Who’s Knocking At Your Door?

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Is getting in a prospect’s front door the answer to driving quality sales volume or a sure way to get slammed?

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February 10, 2016

Illustration by Val Bochkov

Lenny Gray was a Brigham Young University student in 1998 when he spent his first summer knocking on doors in hopes of earning enough commission to help pay for school. He was no stranger to the concept — many fellow students took jobs like this — but Gray admits he wasn’t sure the whole thing would work out. After he saw a friend make thousands one summer, he decided to give it a try.

“For me, it was a matter of paying my way through college,” says Gray, who moved to Birmingham, Ala., for the stint. He was the top-selling rep in the country for the marketing firm serving Orkin that summer. “I’ve been hooked ever since on the opportunity,” he says.

Gray went on in 2003 to start Minneapolis/St. Paul-based Rove Pest Control with partner McKay Bodily, who had quite a different experience working the doors as a student.

“I was above average but not an all-star like Lenny,” Bodily relates of the summer of 2000, working for the marketing firm. “I didn’t know the first thing about how to sell an account — and this is something that’s very common with companies that look at reps as an expendable resource, where they throw them out there to see who sinks and who swims,” he says.

Bodily switched gears and moved into management after the marketing company negotiated rights to open Orkin independent franchises. He spent a couple of weeks in training and moved on to run a branch, focusing on operations.

Today, Gray — author of Door-to-Door Millionaire — and Bodily consult with pest control firms on how door-to-door (D2D) sales can actually work as part of an overall marketing mix. Their approach to D2D is quite different than companies that grow exponentially, then sell. One such example is Alterra, the $75 million company founded in 2012 by CEO David Royce, who sold to Terminix in November 2015. The growth of Provo, Utah-based Alterra Pest Control (No. 19 on PCT’s Top 100 list) was largely attributed to D2D sales and Internet marketing.

Rove has taken a more integrated D2D approach.

“Our philosophy at Rove from the beginning has been that D2D is not going to be our only proverbial arrow in the quiver for marketing, and that is somewhat different than companies out there that are heavily into door-to-door and don’t worry about the rest of the marketing mix,” Bodily says.

D2D has proven a sales boon to some big pest control players, and a bust to others who have tried and failed at D2D for myriad reasons: evolving consumer attitudes, an untrained sales force, the sheer cost of running a robust D2D program, the stress of maintaining quality service promises when sales flood in, and below-average client retention (nearing 50 percent cancellation rates, depending on who you ask).

“In my experience, there are door-to-door sales companies doing it the right way, and doing it the wrong way,” says Paul Giannamore, managing director, The Potomac Company. The two largest independent players in pest control D2D sales, Alterra Pest Control and EcoShield Pest Control, are Potomac clients.

“Door knocking can be very effective, and the big boys are proving it out,” Giannamore says.

GOOD, OLD KNOCKING. Door knocking is probably the oldest form of sales, going back to the friendly guy knocking at the door to sell Encyclopedia Britannica or a vacuum cleaner. In the early 1900s, General Foods, owner of Maxwell House, sent coffee salespeople to drop off samples at homes. They’d return a week later to make the sale.

In other industries like lawn care, giants like Scotts LawnService enjoy strong D2D sales programs. In one year, Scotts acquired 135,000 new customers from 47 locations by door knocking, Giannamore says. “Had they not been acquired by TruGreen, they would have attempted to ramp up door knocking to hit 16 million doors per year, with a target of 400,000 new customers per annum.”

Those numbers look awfully promising to a pest control firm looking to drive sales production. But are they real? Do the customers last?

“No one can deny the impact of door-to-door sales in the service industry, and in the last decade we have seen an enormous increase in that type of marketing where companies hire specialized groups, saturate the market area and promote reoccurring pest control programs,” says Rusty Markland, COO of PestNow and author of The World Hates a Salesman.

Volume sales are attractive. In 2015, an estimated $200 to $250 million in annual pest control account value was added to U.S. companies through door knocking campaigns, according to Potomac Company research. The majority of these sales were realized through “summer sales companies” that focus on door-to-door activity.

But D2D alone could be treated as “crisis management” for companies that are not focused on long-term sales results. Markland says PestNow “seeks the best (marketing) fit” and “companies that can make the numbers and continue growth without D2D sales just do it differently.”

