When COVID-19 first hit the U.S., it sent shockwaves across the business world—and pest management companies were certainly not immune. As state governors handed down executive orders for citizens to shelter in place and businesses to shutter, there was a lot of uncertainty about which industries would qualify as essential.
“Initially, people were scared,” recalls Michael Rottler, President/CEO of Rottler Pest Solutions in St. Louis. “I had employees who were afraid to come to work and customers who were afraid to have us in their facilities. Thankfully, NPMA was very helpful in getting the word out that we’re an essential business, which helped show our employees just what our role was.”
Once pest management businesses were deemed essential, NPMA members had their work cut out for them. Pest management leaders worked quickly to adapt, incorporating new procedures to keep employees and customers safe. Keep reading to learn how pest management businesses have evolved and continue to thrive in the face of a global pandemic.
NOT QUITE “BUSINESS AS USUAL”
In the era of COVID-19, pest management businesses definitely look a little different.
“Once the pandemic hit, our business changed dramatically in some ways and almost not at all in others,” says Robert Baker, President of Clark Pest Control in California. Unfortunately, their commercial side took a hit as many businesses closed down and were not available to be serviced.
On the other hand, Baker says residential has only seen minor changes since it was already a contactless service, for the most part. This service generally takes place outside of the home unless a customer requests for the technician to come inside. “However, we now require our technicians to wear their PPE when they go to the door, whereas before we wanted the customer to see their smiling faces,” Baker explains.
Baker says the most significant change took place on their administrative side. Clark Pest Control transitioned their office personnel to nearly 95 percent remote work, including moving almost their entire call center offsite. “This required a scramble to get systems in place to handle the surge in remote workers,” he adds.
David Billingsly, President of American Pest in Fulton, Maryland, says they attempted to keep things as close to “normal” as possible. “We felt it was important to remain calm and have the confidence that we would prevail and come out of this stronger,” he emphasizes. “We were already a fairly remote workforce, so it wasn’t too difficult to get most of the remaining team members to work remotely.”
Billingsly said they worked hard to stock up on hand sanitizer and proper PPE, including gloves, face masks, respirators, Tyvek-like suits and shoe covers. Of course, this was difficult in the early months of the pandemic as there was a nationwide shortage of these items. “We wanted to make sure we were keeping our team members safe and our customers safe,” Billingsly adds.
American Pest also implemented a number of safety processes around the CDC, federal, state and local guidelines. “We tried to remain as flexible and nimble as possible as it was such a fluid environment,” Billingsly says.
Justin McCauley, CEO of McCauley Services in Arkansas, says the biggest procedural change for them has been maintaining a six-foot distance. “We are no longer able to offer a professional handshake or have customers sign for service tickets on our handheld device,” he explains. “Ultimately, this is a culture change for us. If you know the McCauleys, you know how important our handshakes are when it comes to first and lasting impressions and building trust and professionalism with our team and clients.”
Other than getting used to social distancing, McCauley says the transition has gone smoothly. “Fortunately, we haven’t had any dramatic changes, just small adjustments that evolve from week to week depending on what new regulations are put in place,” he says. “We implemented a rolling schedule in our call center that included a majority of our team working from home. Some team members still preferred to come in, so we were able to provide that safe alternative while maintaining proper social distancing per our state’s regulations.”
For their frontline field team, McCauley Services suspended weekly face-to-face team huddles and started sending out a company-wide weekly video for updates on goals and culture instead. “Otherwise, it’s business as usual,” McCauley adds. “We have been doing outside only treatments residentially for years, so we were positioned well and not significantly impacted by COVID-19 changes.”
According to Rottler, his team already knew how to work with PPE, so it was just a matter of training them to be thoughtful and respectful to customers during this difficult time. “Early on, we told our technicians to socially distance and wear their PPE if a customer requested indoor service,” he says. “At the time, they weren’t even really requiring it. But we thought a good, respectful way to be in someone’s home was to have your equipment on and socially distance. It was amazing to see how appreciative customers were of that. People are grateful that we’re working and able to help them in a tough situation.”
