing on day 1, and the return on our investment was phenomenal,” he says.
Today the marketing push behind Earthwise is much stronger, and multifaceted, with a focus on electronic channels. Over the past two years in particular, the company has significantly stepped up its use of search engine optimization (SEO), online reviews and paid Google ads (text, call and Local Services ads). “I was able to manage our early marketing efforts, which included just Yelp and a few other sites and services, such as Moz Local,” says Hawkins. “But today, our marketing is much more complex, as we try to keep up with constantly changing algorithms and consumer trends. For us, it has made sense to outsource the marketing function.”
Meeting Customers Where They Are. In the Sacramento market, door hangers and traditional ads have waned in effectiveness, according to Hawkins, so his marketing team focuses on creating online ads and soliciting reviews they push through social media channels. “We still do some cloverleafing to let potential customers know that their neighbors are using our services, but more often, people are hearing about us through apps like Nextdoor,” he says. “Our customers do a really great job of getting the word out for us.”
Those reviews customers are sharing with their neighbors and broader networks continue to grow in importance. According to recent research by Bright Local, a software company focused on supporting businesses in their local marketing efforts, 95 percent of 18- to 34-year-old consumers, and 86 percent of all adult consumers, read reviews for local businesses. An amazing 91 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds, and 78 percent of all adults, trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations. (Source: Local Consumer Review Survey 2018, BrightLocal, Dec. 7, 2018)
That’s one reason the customer experience is so vital. You want great reviews? You have to deliver a great experience. That starts by being where customers and prospects are when they need help. Earthwise uses videos and other educational content, as well as Google ads tailored to specific search terms, to engage customers and begin their relationship on the right foot.
“When people have a pest problem, they want help FAST. We make it easy for them to get the information they need and schedule an appointment with us ASAP,” Hawkins says.
The Proof Is in the Numbers. How can Earthwise be sure its marketing and service efforts are up to par? Net new customer and revenue figures continue to climb; Net Promoter Scores (NPS) are consistently high; and new customers often ask for technicians by name, based on mentions in online reviews. “We’ve been growing aggressively for the five years we’ve been in business,” Hawkins shares. “I attribute that to our team’s dedication to providing ‘wow’ service once our marketing efforts bring them in. We keep those efforts on track by analyzing the data on keyword performance, ad and blog readership, review generation, etc., and then adjusting as we go to ensure we’re putting our marketing dollars in the right place at any given time. Our marketing agency does an outstanding job of connecting with and engaging customers.”
HIRING, TRAINING AND MENTORING: The Power of Your People
Creating an ideal customer experience takes a commitment to excellence from every member of your team — frontline, management and behind the scenes. When you give them the right tools through training, coaching and mentoring, they can become powerful ambassadors of your brand.
“As a service company, we know that the most critical investment we can make is in our people,” says Leila Haas, human resources director at Sprague Pest Solutions in Tacoma, Wash. “We start with training but recognize that it takes much more than that to instill complete confidence and competence in our team. We’ve built a culture of collaboration and mentorship where mentors and coaches benefit as much as the people they’re supporting. Sprague believes in creating lifelong learners, through efforts that include continuous training on their customer service skills.”
Haas shares some guidelines Sprague uses to ensure their team is strong and committed to creating an exceptional customer experience for their commercial clientele.
First Things First: Characteristics that Make a Difference. Building a customer-focused team begins with hiring people with the right skill sets and attitudes. Following are some of the qualities Sprague looks for in team members.
Service Technicians: The desire to be a lifelong learner, curiosity (will the candidate be able to ask customers the right questions?), drive, adaptability and alignment with the company’s values (integrity, strong work ethic, respect and customer focus, for example).
Sales Representatives: All of the above plus the ability to sell authentically, meaning with the intent to not just win the account but also create loyal customers.
Managers: Sprague strives to promote from within, Haas says, but also welcomes the new perspectives of candidates who have acquired management experience outside of Sprague. “Whether we are evaluating internal or external candidates, we look for individuals whose values align with ours, and who have the desire and capability to lead and lift others up; they will, after all, be developing our next generation of leaders. Strong, effective managers help propel our organization forward.”