At Rove, D2D generates 50 percent of new sales. Billboards, radio advertising and Internet support door knocking. Gray says D2D actually closes “loose leads” from those other marketing avenues.

So what place does D2D have in a pest control company’s market mix, if any? Can any business fire up a door knocking campaign? What sort of expectations should owners have from D2D efforts, and what about customer retention — keeping those promises made at the door?

PCT magazine explores how D2D can work, or not, in a pest control firm by sharing experiences from owners who have dedicated time and money in this most traditional form of marketing. And, we answer some questions about why some D2D teams are successful, and where their stamina and skill for “closing at the door” comes from.

WHO’S KNOCKING? There are different ways to start a D2D campaign: by using in-house salespeople you hire and train — locals you bring in to knock on doors; or by outsourcing “summer sales” to a marketing firm that specializes in it.

Dennis Jenkins, president, ABC Home & Commercial Services in Lewisville, Texas, first tried a D2D campaign in summer 1992. A marketing firm that employed mostly Mormon students had reached out to the company, but Jenkins thought ABC could run its own campaign at a lower cost.

“Instead of using students from Brigham Young who had been through their mission and gotten very tough about someone slamming a door in their face, we decided to bring on Texas A&M students — and it failed miserably,” Jenkins says. “They were not so tough.”

Students who have completed an 18- to 24-month mission to spread the word of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints learn from experience how to knock on doors. They share, they listen, answer questions and often get rejected.

Michael Bond, an alumna and assistant teaching professor of marketing at Brigham Young University (BYU), says missionary experience does position those students to handle the rigors of D2D sales.

“For two years, you are basically a door-to-door salesperson, and to delivery (the message) in another language in different countries to different cultures compounds the difficulty,” Bond says. “You learn over time that you will find those who may be interested in your message. It takes time and hard work. And you realize that a company’s sales message might be easier to sell, really, and you can utilize the same skills you learned while serving as a missionary.”

As a student, Bond worked in sales, but not knocking on doors. And at home, he’s no different than any busy American that values his time. Recently, when two gentlemen from Vivint Solar — knocking is common in the solar power industry — approached him while he was in his backyard, Bond was a little put off. “I said, ‘I don’t know if this is the right time,’ but they were nice guys and they were polite, and they asked some good questions upfront that overcame my hesitancy,” he says.

That’s how skilled D2D salespeople get in the door.

“You can have a one-on-one conversation about something that might be confusing or technical or unknown, and you can better create that relationship between the consumer and the company,” says Tamara Masters, Ph.D., an assistant professor at BYU’s Marriott School of Management.

D2D sales is effective in service industries like home security, solar power, lawn care and others because “there is no greater form of persuasion than person-to-person communication,” Masters says. “You can read people’s faces, hear their concerns and address them specifically.”

So in spite of living in the information age where we can find answers by asking Siri or Google, nothing quite replaces that personal interaction. “On the Internet, you hunt around,” Masters says.

Smart D2D strategies include understanding pest pressures in the area and understanding what neighbors are dealing with. “Pests don’t respect property lines, so if a house is dealing with wasps three doors down, there’s a good chance the door you’re walking up to may have the problem,” says Rob Greer, COO, Rove Pest Control.

Bodily adds, “We see a very right way to market pest control door-to-door and to do it in a way that is good for the industry and leaves it a good experience for the customer rather than companies that have a slash-and-burn philosophy and lack of integrity in how the service is sold.”

A good experience involves asking questions at the door and listening.

But Jenkins has seen in his Texas market how D2D can get a bad name. That generally happens when a company is focused on selling a service (closing) rather than delivering the service (follow-through).

“A classic tactic is, if you say you already have a pest control business, they’ll ask, ‘Who do you use?’” Jenkins says. “You say, ‘We use ABC,’ and they respond, ‘Well, they are a good company, but your neighbor four houses down was an ABC customer and they’re using us now and they like our services.’”

No one wants a competitor to have a face-to-face conversation with their customers at the door. But Jenkins says D2D salespeople focused on just signing up customers don’t retain those accounts. And those who leave ABC for a front-door sales pitch do come back. “Returning customers is our No. 3 lead source,” he says.

