COVID-19 presented challenges to all industries in the past year and a half, and the pest management industry was no exception. But while commercial sales dropped and the costs of goods and services rose, the residential sales market grew, according to two pest control executives.
“Residential sales have been excellent,” said Jeff King, president of The Pest Rangers, a family-owned pest control company serving northeast Pennsylvania. “On the other side, the commercial business has presented quite a challenge.”
King noted that it seemed like “everyone locked their doors and restricted visitors” during the pandemic, making sales calls an uphill struggle. “We got used to the term gatekeepers. If customers had a provider in place, they wouldn’t even take a meeting.”
Bug Busters Chief Executive Officer Court Parker agreed. “Managers weren’t on property during the height of the pandemic, so it was almost impossible to reach them. There was nobody there to talk to,” he said.
The lack of access to commercial decision-makers caused The Pest Rangers to shift strategies and move more toward email sales pitches. “Before the pandemic, commercial sales were all about phone calls,” he said. “It was unusual to have someone respond to an email. Perhaps because many were working from home, clients were more apt and quicker to reply to emails.”
Both Bug Busters, which serves the Georgia and Tennessee market, and The Pest Rangers saw residential sales grow during the pandemic period. “It could be that people are home all the time and noticed pests more or because they wanted to spend more time outside, and desired a more pleasant environment, with fewer mosquitos and other bugs, but it’s been very easy to sell services,” King said.
“The way clients purchase and seek services was changing before the pandemic, and that change solidified during COVID,” Parker said. “Maybe it was because they were at home on their computers all day, but we saw a lot more electronic activity during the period—people using the chat function or simply exploring the website,” he said.
King agreed, adding, “Today, there is far more activity online or by text. I think some of this is generational. Younger people don’t like to pick up the phone. For many of them, they don’t want to interact at all, except with the technician.”
Both companies said employing technology to generate sales is increasingly important. “We use every tool we can,” Parker said. “Even before COVID, we accepted all forms of communications, including emails, chats and text. The company even had a shopping cart on its website for a while. “That didn’t work so well for us,” he said. Still, when Bug Busters unveils its revamped website early next year, the shopping cart will return. “Seven years ago, customers weren’t ready for the shopping cart. It wasn’t a good return on investment then,” Parker said. “But a lot has changed in the past years, and it may be now.”
Still, knowing your market is important, Parker said. “I still think a high percentage of customers want to talk to us,” he said. But some of that depends on where you live. “Our customers in Atlanta are probably going to have a greater comfort level going to our website and using the chat function,” he said. “Some of our other markets are not as online and not as comfortable.”
Bug Busters routinely calls customers to close sales. “While we may get initial contact via email or through the chat function, we will call them to talk about their specific needs,” he said.
The Pest Rangers recently added a “preferred method of notification” option to its website and in its emails, and “it’s clear that our clients want a text or email,” King said. The company has also added additional payment options, allowing customers more options for contactless payments. “The easier it is for customers to pay, the quicker you get your payments,” he added.
Even before COVID, both companies shifted their strategy to incorporate more digital marketing to spur sales. “We are constantly branding and marketing ourselves,” Bug Buster’s Parker said, noting that the company is active on most social media channels, including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube. “We also have a major referral program. Budgets for marketing are certainly going up. We are always looking for ways to differentiate ourselves, and make the phone ring,” Parker added.
King said The Pest Rangers also has established a strong digital presence. “In the past decade, we realized that people were spending a lot more time online, we wanted to find new ways to reach them,” he said.
The trend has accelerated during the pandemic, with The Pest Rangers using some innovative marketing to reach customers.
During COVID-19, the company focused its digital marketing to target customers of products like hair coloring and tanning solutions—services that were difficult to access during lockdown, King said. The Pest Rangers also added video to its digital advertising offerings. “We made a big push on YouTube,” with videos explaining services, answering common questions and explaining how to sign contracts digitally, he said. Videos were also included on the website and other landing pages, King added.
That doesn’t mean that The Pest Rangers abandoned more traditional types of advertising. The company still relies on one of the simplest and cheapest methods to potential clients—the billboard. But the company does it with a twist. “Our billboard ads aren’t pest control related,” King explained. “Instead, we do more community ads.” For example, The Pest Rangers ran a billboard advertisement asking drivers not to litter. “Don’t be a litterbug,” the billboard said, adding a #keep309clean hashtag. Route 309 traverses the company’s service area. The company also will use emojis on billboards to intrigue potential customers enough to research the company.
“I really believe in ads with lots of white space or ads that draw people in,” King said. “We don’t put our website or telephone number, just our company name. We do short, sweet and bold.” While some question the strategy, King says it works, adding that he got the idea after visiting Yankee Stadium. “I’d find myself Googling ads that didn’t include phone numbers. That tells me that the company got what it paid for.”
While digital is the primary marketing push for Bug Busters, Parker said the company also continues to use tried-and-true, traditional methods. “We were always one for community participation—sponsoring youth organizations, community events, car shows or showing up at a local farmers’ market,” he said. “Of course, we couldn’t do as much of that this past year, but we still think it’s incredibly important.
Technology is vital, they agree. “If companies hadn’t embraced technology, if they didn’t use updated CRMs [customer relationship management technology] or try digital advertising and new technologies, they probably struggled this past year,” King said. “COVID-19 made clear that technology is necessary. You can’t just use a pen and paper anymore. You must make it easy for people to do business. We always must look for innovative tools to reach customers.”
Parker added: “It doesn’t matter if it’s for advertising and customer outreach or for operations, like using drones and cameras, technology is part of the industry.” Still, in many ways, the pest management industry hasn’t changed all that much in the past 50 years. “It’s always been about having a great team, hiring the best people and making sure you have a strong company culture,” Parker said. “Do customers have more access to technology? Sure. Do we use that? Absolutely. But when it comes right down to it, it’s about customer relations and providing top-notch service. That’s what it’s always been, and I believe it’s what’s most important today and will be in the future.”
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