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Rodent traps that text you when they’re “occupied,” self-driving vehicles, virtual reality goggles for training, apps for your company and drones that take pictures. Technology is evolving fast, and we’re keeping an eye on these advances in 2018. We’re also watching regulations impacting pest management professionals and products that are undergoing registration review (hint: pyrethroids). We see that the industry is more global today than ever before. The physical borders have been erased, in many ways because of technology and new players entering the U.S. market.

What do you need to know about all these things? What does it matter to your pest control business? PCT reports.

1. WHO ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?

(Hint: They’re not the same folks you were serving five years ago.) Last year, PCT reported on the largest growing demographic group — the millennials (Embracing Millennials, October 2016.) But, Cindy Mannes, executive director, Professional Pest Management Alliance (PPMA), says we need to be thinking “beyond the millennial thing.”

Mannes

“You need to know who is moving into your area,” Mannes says. “Understand the complexity of your service area.” (For example, if you’re marketing to millennials and your business is located in Palm Beach, Fla., you’re making a mistake!) “Adjust your marketing tactics for your population.”

What is universal today is that every generation has some desire to be touched personally by marketing messages. No one wants to be talked at. So, pest management companies need to consider how their website speaks to consumers, and what tools it offers to make doing business easier. And don’t forget to address how the face of your company — technicians — speaks with clients. “Different folks require different information,” Mannes says. (Your younger crowd might appreciate a technician pulling out a tablet to share details about a pest while an older customer could prefer to simply have a conversation with the technician and a brochure to review later.)

When surveyed, consumers in all age brackets — millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers — said the three qualities they appreciate most in a pest management professional are experience, trustworthiness and the ability to provide a work guarantee.

“People want an individual experience these days,” Mannes emphasizes.

Stacy O’Reilly, president of Plunkett’s Pest Control in Fridley, Minn., says residential customers haven’t changed that much in her market. “It’s still people who can afford the luxury of not having to do their own pest control, and it’s a household of $80,000 or more,” she says. “What has changed is the rental market.”

Property managers and large real estate players are buying middle-market buildings and converting them into high-rent spaces. “When you increase the rent by 30 to 50 percent, you’re not going to want to see any of the ‘big three’ pests — roaches, mice or bed bugs,” O’Reilly says.

O’Reilly sees a growing demand for servicing multi-family properties, such as these luxury apartment buildings. “They are interested in pest control as they are spending millions to upgrade these buildings. They are also interested in cleaning up the properties, and that’s good for us.”

2. INFORMATION GENERATION. Bobby Jenkins wants people to know that pest control can be a “techy” job — and this message, he hopes, will attract young blood to his staff. “We have to create a job that is interesting to young people, and when technology is utilized properly, it can really make a pest management position more interesting,” says the owner of ABC Home & Commercial Services, Austin, Texas.

Jenkins is focused on the intersection where customer experience, the service specialist experience and technology collide. “How do we make those valuable for everyone?” he asks.

Jenkins

Jenkins is concerned about labor. “It’s going to be a huge limiting factor for us to grow our business — and grow our industry,” he points out.

Also on his mind: How to have a personal customer experience when many clients are not even home during service calls. “If we can’t get eyeball-to-eyeball, face-to-face, and we do a treatment and all the customer sees is a bill, at some point, they’re going to say, ‘Do I really need this service?’” Jenkins says.

ABC Home & Commercial is addressing two issues with a tech solution: a customized app it rolled out last year. Technicians can take photos while servicing the property and make notes that are accessible to clients. (Not to mention, those clients get a text letting them know their ABC technician is on the way.) “It’s a full pre- and post-experience for the customer,” Jenkins says. “It’s a virtual experience.”

And, it’s attractive for younger staff that appreciate technology, too. They’re out in the field, capturing snapshots on properties, loading info into the app. They’re communicating electronically with customers just as they would with their own friends, really. “It makes the job more interesting for the provider and, by doing so, it makes the job more valuable for the customers,” Jenkins says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about information.”