Who

is knocking and how they approach a sale makes all the difference in whether D2D is a sustainable sales effort or a mad dash to build route density. And, that “who” doesn’t need to be students with missionary experience for companies to find success. Greenix in Columbus, Ohio, started in 2011 and has grown to 5,000 customers in that market. “We get close to 75 percent of customers through door-to-door,” says Kelly Garvin, head of marketing and design.

Greenix’s in-house team of “mobile marketeers” is trained to knock on doors and represent the brand. The pitch is based on education. The salespeople go on ride-alongs with technicians so they understand how properties are treated and products are used.

“It’s a hard job and not everyone can do it — and not everyone wants to do it,” Garvin relates. But by taking a team approach and focusing on building morale, Greenix has managed to cultivate a D2D team without relying on a marketing company that specializes in this sales avenue. “We pride ourselves on being honest, and I think that’s what closes a sale,” Garvin says.

WHAT ABOUT RETENTION? That’s the question discerning companies ask — and that all companies should inquire about — before launching any marketing strategy. If you can close a sale but lose the customers after a year, is the investment in D2D worth it?

Giannamore notes that retention rates are based on factors ranging from how a sale is made to how a company serves customers. “Historically, summer sales companies were just that, sales companies, not service organizations,” he says. “But that’s changing very rapidly.”

Bodily says, “There are two ways to look at D2D sales: There are sales companies that try to get into pest control, and there are pest control companies that get into D2D sales. We want to target the latter because we know they are in it for the long-haul. We want to teach pest control companies how to sell and how to be door-to-door salespeople.”

In other words, what’s the end goal of the company knocking at the door?

Retention is naturally more important to pest control companies that want to build and sustain a customer base. “We are selling our name,” Jenkins points out, adding, “Our favorite customers are the ones who chose us.

“I’m a stable business in the market — I’m not for sale,” he continues. “Those customers know and feel that. They respect it. Customers are not commodities that are bought and sold.”

Jenkins is referring to firms that build customer volume to look good on paper as an asset rather than as developing genuine long-term business.

So, what are retention rates typically for D2D sales? In the first 18 months, a summer sales business can lose up to 40 percent of its customers, according to Potomac Company research. That said, customers that stay on board have retention rates that mirror the rest of the customer base.

“Summer sales customers have higher defection rates in the first 18 months, but after they are seasoned, they retain almost identically to non-door-to-door sourced customers,” Giannamore says.

Specifically, the average customer life of a residential pest control customer is 5 to 6.7 years, which is about an 80- to 85-percent retention rate, according to the research.

At Clark Pest Control in Lodi, Calif., Nicole Kirwan Keefe relates that the company ran a robust D2D sales campaign for more than a decade. It launched in the mid- to late-1990s until the company stopped in 2012. “We were heavily dependent on it for quite some time,” she says.

But Clark stopped having successful summers in about 2008-09. “We couldn’t keep up with the cancellations and the growth wasn’t there,” Keefe says. “Over time, the program became financially too cumbersome.”

During the program’s heyday, Clark had about 15 branches, and each had a summer sales team of 15 or more students. “We worked mostly out of Utah,” Clark says of recruiting at BYU and Utah State University. Clark had an internal liaison who focused on hiring and onboarding the summer sales team, and as the program grew the company hired a few of the super-stars to actually run it.

“They got a big commission and housing — and housing (costs) in this area are no joke,” Keefe says.

The cancellation rate was always about 50 percent. “But the growth was still there, even with the high cancellation rate it still panned out,” Keefe says. “The next summer, they’d just sell more.”

During the initial economic fallout about seven years ago, Keefe says the company stopped seeing sales growth in summer. The cancellation rate of 50 percent persisted. “We couldn’t get the sales to justify the cancellations and cost,” Keefe says. “And, we really needed to focus on getting our internal team selling.”

While the summer sales teams knocked on doors and closed customers, technicians scurried to serve those new clients. “If we are going to sustain our routes, we want our guys to look at those routes as their own little businesses,” Keefe says, relating that this mindset shift did not happen overnight. “We compensated technicians with better commissions and tried to give them better offers (to sell), and we put the focus back on them as being our ultimate resource,” she says.

