With an estimated 19,000 companies in the pest control industry, it can be difficult for a business to stand out from its competitors. How do successful companies not only retain their customers but grow their business in this competitive market?
According to a 2008 PCT reader survey, almost half the respondents answered "superior service" as the primary method by which they differentiate their business, and a number of those who checked "other" wrote in designations such as "service," "quality service," "trademark service," and simply "old-fashioned customer service" as their keys to success.
But what do any of these terms really mean? Can you, indeed, differentiate your business through "superior service?" If so, how do you know if the service you are providing truly is superior — or even good?
We went back to the source, contacting survey respondents to further investigate the subject and find out precisely what companies are doing, why and how they know if it works.
Why is it important? Why is it important to set your company apart from its competitors? "Customers have many choices," said Nathan Anderson, owner of Anderson Pest Control, Las Vegas. "So if you do not solve pest problems effectively, quickly and for a reasonable price, it is difficult to establish a profitable business in this market."
Differentiation is important, added Angelo Tomiselli, owner of Rodent Pest Technologies, Riverside, Calif., "because you don’t want to be lumped with everyone else. If you’re talking about every company as excellent, doing an A+ job, then sure, lump us in, but it’s not like that." Thus, it’s not just being seen as different that’s important, but being seen as better. "I want people to compare companies to us, not us to them," Tomiselli said. "I want to set the bar."
Points of Differentiation. Here are five ways pest management firms are standing out from the crowd.
1. Green Services. One of the more recent developments in the pest management industry is the increase in customer requests for organic/green products and services. While some companies have added organics to their product inventory, such as those described by Anderson "for sensitive accounts and customers that do not feel comfortable with some of the common pesticides used throughout the industry," others specialize in "green" service options.
Eric Morse, president of Regal Pest Management, Mohegan Lake, N.Y., has found that his Yellow Pages ads that highlight such services generate calls. After seeing Regal’s prominently displayed tagline "Responsible Pest Control With Concern For Children, Pets & The Environment," prospects will call stating, "I called you because you mentioned your concern for children and pets," he said. Those looking for more information on the "green-ness" of Regal Services need look no further than the company’s Web site, which further explains: "Because we care about the environment we use the least toxic materials needed to give you the results that you expect. Many of the products that we use are from plant essential oils or are derived from flowers and other natural materials."
Enviro-Pest Solutions, Waterloo, Iowa, also focuses on environmental services. "I try to do anything I can to limit the amount of product I put down and get the greatest control," said Joshua Rzepka, owner of the firm. The company uses primarily plant-oil derived products, as well as mechanical control practices whenever practical and effective. It is this organic focus that is enabling significant growth for his company. Though it is one of the newest companies in the area, Rzepka believes Enviro-Pest to be one of the fastest growing — a "good problem" that has taken his company to the tipping point. "If I don’t put another technician on, I will need to start turning away business," Rzepka said, or he could instead increase his customer selectivity. Either way, Rzepka believes his distinctive growth to be a result of his organic service.
2.Service Guarantees. While most pest control companies provide some sort of guarantee today, the exact specifications of the guarantees vary widely and can help a company differentiate itself. Professing to have one of the strongest guarantees in the industry, Anderson explained, "We treat troubled areas free of charge in between regularly scheduled service visits. If the customer needs anything, we can respond to their needs immediately, often the same day." And if not the same day, it will be the following, he said.
Similarly, Regal guarantees unlimited follow-up visits for covered pests for any customer under contract with the company, Morse said.
Rodent Pest Technologies provides a guarantee for every service, Tomiselli said. Even with services such as bee and wasp control, for which few companies provide guarantees, the company warranties the service "for at least some time span."
3.Special Services. In some areas a company can set itself apart by providing a full range of services while in other areas. Conversely, other companies may differentiate themselves by focusing on a specific pest that others may prefer to avoid — such as wildlife pests, bees and wasps, ducks and geese, bed bugs, etc. Or, differentiating can be accomplished simply through product selection. For example, in his area, Morse has found that using top-of-the-line equipment enables him to differentiate the professionalism of his company’s service. Walking into an account with a power duster can leave a more professional impression than alternative products.
