It costs five times as much to recruit a new customer than to retain an existing customer, according to some studies.1 Unfortunately, companies that want to grow develop comprehensive plans to attract new customers and spend less time on keeping current customers happy.
It is natural for an owner to focus on finding new customers when trying to grow a business, but it is critical not to forget existing customers, says Audrey Hall, president of Eco Serve Pest Services. “My father started this business on the weekends in 1999 while running another pest management company during the week,” she says. “He was the only employee, with me tagging along with him as he visited customers.”
When Hall became the owner of the business in 2012, about 75 percent of the customers at the time stayed with the company. “I often run into customers who say that they remember me as a little girl when my father treated their home for spiders,” she laughs. “The key to retention for us is that we are not only a family business, but that our customers are part of the family.” This is an important point for Hall, because she says, “It’s hard to retain customers, but easy to retain family.”
Not only has Hall retained most of the customers who were with the company before 2012, but the number of customers served by the company has grown by 200 percent in the past four years. She attributes the successful growth to the same strategies that she uses to retain customers.
“We focus on personal service, which is easy to do when you only have one or two people in the business, but harder as your staff grows,” explains Hall. For that reason, when Hall is hiring new employees, she looks for people with dynamic personalities and a genuine interest in helping people. “I can teach pest control skills, but I can’t teach someone how to be conversational if it doesn’t come naturally to them,” she says.
Eco Serve has also identified strategies to achieve the personal service promised: effective communications, customer education, empathetic listening and a consistent public image that includes the appearance of uniforms and trucks. All six employees—three in the field and three in the office—understand the goals of the company, which means customers receive the same level of personal service no matter who is handling the call or visit, says Hall.
Personal service for residential customers means never using robocalls to remind people of scheduled visits, says Hall. “We send personalized emails the day before the visit that include the time of the visit and photos of the tech who will be at the home and the office staff who is sending the note,” she says. “We ask them to let us know if there is something in particular we should look for as we treat their home.” An added treat is a “doggy bag”—a plastic bag with the phrase “We pawsitively appreciate your business” printed on the front and two dog treats inside that are left on the front door if the tech knows the owner has a dog or if the tech hears a dog barking in the house.
Eco Serve’s personal touch also includes handwritten thank you notes signed by all employees and a $25 gift card for customers who refer other people to the company. “People notice the handwritten note and it has more impact than an email or printed note,” says Hall.
Carl Braun, owner of Quality Pest Control, also focuses on building relationships to retain customers. After purchasing the business in 2010, Braun has retained two-thirds of the 250 clients that were with the business—including a handful who had been customers since the start in 1996. As he’s grown the business and added employees—now employing three techs and one office staff member along with him and his wife—he’s focused on hiring and training employees well.
“I prefer to use the word ‘clients’ rather than ‘customers’ because clients are long-term, and customers are one-off transactions,” says Braun. One way he provides services that retain clients is to maintain certifications, continually train employees and promote our professionalism and expertise, he says.
His focus on training, professionalism and a commitment to quality service is important to demonstrate the value of his service, says Braun. “We are not the lowest cost provider in the area and we are not the most expensive, but we do provide the most value,” he says. “I don’t underbid a job just to get the business, in fact, I want customers who understand the value that well-trained, professional pest management companies provide.”
Commercial customers require extra attention, says Dan Frankian, owner of Hawkeye Bird and Animal Control. Corporate, government, military and industrial contracts make up about 90 percent of his business, so he understands the challenges.
“The contact people at commercial properties change frequently, so you have to stay in touch throughout the year,” says Frankian. He contacts his customers four times each year to check on the service they provided, make sure animals and birds have not returned, or find out if a new pest is causing a problem. “I prefer personal phone calls to make sure that we can have a conversation,” he says.
Frankian also reaches out immediately when he learns that a new person has taken over management of pest control services at the facility. “I go to the office and introduce myself,” he says. This gives him an opportunity to meet the person, explain his services and establish himself as a partner to help this person handle any pest bird or animal problems that may arise. “Of course, the most effective way to make an impression is to go to the office—with a falcon—meet with the person, talk with other staff and leave Hawkeye magnets on file cabinets and desks!”
Although his company has 15,203 active customers, some are less active as time passes due to eradication of the pest bird or animal, he points out. “The city that was my first customer in 1989 is still a customer today,” he says. “While the city retains us to handle pest birds and animals, our average customer relies on us to control birds.”
In addition to personal contact, Frankian’s policy is that answers will be given, or a service visit scheduled, within 48 hours of a non-emergency call. “We actually provide existing customers with same-day service if a request is received by noon,” he says. “Although we are only required to service traps within 24 hours, we shoot for 12 hours.” When requests are received via email, Frankian’s staff sends a note that they’ve received the request and tells the customer when they’ll receive a response.
Even if your retention rate is high, be sure to measure it, says Hall. “Track cancellations and know why they occurred,” she says. For example, if a customer upgrades the service contract, the first contract might appear as a cancellation, but is really a higher-level program, she says. See if there are trends such as people moving out of the area or dissatisfaction with service. “You can’t control moves, but you can ask the customer why they chose to cancel,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to survey customers to find out how you can improve.”
There will always be customers who decide based on price, but Braun points out that by educating customers about the value provided and by solving their problems, it is possible to keep the customers who are value-driven because they trust you. “We are starting to focus more on increasing the commercial side of our business, and have found a niche in daycare facilities, veterinary clinics, a few coffee shops and medical/dental offices,” he says. “I was visiting one of my restaurant customers about three months after I resolved his small fly problem, and he showed me a bid from another pest management company with a very low price. He told me that he didn’t care that the service would be $40 cheaper than mine, he had confidence in my service—then he ripped the bid in half!”
By Sheryl S. Jackson
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