Administrative Staff: Alignment with Sprague’s values plus attention to detail, an above-and-beyond attitude, and the willingness to challenge processes and procedures. “When our administrative team members ask, ‘Why do we do it this way?’ we know we are on course to process improvements.”
Formula for Success. Training + Mentorship + Development = Strength. Next step? Training, support and development. Haas explains, “Adult learning theory says that people learn best through experiential learning — in this case, strengthening their customer service knowledge through learning new concepts, then going out into the field and practicing them, and then coming back to debrief successes and failures with peers and mentors.”
Service Technicians: Sprague’s intensive onboarding process begins with what Haas describes as “a culture immersion experience.” Regardless of which of the nine states in Sprague’s service area a technician will work in, they travel to the company’s home office in Tacoma, Wash., to learn about the organization and prepare for state applicator licensing. Following this one-week experience, trainees head back to their respective branches for two weeks, where they get to know their local teams and participate in ride-alongs. It’s back to Tacoma in week four, for training that covers additional areas of Sprague’s business: sales, marketing, IT, finance, customer service and safety. Once they’ve completed training, technicians return to their branches and begin working their routes. They come back to Tacoma six to eight months later for critical-thinking and problem-solving exercises, including a day dedicated to Service Training And Relationship Sales (STARS) training.
Sales Representatives: Sprague’s sales team development is based on ongoing education and strong mentorship. Offsite retreats focused on sales and technical training as well as best practices enable representatives to share their knowledge as they strengthen their skills. Ongoing mentorship programs encourage collaborative problem-solving and continuous development.
Managers: For team members interested in leadership opportunities, or managers looking to continue their leadership development, Sprague offers two courses — the introductory Leadership 1 and more advanced Leadership 2 (for graduates of Leadership 1) — and is piloting the highly advanced Leadership 3 course. Participants must apply for these programs and commit to visiting the home office four times a year and participating in weekly hour-long conference calls. The curricula vary based on the stage of the individual’s career, but all program participants are paired with a newer team member to learn the intricacies of coaching and mentoring.
Administrative Staff: Each regional office manages administrative training and education, with the leader of each administrative group in charge of ongoing development and informal mentoring. Administrators are trained in software skills, new programs and functionality, and soft skills that enable them to engage customers, ask great questions, resolve customer issues and strengthen relationships.
How to Measure Success — and Keep It Going. Haas says that Sprague looks at a variety of metrics to determine how team members are doing and keep their development moving forward. “NPS is an excellent means to measure our customer satisfaction,” she says. “We also look at quality scores, account retention and referrals to see how clients are responding to our team members. When someone isn’t performing as well as we know they could be, we make sure they have all of the tools, knowledge, skills, leadership and mentoring they need to be great at what they do.”
The most important aspect of training, mentoring and developing is ensuring that team members are engaged and continuously learning, says Haas. “If you help them understand the ‘why’ or purpose of what you do, and provide them with development opportunities and a leader who lifts them, success will follow.”
CALL CENTER: Giving the Customer Experience a Powerful Voice
About 10 years ago, the leadership team at Gregory Pest Solutions decided they could create a more consistent customer experience by centralizing their call centers into one major hub, the Business Solutions Center, at their Greenville, S.C., headquarters. Each of the 22 people who work there today manage calls as part of one of four teams: the priority account team, commercial team, residential team or multi-housing team. They are also cross-trained to fill in for their peers as needed, with the overarching goal of establishing and nurturing long-term relationships with customers across Gregory’s 12-state market.
“Whether people call in to pay their bill, schedule a service, ask a question or file a complaint, it’s up to us to listen to them and then fulfill their request or resolve their issue,” says Sherry Mack, who leads the Business Solutions Center. “We also do outbound calling, to customers who prefer that means of communication for service reminders. We give every customer the choice of a phone call, email or text, and have found that they increasingly prefer text or email reminders.”
Route representatives, who know their customers best, make sure customer service representatives know as much as possible about their customers’ preferences so they can ensure a positive customer experience. “Everything we do is about making the customer comfortable and happy,” says Mack.