Keefe says that Clark was too dependent on door-knocking to get sales during those years. “It has the right place in the right markets with the right level of investment, but don’t depend on it,” she says. “It needed to be a piece of our marketing puzzle and it became too much of our puzzle.”

This message is what Gray and Bodily deliver to pest control companies that enlist in their D2D marketing consultancy.

“Door-to-door drives traffic through other marketing channels, so if you put efforts into your website or SEO, or if you have magazines with your advertisements or billboards with your name on it, door-to-door interaction will make people more likely to respond to those other marketing efforts,” Greer adds of Rove’s program.

As for sales expectations from D2D sales, Gray says new representatives should sell one to two new accounts per day. Seasoned summer salespeople can close eight to a dozen customers daily. (They’ll knock on about 100 doors and talk to about 60 people to get these results.)

Cancellation rates within the first year might be 6 to 7 percent for a new D2D campaign done through the Gray/Bodily program (focused on training reps). After a program is in place for a while, cancellation rates are closer to 4 percent, which is the case at Rove Pest Control. “If you just have a group of guys going out and knocking on doors, the fall-out can be as high as 25 to 30 percent,” Gray says.

As The Potomac Group research indicated, retention rates after 24 months — once customers are “seasoned” — mirror the industry average of about 80 to 85 percent.

GETTING IN THE DOOR. With today’s focus on content and information-driven marketing, where does a D2D sales program fit in at a pest control company? Can any business pull it off, and do you have to hire in a “summer sales” firm to make it work?

Gray says, yes, the “average Joe” pest control company can implement a D2D program and if they “do it right” see results. Jenkins relates that ABC added about $150,000 in sales when it tried with local college kids. (“That was nothing like what we understood we could do,” he says, calling it a failure.)

Bodily relates that each sales representative should be worth about $50,000 in business. “So if you have a team of four people and you can grow your business by a couple hundred thousand dollars…”

For companies on the brink of $1 million, a D2D campaign could push them over the benchmark. “But are you financially stable? Do you have the capital to dedicate to the program? And, the effort will take time and attention — are you willing to put that into it to make sure that you get off on the right foot?” Greer says, asking questions that pest control operators should consider before diving into D2D.

Gray adds that success in D2D takes time. “It’s not a quick fix.”

For new companies getting the word out, building route density like at Greenix, D2D done in-house has helped build the brand and developed a large customer base. But at other businesses like Clark, empowering technicians to manage the lifecycle of a customer — from sale through service — is working much better.

That knock at the door could plant an idea about your service in a prospect’s brain. “You need personal contact to really get into a person’s individual sphere and address questions and help them feel good about a product or find value in what you offer,” Masters says. “The most effective way to (get that contact) is to go up to the door and say, ‘Hi.’” Of course, knockers will get slammed. Bond notes, “It’s definitely an interruption marketing technique. But if you can adapt the questions you ask customers and try to overcome their challenges, that is so much more effective than trying to get someone to ‘click here’ on a computer screen.”

Giannamore says the industry is “slowly warming up” to summer sales, and an indication of this is that acquirers are willing to do deals they would not have in the past. In 2015, The Potomac Company advised on more than $150 million in summer sales-based companies alone.

But the reality is, only a small number of traditional pest control companies actually participate in summer sales/direct-to-consumer sales. “As far as I can tell, ‘clover-leafing’ is about as door-to-door as most pest control companies get,” Giannamore says.

D2D proponents like Gray and Bodily think those traditional companies can get in the door. The question is, do they want to?

Markland says that D2D sales has, indeed, grown more prevalent in the market he serves. “It has increased extensively,” he says, “to the point that consumers are getting smarter and some have just seen and heard enough.”

And for companies that hire summer sales teams, what happens when the students go back to school? “Good companies need to hit their numbers in November as well as May,” he says. “So for us D2D is a short-term ‘shot’ that, while effective, is just not the long-term production results we like.”

The companies we talked to do not feel threatened by D2D efforts of competitors. Rather, to knock or not is a company preference.

Keefe says, “We used to hear from branches that ‘the kids knocking on doors are putting pressure on us,’ but we haven’t heard that as much the last couple years. We are so busy keeping up with our own leads and driving our own estimates that it’s like, ‘If you want to knock on doors, there’s room for all of us.’”

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio, and a frequent editorial contributor to PCT magazine.