"Offering special services like full-service pigeon control removal, clean-up and exclusion, Africanized bee removal, bed bug control and many other specialized services that other companies will not touch" has helped his company differentiate its service, Anderson said, adding, "Customers appreciate a company that is equipped to solve any and all pest control problems."
R. Dana Pest Control, Rockland County, N.Y., differentiates itself by not only providing complete pest control service, but also operating a retail store. The dual operation allows the company to meet the needs of customers who want professional service, those who prefer to do it themselves, and those who are not sure what they should do about a pest problem.
When customers come into the store, "I ask them a little about themselves," said President Kristine Effaldana. Do they have kids or pests? Do they prefer to take care of the problem themselves or do they just not know? What are the particulars on the house, location and pest? Sometimes the customer will bring in a specimen for identification, or, if they’ve called first, "I sometimes ask them to take digital pictures around their home," Effaldana said.
Providing the greatest distinction from a local hardware or discount store where a customer could pick up a can of spray is the fact that Dana’s retail workers are licensed, so they are fully knowledgeable in pest control and can legally give advice to customers. In addition, the store has microscopes and reference books for any pests or situations that need further investigation. And, she added, the store carries a line of organic products. "I prefer low-risk insecticides, but I only sell what I know works," Effaldana said.
Once the customer fully understands the pest and situation, she can then decide if she wants to purchase products or equipment to take care of the problem herself or she is better off seeking professional pest control services, Effaldana said. The offering is particularly attractive to customers in these tougher economic times. "People are looking right now to save dollars," she said. And providing the two distinctive options for professional expertise appears to be working for the company. Though Dana only has nine employees, it has more than 5,000 service customers — plus its line of regular, periodic and one-time retail customers.
4.Employees. "I’m very picky about who I hire," Effaldana said. "I have no tolerance for deadwood." She seeks only employees who are open and want to learn, and who are interested in the industry. As a result, she said, "[Dana employees] find it fascinating. They love their jobs."
This desire to learn and the resulting knowledge and experience is an employee trait mentioned by many in PCT’s survey and discussions as an edge against competitors. Whether operating a one-person business or a national service, managers understand that customers want knowledgeable providers. "I received my bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University and furthered my pest control education from Purdue’s extension courses," Anderson said. Prior to opening his company about seven years ago, he gained extensive training with a large northern California company, and he now continues his education with entomology and pest control training books and trade magazines, Anderson said. "I eagerly share this information with my fellow teammates and provide extensive field training with our service technicians, managers, sales teams and operators."
Being able to communicate this knowledge with customers is also critical for employees. Selling pest control, said Jack Wiler, account manager for Acme Exterminating, New York City, "is selling the absence of fear," the absence of pests. Communicating the absence of anything as a service can be a difficult concept for customers, who may not realize the knowledge and products or equipment that are needed to maintain this absence. In such cases, Wiler explained, "if you are not giving realistic assurance, it doesn’t matter how good your work is because the customer doesn’t understand what you’re doing."
Taking this to the next level, Acme adds a personal touch where it is not always typical, such as to individual residents of the high-end apartments they service. "When you pay $20,000 a month for an apartment, you need a bit more hand-holding," Wiler said, so such calls or problems are handled individually rather than simply with the management company. "It seems to be paying off," Wiler added. Not only do the residents appreciate it, but the management companies, which had typically worked with two or three pest control companies, are now working with Acme exclusively and recommending its service.
While few small companies tend to have formal quality control programs, most do have informal programs and checks to ensure employees are providing the service the customer expects. At Anderson Pest Control, quality checks are performed by Anderson and his service manager, checking technicians’ punctuality, thoroughness of service and equipment, response to customer concerns, and attention to safety for their own and the customers’ protection. But the real check is by the technicians themselves. "Our customers receive superior service because our technicians realize that it’s ultimately the customer that is providing them with a career and an opportunity to provide for their families," he said.
