When Sanitation Is a Dirty Word

Annual Ant Control Issue - Annual Fly Control Issue

Offending your restaurant and hospitality clients won’t help you solve their small fly problems. Here’s how to approach the issue of sanitation to ensure their cooperation.

June 15, 2022

Most small fly problems are a result of sanitation issues.
Araya | AdobeStock

Small flies are a big problem in hospitality and food service establishments.

In fact, nearly one fifth — 19.8 percent — of commercial kitchens serviced by pest control companies had problems with small files at least once a quarter, found the 2022 PCT State of the Small Fly Control Market survey. The online survey was sponsored by Nisus and fielded in March and April by Readex Research, an independent survey company.

Most small fly problems are linked to sanitation issues. But “once you say sanitation, the hairs bristle up. Everybody gets defensive,” said Lucas Greer, technical director of Walker Pest Management, Greenville, S.C.

Making a blanket statement that an establishment has “a sanitation problem” — even if the place is filthy — elicits a predictable response. “The first thing that does is the owner goes, ‘No I don’t.’ Now, you are totally at odds with each other,” said Mike Grace, president of TNT Exterminating, Macedonia, Ohio.

Starting a relationship by insulting the client does not make for a productive partnership. “I’ve been there, done that in a previous role and it doesn’t work too well,” said Todd Barber, president of Barber’s Best Termite & Pest, Tallahassee, Fla.

Plus, the word “sanitation” is confusing because it means something different to both parties. For pest management professionals, yes, it can mean a lot of decaying organic material is present, but it also might refer to other causes of small flies. Likewise, the need to “improve sanitation” may mean cleaning, as well as taking steps to change the physical environment and employee behaviors to prevent infestations. Clients, however, hear “sanitation problem” and think you’re calling their facility “dirty.”

“I’ve had customers call and complain, write us a bad review because they were insulted by that” term, recalled Vic Palermo, president of Ultra Safe Pest Management, Boston.

Choose you words carefully when explaining sanitation to customers, said Ultra Safe Pest Management President Vic Palermo.

How can you explain small fly sanitation in a way that engages customers?

CLARIFY WHAT YOU MEAN. Greer starts by telling customers, “It’s a sanitation issue and here’s what I mean by that” before clients can “get their hackles raised.”

He goes on to explain what he’s found during inspection. Often the small fly problem has nothing to do with cleanliness, but rather water issues, such as HVAC condensation or water pipes leaking into the crawlspace and causing conducive breeding conditions for the flies.

“Educating and setting customer expectations are huge,” Greer added. This includes explaining the fly life cycle, where they breed and how to eliminate those breeding sites.

Robert Keef, owner of Bay Pest Solutions in Pleasanton, Calif., agreed, noting, “You can’t go in there like a bull in a china shop and say it’s all they’re fault.” After inspection, “then you sit down with your client, and you explain what you can do to take care of (the problem) and what they can do to help.”

BE VERY SPECIFIC. Don’t tell clients they need to improve sanitation in the facility. “You have to give them a specific opportunity to fix a very targeted area,” said Grace. “Micro sanitation” may involve deep cleaning a precise area where organic debris or small fly larvae was discovered during inspection.

“It’s easy to get buy in on a small area. It’s less accusatory than saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got a dirty place,’ when restaurants by their nature are not spic and span,” Grace said.

According to the PCT survey, 58 percent of PMPs said customers were willing to adjust or improve sanitation practices based on their recommendations. Only 39 percent said customers understood how small flies are introduced and get established in homes and businesses.

Document what you see with photos whenever possible.

SHOW THEM. Ideally, a client will join you during inspection so you can show them in person where you found small fly breeding activity. Usually, however, customers are too busy and that’s where thorough documentation and photos are a huge help.

“If you can explain to them exactly what’s going on and have pictures to show it to them, that’s going to go a long way” in getting them to cooperate, said Keef.

Barber agreed. “There’s so much value added” to providing customers with good photos of small fly activity. “Our customers appreciate that because we can be very specific about the area that needs to be addressed,” he said.

DON’T OVERWHELM. Ask the client to fix one or two specific issues that will have the greatest impact on the small fly problem. Don’t overwhelm her with a list of 20 action items.

“Have a priority, starting with the worst” issue that the client can be successful at completing,” said Grace. When these fixes achieve results, “then you’re the hero” and you can ask the client to fix the next item or two on your punch list, he said.

Palermo suggests that clients assign specific cleaning duties to specific employees to make these tasks accountable. For instance, give one person the job to scrub out trash bins every Tuesday; give another employee the job of cleaning floor crevices.

“If it’s too much (for employees) they won’t do anything. If it’s one or two things, it’s likely they’re going to follow along,” he said.

DISCUSS CONSEQUENCES. Some clients remain reluctant to fix the issues causing small fly problems. Remind them this can lead to customers seeing the flies and forming opinions about the establishment.

Swatting away a small fly while sitting at the bar or in the restroom is yucky. “It’s a subliminal message that says, ‘There’s something dirty here,’” said Grace.

Scott Ballard, CEO of Ballard Pest Management, Opelika, Ala., agreed. “People associate flies with filth, and so when they walk into a restaurant and there’s a ton of flies, they think the back of the house is probably nasty,” he said.

Getting shut down by the health department because a customer complained or shared a video of flies on social media causes much more work for the client in the long run.

“It’s the truth; it’s not a scare tactic,” said Palermo of discussing potential consequences with reluctant clients. “Most of them you do turn around.” But, “if they still don’t care, we’ll just tell them we’re probably not a good fit” and part ways, he said.

GIVE CLIENTS AN OPTION. James Grundy, owner of Hometown Pest Control, Saginaw, Texas, gives clients the opportunity to fix small fly issues themselves, with his guidance. “That’s my biggest thing, always being honest with everybody that we’re dealing with and letting them know what they can do versus what we can do,” he said.

If clients don’t want to take on tasks to improve sanitation, he tells them what the additional cost will be for his team to do it.

Either way, customers must be engaged to resolve the problem. “It definitely helps when they’re a partner in it,” he said.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.