That’s especially true when a customer calls with a complaint. “When someone is upset or dissatisfied — maybe they even intend to cancel their service — we listen, tell them that we understand their frustration, apologize and assure them we will make things right. This may include offering them a discount on the service they’re calling about, or crediting their next service. Our CSRs have the authority to offer any service up to a certain dollar amount to save a client, whether we did anything wrong or not,” explains Mack. “We know that keeping an established customer is easier and less expensive than replacing them with a new customer.”
When complaints need to be escalated, they are directed to the appropriate district or branch manager, or to Mack or her supervisor, depending on the nature of the complaint. Mack’s approach includes smiling (yes, callers can hear that in your voice), listening and remaining calm. “When you take a softer, friendlier tone rather than trying to match the caller’s volume level, they tend to follow suit and you can have a more productive conversation,” she says. Mack also takes responsibility for calling customers who respond negatively to surveys emailed to them about the pest services or customer service they received.
What Makes a Strong CSR? Along with President Ben Walker’s standard of hiring candidates who are humble, hungry and smart, Gregory seeks the following in call center representatives: passion, timeliness, listening and speaking skills, and creative thinking. The company also strives to have a very diverse workforce. Today, their employees range in age from 18 to 70, and come from a variety of backgrounds. “Every person has different experiences and ideas; we benefit from that wide range of perspectives,” says Mack. “We encourage everyone to speak up when they have an idea for making our team stronger.”
Gregory provides new CSRs with intensive training that includes a full week of classroom instruction followed by a two-week shadowing experience that has each trainee listen in and take notes on calls being managed by a more senior member of the team. The trainee then begins engaging in customer conversations and ultimately handles calls independently.
Mack says that the team’s strength lies in not only its professionalism but also its collaborative, collegial culture. “We don’t just work together; we spend time together bowling, playing baseball, doing charitable work — you name it. While most people outside our company say ‘TGIF,’ most of us here honestly can’t wait for Monday because we love what we do so much.”
SERVICE CALLS: Mastering the Main Event
John Reid, co-owner of Virginia-based Accel Pest & Termite Control, believes in the power of communication. It’s what gives customers peace of mind, keeps office administrators and technicians at the top of their game, and opens the door to innovative ideas for improving the customer experience. Clear communication sets the groundwork, he says, for lasting relationships.
“When we started this business nine years ago, we would go to a lot of home and garden shows, which gave us the opportunity to talk to many people who were dissatisfied with their current pest control companies,” Reid says. “The concern we heard most frequently from dissatisfied customers was that they did not know when the technician was coming, or whether they had even been to the home. Quite often these customers would return home to a bill on the door or receive one in the mail. We knew we could improve upon this process. We prioritized notifying customers and communicating clearly at all times.”
Accel customers can choose to be notified by email, text or phone call. They receive a message that includes the date and time of their service, as well as their technician’s bio and photo, three or four days prior to their visit. “Something as simple as this can be a differentiator that gives your business the edge,” he says. “Once you’ve exceeded the experience the customer had with their previous company, you’re on your way to securing that relationship for the long term.”
Ensuring Technicians Provide Excellent Service. Reid and Accel co-owner Shon Vodila hire technicians who exhibit strength of character — honesty, reliability and integrity. “We can teach someone the skills they need, but if they don’t possess these basic qualities, it won’t matter how hard they work, they won’t be a good fit with our company,” Reid shares.
Then Accel does three things to ensure an excellent customer experience at residential and commercial accounts alike:
- Provide technicians with the knowledge and tools they need to assess the situation, explain the scope of the issue and solution with the customer, and then resolve the issue.
- Ensure that technicians look and act professionally. “We never want a customer to think that we’re coming in and doing something that they could as easily have done on their own,” says Reid. “We are professionals, and we need to convey clearly that we are providing a specialized service.”