Morse factors the importance of employee professionalism into company advertising as well as the daily job. Employees work in complete, professional uniforms including Dockers and matching shirts, and photos of technicians and managers are included in Yellow Pages ads and on the company’s Web site. Professionalism is also increased by the employees’ work satisfaction. Along with comprehensive benefits, Morse said, "We pay our technicians the rate of a Northeast sales manager, so we don’t have employee turnover issues."
5.Client Relationships. A company can provide organic options, guarantees and special services, and have happy employees, but if they are not developing relationships with their customers through such practices as personal service, timely response, follow through and trustworthy service, they are probably not going to hold on to the customers for very long — or so it seems since customer relationships were noted as the most critical factor of superior service in PCT’s survey.
"People buy services and maintain service from people they can trust and like," Anderson said.
And while communication is a key aspect of this, "it is what you do as well as what you say," Morse said, then added, "In fact, it is very often not what you say, but what you do." You can have a beautiful brochure, great ads and tell your customers that you provide superior quality, but if you are not following through on your service, it won’t mean a thing.
Follow through is, in fact, a cornerstone of service for both Acme and Rodent Pest Technologies. "We stress the customer service angle and personal involvement with our accounts," Wiler said. But, he added, what really differentiates the company is its emphasis on follow up. "Almost any level in the company is familiar with our larger customers," he said, "so pretty much anyone can talk with them." This is in contrast with companies whose sales teams sell the business then pass the account on to service and move on to the next prospect, he explained. "We insist that the salesman remain associated with the account."
Rodent Pest Technologies has a similar philosophy on follow through "It is a big deal," Tomiselli said, "although it is one of the hardest things to do." Even if an account or incident is being passed to another technician or manager, it is the responsibility of the initiator to follow back with that person, both to ensure the customer is being taken care of and to increase his or her own knowledge and ability to respond if the customer asks about it. Mistakes do happen, Tomiselli said, so encouraging everyone to follow back helps to ensure that things don’t get lost or fall through the cracks.
In addition, Tomiselli said, "our management staff is readily available." If any technicians have issues they can’t solve, he tells them to call him or another staff member; and if there is a problem in an account, Tomiselli will personally call that customer to make sure they are getting what they ordered.
Response time is another key aspect in forming strong customer relationships. Although it is a small, family business, Eagle Pest Control Services, Louisville, Ky., differentiates itself by answering calls 24 hours a day, every day of the week, said owner/operator Rodney Bullock. Superior service "is giving a fair service at a fair price, being honest to people and giving them service at their convenience," Bullock said. "I give them what they need at times convenient to their schedule."
At Enviro-Pest, the contract provides Rzepka with the right to reschedule a service appointment due to another customer having a problem. While some may feel this to be an inconvenience to customers, it is actually seen as a benefit. "If a client calls [with a problem] and I am scheduled to be at your house, I’m going to call and ask if I can reschedule, so I can take care of their problem," Rzepka said. Customers appreciate the provision, because, he explained, "they know that I will do it for them as well."
How do you know? Whether your differentiator is one, all or none of the five listed previously, how do you know if you are indeed providing superior service? According to PCT’s survey respondents, customer retention and referrals are the primary indicators.
"I know that I am doing a superior job for my customers by the referrals I get from them," Rzepka said.
In addition to referrals and customers who have been with Dana since its founding by Effaldana’s father-in-law, Effaldana said, "I get gifts and phone calls."
"We have a very high retention rate," Tomiselli said. "Once we get a customer we hold onto them." When a customer does cancel, the company follows up to find out why, and has found most to be based on financial reasons, he said. "Poor service is not one of the reasons we are getting."
Although now a fairly standard operating practice in the industry, Acme instituted a reporting system in the early ’90s when it was not as typical. Initiated at the request of a customer who asked, "How do we know you’re doing a good job?" Acme compiled the customer’s service reports and created a reporting system, which it then extended to its other customers.
Whether you are seeking to provide superior service through differentiation or by asking how you are doing, effective communication will not only add to your customers’ perception of the quality of your service but will help effect superior results. Or as Anderson put it, "The most effective form of communication is the visible results our customers receive when they receive service."
The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.