Rottler says they also relied heavily on technology to maintain communication with team members. “Everybody already had iPhones and most managers already had laptops or iPads, but we got in the habit quickly of using technology to communicate more frequently,” he says. “For the most part, we really didn’t miss a beat. Budget-wise, we hit our numbers and the business grew. We obviously had some customers who closed their businesses and they weren’t as accessible, but it wasn’t a significant portion of our clientele.”
NEW SERVICES FOR A NEW NORMAL
In the midst of the pandemic, quite a few pest management businesses launched new sanitation services. For example, Clark Pest Control recently introduced its “Essential Clean” disinfecting service. “It has helped to offset some of the losses in commercial business,” Baker says.
In late March, American Pest started promoting its American Disinfectant service—which, as it turns out, isn’t a new line of work for the company. “What many people may not know is that American Pest was originally founded as American Disinfectant Company in 1925,” Billingsly explains. “It gave our organization great pride to get back to our roots and help protect the public’s health, much like we did in the 20s and 30s.”
On the other hand, some businesses decided to stay focused exclusively on pest management. “We considered disinfecting services, but our pest and termite business continued growing at a good pace, so we didn’t feel we needed to pursue another service line,” explains McCauley. “We also have a handyman and electrical division, and we saw a big uptick in those service lines since more people were staying home and working on home improvement projects—especially when stimulus money was approved.”
SURVIVING AND THRIVING
While providing an essential service in the middle of a pandemic is no walk in the park, most pest management businesses have taken it all in stride. Not only have these resilient companies survived this crisis, but many are actually thriving. In fact, every NPMA member we interviewed had a success story to share.
McCauley says his company’s greatest pandemic success story is the positive attitude of the McCauley Services team. “At first I think we had some uncertainty and a little apprehension in our team on how to proceed,” he explains. “As we saw our industry get declared an essential service, our company felt a sense of pride and community. Not only were we able to have some ‘normalcy’ by continuing business as usual, but our team felt validated and acknowledged for what they do as protectors of public health, property and the environment.”
For Clark Pest Control, Baker says he was impressed with how quickly they were able to pull together the necessary resources and transition everyone to remote work—all in less than a week. “To see our teams having an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ attitude to make things happen was very rewarding,” he says. “I’m proud of all of them! Also, when the pandemic initially hit, and PPE was scarce for front line workers, our employees went above and beyond. We completely switched from surgical, Nitrile gloves to reusable nitrile gloves and donated our entire inventory to the local hospital workers. Some of our offices pooled together to make masks for frontline workers as well. Everyone was working for a common good, and I could not have been prouder.”
Billingsly echoes this sentiment. “Our overall success story would be the resilience of our team here at American Pest,” he says. “The way they have rallied around our mission to be committed to protecting public health and leading the way as a modern and innovative pest management firm has really impressed me. We have had a unique opportunity to meet our clients’ needs on an entirely new level. Despite the adversity, communication between our team and clients is at an all-time high. We have adapted quickly to robust digital and telecommunications, taking the time to truly get to know our customers and their needs. And I believe more than ever our customers have found a level of trust in us.”
Rottler shares a similar success story about his call center team. “Since we’ve we moved our call center folks out of the office and let them work from home, it has created a better quality of life for them,” he remarks. He points out that these employees can now be home with their children and don’t have to commute, which makes them happier and more productive. “They’ve done such a good job working remotely. Moving forward, we’re telling them there’s no reason to come back unless they want. They have a desk here, but otherwise, they’re doing a good job and they can work the way they see fit.”
While these uncertain times have definitely been challenging, one thing is certain: No matter what the future brings, pest management businesses will continue to collaborate, adapt and succeed.
By Amy Bell
Photo credit: ISTOCK.COM/ILKERCELIK