O’Reilly agrees — technicians today need to be tech-savvy. “We don’t give our technicians a pad of paper anymore, we give them a tablet,” she says. Plunkett’s is remodeling its offices this year and going (mostly) paperless. “And, we are following up on the trend and requests from our employees to be healthier in the workplace, so everyone is getting a standing desk that raises and lowers with a monitor so they can have better ergonomics,” she says.

Investing in technology and modern office accommodations makes for a more attractive workplace — and a more valuable service for customers. “More than ever before, our customers expect excellent documentation,” O’Reilly says.

3. REGULATORY AFFAIRS. Every 15 years, products registered by the EPA that are used by pest professionals are reviewed. The process is an onerous one — it involves generating new data and analyzing it, handing the public a microphone for open commentary, more analysis and then, finally, a decision. Sometimes, product labels change and use is restricted. Other times, a product is re-registered and a PMP would never know this whole process happened. Most often, there is some type of change.

You can anticipate potentially paying more for products and seeing some label changes that result from the registration review process, says Greg Baumann, vice president of technical services and regulatory affairs at Nisus Corp. “Every time products are reviewed, additional data has to be generated, which is extremely expensive and time-consuming, and can lead to further restriction of certain product uses,” he says.

What’s up for registration review? Pyrethroids and neonicotinoids, among a handful of other products.

Frank Wong, senior regulatory affairs consultant at Bayer Crop Science Division, says, “2018 is going to be a big year for two of the major chemistries that PMPs use.” The multi-year registration review process is underway. Wong says, “So far, so good,” though pyrethroid risk assessments have been critical of how a product might “move offsite” via run-off. (Wong says water will be a topic you’ll hear more about with regard to how pesticide products impact its quality and aquatic invertebrates — a.k.a.: those dwelling at the bottom of the food chain.) “As we see chemical classes being reviewed, [water] will continue to light up as a concern,” he says.

What’s critical for PMPs to know is they do have a voice in this registration review process. And, they should use it. “The public has a chance to weigh in on each part of the process, and that’s a big deal for this next year,” Wong says.

EPA works on a risk-benefit model, Wong says. So, the regulatory entity needs to understand the benefits of products to the industry and public health so it can make clear labeling decisions, and so on.

“The industry has to make it very clear to the EPA what the use patterns [of these products] and their benefits are so they can make a fair assessment and come up with realistic mitigations for the continued use of those products,” Wong says.

Bottom line: Participate in opportunities to provide public comment to the EPA, and support industry organizations such as NPMA and state associations in their legislative efforts to do the same. “Continued engagement by the industry is important — providing the facts and information to keep those products as tools for PMPs,” Wong says.

Lonnie Alonso, president, Columbus Pest Control, Columbus, Ohio, says, “Always be at the table for conversation — it’s better to work with agencies than against them.”

4. FSMA IMPACT. What’s keeping American food manufacturers — your clients, if you serve this market — up at night? Food safety and complying with more stringent regulations as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is gradually implemented. “It’s not business as usual” for this sector, Baumann says.

Baumann

“There is no question that with concerns about bioterrorism and general food safety, it will take a higher level of professionalism and skill to service food manufacturing facilities,” Baumann says.

PMPs need to tune into customers’ challenges. Start the conversation with these food manufacturer clients: Find out what requirements food manufacturers are facing and what this means for how you service their facility. What can you do to help? (What can you not do?) “The most important thing is that the pest professional needs to keep in close contact with customers — and it’s incumbent on the professional to listen to the requirements of their customers,” Baumann says.

Cheat Sheet: What is FSMA, anyway? It was signed into law by President Obama in 2011 and gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) new authorities to regulate how foods are grown, harvested and processed. The FDA earned power to enact mandatory recalls of adulterated foods (they’ve been wanting this for some time). It’s the first major piece of legislation to address food safety since 1938 and the first regulation to address “food defense” (the bioterrorism piece).

5. ACQUISITION ACTIVITY. When will the bubble burst? That’s what many are curious about when the subject of M&A comes up — but a better question might be, is this record activity actually a bubble? Kemp Anderson compares what the pest control industry has seen with the entry of global players like Rentokil and Anticimex into the U.S. market, and continued consolidation (not to mention, fantastic valuation multiples that have been driving more sellers to the deal table). “The increase in activity and values that we have seen didn’t happen overnight,” he points out. “It has been happening gradually over the last 15 years.”