- Develop replicable protocols. Accel has been growing at an aggressive pace since coming onto the scene in 2010. One challenge arising from this growth was complaints by customers when their established service technician was replaced by someone new due to route expansions. Reid and Vodila decided that if every technician approached every account of a certain type in the same way, customers would take comfort in knowing that their new technician was doing things the same way their previous technician had. “Since we’ve standardized about 90 percent of what we do — inspections, applications and such — we get virtually no pushback from customers when we send someone different out,” Reid reports. “The optics of replicating the basics adds to the customer’s peace of mind that we are providing professional service.”
The service call always comes back around to the communication aspect, with technicians leaving a door hanger listing services provided during the visit, to be followed by a more detailed service ticket, which is automatically emailed to the customer upon service completion. This communication includes information about the products that were used and any areas of concern, plus any other notes the technician feels are relevant.
At the corporate level, communication continues with customer surveys to ensure ongoing satisfaction. “We email a survey to a random sample of customers every day, and our managers call customers randomly throughout the month to discuss any concerns they might have,” Reid says. “This goes back to what we learned from those home and garden shows years ago: Some of our best improvements and innovations result from listening to what customers tell us they want.”
FOLLOW-UP: Gratitude, Quality Assurance and Keeping in Touch
Bringing the customer experience full circle means staying in touch after each service, says Kevin Thorn, president of Thorn Pest Solutions. His commercial clientele knows they can expect regular, ongoing communication from their sales representatives as well as Thorn’s corporate office.
“Following up with clients is as important to the relationship as the service itself,” says Thorn. “Your post-sale communications give you the opportunity to let your clients know that you are committed to their satisfaction and success — that you’re in this for the long term.”
While sales representatives at Thorn have the authority and flexibility to reach out to clients with cards, gifts and other communication tools both pre- and post-sale, the company has systems in place to ensure a consistent experience. Some of the steps taken at various stages in the relationship follow.
After a Client’s First Service:
- The corporate office mails a welcome letter with a small gift to thank the client for putting their trust in Thorn, and to invite them to call with any questions or concerns.
- The client receives an auto-email, welcoming them once again, and offering tips and tricks for maintaining a pest-free environment.
- A customer service representative calls the client to ask if their first service went well and to answer any questions the client might have.
- After a week or two has passed, a “Happiness Representative” (not the sales rep) from Thorn visits the client face-to-face for quality assurance purposes. The conversation goes something like this: “These were the issues you called us about… Are we helping you resolve those issues? Are we doing what we said we would do? Are you satisfied with the services we provided? What could we do better? Do you have any questions you’d like to ask? Are there any additional issues we should discuss?” Thorn says his team used to wait six months to schedule this visit, since it can take a while for treatments to reach their peak of effectiveness, but he found that doing the QA visits earlier, at the time the client is likely to be excited about starting to see improvements, was ideal. Thorn says, “This visit gives us the opportunity to (1) show the client that we genuinely care, (2) set their expectations and make sure they understand how we work, and (3) identify any course corrections we may need to make to ensure their complete satisfaction.”
- The sales representative also places a follow-up call during this time period, but the face-to-face visit is limited to the “third party” QA representative.
After a Callback Service:
Callbacks require special care, Thorn says. “Anytime we get a callback or go through a time period when things aren’t going exactly as we’d like, we check in with the client regularly until their issue is resolved. It’s critical during these times to make sure your team is providing excellent customer care and communicating clearly to ease any client concerns.”
After Every Service:
Thorn clients get an automatic text message or email asking Net Promoter Score (NPS) questions after every single service. “I don’t like to rely solely on this scale, because verbal communication tells a much more complete story,” says Thorn. “You can get a false sense of client satisfaction if NPS is the only tool you use. We emphasize the importance of face-to-face and written communication — emails, cards, gifts, etc. — between the account representative and the client.”
The rewards of great follow-up include a strong retention rate (Thorn boasts 99 percent retention), happier employees (they approach their job with more purpose, Thorn says, because they know they are making clients’ lives better and working for a company that cares) and increasing referrals (“better than any kind of marketing,” Thorn says).
“Focusing on the customer experience is the best thing a business leader can do for their company’s future,” Thorn adds. “When you optimize that experience through every phase of your relationship with clients, they become satisfied, engaged and loyal.”