Anderson

“I don’t believe the bubble will pop and people will be back to dollar-for-dollar overnight,” Anderson says, referring to what was the gold standard for pest control firms in the 1990s.

The Internet bubble flew up fast and popped. The housing bubble grew swiftly then deflated instantly with the economic crash. The M&A activity in pest control was a slow, steady increase. So, Anderson suggests, we aren’t going to see any big change in activity in 2018.

With the market so attractive for buyers and sellers, Anderson reminds PMPs that what’s important is to keep a “clean house” and efficient operations all the time — not just right before you sell. He relates it to putting a house on the market. You stage. You make repairs. You do things to drive up the value. Do the same in your business today, regardless of your plan to sell or continue operating as is. Then, if an opportunity arises, you’ll be in the best position to maximize your value.

6.THE INTERNET OF THINGS. You’ve heard about the Internet of Things, or IoT. But what does it actually mean? (The Internet is full of things, so what’s this got to do with pest control?) Simply put, IoT is connecting the Internet to everyday objects so these “things” can send and receive data. In pest control, IoT can connect sensors and devices to traps that send signals to a smart phone, for example. (You could receive a call or text alerting you that the rodent trap in Mrs. Smith’s garage is now occupied and needs servicing.)

O’Reilly

O’Reilly admits, “I’m completely stoked about rodent traps that will check themselves so we can eliminate the repetitive part of our job — and from an ergonomic and health and safety perspective, it will be easier on my technicians,” she says.

This technology is already in effect elsewhere in the world. For example, Anticimex has its SMART digital trap, camera and sensor technology that provides real-time alarms and 24/7 monitoring. The benefit: reducing service calls, saving time, improving efficiency, driving customer service.

O’Reilly says, “Our traps will be smarter in the future, and I see this on the near horizon.”

7. VIRTUAL REALITY TRAINING. Imagine handing your technicians goggles that display a virtual reality — they’re on the scene of a roach-infested warehouse, checking for rodent activity in a restaurant kitchen, identifying bed bugs in a hotel. This is where online training is headed, and that’s exciting for Lauren Thrasher, president, Thrasher Termite & Pest of So Cal, San Diego, Calif. “With a virtual reality training tool, technicians can get real-world experiences without having to wait to stumble across certain pest issues in the field,” Thrasher says. 
Thrasher

Tech primer: Augmented reality (AR) allows trainers to insert virtual cues, content, objects, animation and video into a real-world setting. Virtual reality (VR) is like a video game — the goggles Thrasher spoke of — where a 3-D environment is generated to train technicians.

NPMA, Univar and PCT have long offered online training resources, giving pest control firms access to expert education. That, along with the idea of augmented reality to give PMPs “in field” experience on demand takes training to a new level. “Small- to mid-size companies don’t have the resources for training like larger companies, and it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to see every [pest] in the field,” Thrasher says.

One unit available is the HTC Vive headset and controller. There is also an app by Zappar that turns smart devices into AR or VR viewers. PCT reported on these advances in May 2017, sharing how Massey Services will roll out the technology. (Massey helped crowd-fund the Zappar app.) Massey’s Sean Clifford, director of learning development, told PCT: “You can create any environment and any situation that you can think of and place the learner directly into it, and make it as realistic as you’re willing to invest the time or effort.”

8. ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. Self-driving cars. Drones. Robots that optimize routes. Artificial Intelligence (AI) isn’t Star Wars stuff — it’s reality, and we’re already seeing how AI can evolve the industry. The research and advisery firm Gartner lists AI as the No. 1 strategic technology trend, predicting AI revenue to reach more than $36 billion by the end of 2025. Thrasher got an earful of tech advances at the NPMA Technology Summit in late 2017.

Clifford

“Drones for bird inspections makes sense,” she says. “You could [potentially] bid a higher price — and show a customer exactly what’s on the roof of their property.”

Camera-equipped drones that swoop down to provide a birds-eye view of critter issues is not only safer for pest control companies (no technicians on three-story ladders), but it provides accurate information for bidding and delivering the best service possible.

As for the self-driving cars — Thrasher was a skeptic at first. But, the more she learned, she thought, “This is great!” Possible scenarios: One vehicle delivers chemicals to technicians in the field; or, a self-driving car drops technicians off in a neighborhood dense with customers and picks them up after jobs are completed. “It seems far out — but I’m starting to feel like this technology might come sooner than we expect.”

Thrasher has her eyes on the use of wearables — smart watches. Products are pending so technicians could sport a wearable and their steps would be tracked. Is this big brother? (It all feels that way to some extent.) “We felt that way about GPS at first, but what we found with GPS is, we might get a call from someone saying they saw something with our truck — and we can find out through our records if it was actually true, and prove it.”

Technology can protect a company’s integrity. With wearables, a pest control company could provide data regarding where a property was serviced, which spots were a key focus, etc.

Less romantic and futuristic feeling — yet just as tech-driven and revolutionary — is the automation of processes in a pest control business. At Thrasher Termite & Pest of So Cal, a software system switch in March 2017 helped optimize routing and improve paperless communication with customers. Also, the company is figuring out how to replace its white boards with digital displays to showcase real-time data (performance, etc.). “I’m trying to focus on the seamless ability to communicate from desk to office to technicians in the field,” Thrasher says.

9. IT'S GETTING HOT IN HERE! Most pest experts agree that based on pest activity, climate change seems to be affecting insect populations worldwide. In fall 2017, Rentokil Steritech cited climate change as a factor that drives pest damage and results in a wider spread of disease and more crop destruction. And an overall warmer globe is triggering serious health concerns. Case in point: The Zika virus outbreak during 2015-16 was linked to global warming because it occurred after unusually high temperatures.

According to a U.S. Forest Service report, Insect Disturbance and Climate Change, forest insect outbreak area and frequency (more affected area, more bugs populating) trigger a gross imbalance in the ecosystem and can become a threat. The natural world simply isn’t prepared, which results in damage. For example, the report cites how the mountain pine beetle, southern pine beetle and hemlock wooly adelgid are taking a serious toll on forests. (This report was released in 2011 — so climate change is not new on the pest industry’s radar, and it’s not going anywhere.)

For PMPs: Continuing education for treating pests that may be introduced to the area is important — as is awareness, refining pest ID skills. Keep an eye on climate-related reports to understand what new pest pressures you might confront in the field.

10 . A GLOBAL MARKET. The world is shrinking — and our ability to communicate instantly, globally, is one driver of that. “Physical and geographical borders are just not there anymore,” says Baumann, “and there are some really good technologies outside of the U.S. that could be brought here.”

Costa

For example, rodent control technologies involving electronic monitoring have been used in other parts of the world for some time. Baumann recalls talking to a pest professional in Australia nearly 20 years ago who shared how his cell phone rings every time a trap catches a rodent. “That’s the way they do business,” he says. “And, we’re seeing that technology come here now.”

Guess where else pest control technology will come from? (Hint: The same place that manufactures your favorite flat screen.) China. “There is a lot of influence from Chinese manufacturers of ingredients and products, and I think that will continue,” Baumann says. They’ll partner with American firms to get products registered.

Innovation, no matter where from, is good for everyone.

And, what’s interesting is, we’re seeing some areas of the world jump ahead in the technology sphere — so we may see even more technological advances introduced to the U.S. pest industry.

What’s important to know is that the way products are regulated in different countries is — well, different. Sandy Costa, vice president business development, Green Leaf Pest Control, Toronto, Canada, notes that the pest control market is substantially smaller there — and, “It’s difficult for us to get the same amount of products available as in the U.S., so we have a much smaller toolbox to work from.”

Health Canada provides regulatory oversight to the pest control industry, and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) is their equivalent of the EPA. Costa and other members of the Canadian Pest Management Association (CPMA) advocate professionalism and continuing education to ensure the products they do have are used properly. (Fly-by-nighters can spoil the image for the whole industry, and they create the “bad news” stories that regulating bodies hear about when they’re considering product registration.)

Pest control is growing in Canada, and Costa sees more consumers interested in hiring a professional to manage pests. “We definitely see an increase in people using pest control and viewing it as more of a professional service,” she says.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.