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Many pest management professionals consider the bed bug the most difficult pest they deal with (see this month’s cover story “Game On”). Bed bug control is often difficult because of the unique circumstances surrounding each account. As if that were not enough, research has shown bed bug customers are likely to experience an extreme emotional response when first informed their residence/workplace has been invaded by this pest. What makes treatment even more trying is oftentimes the customer’s emotional reaction can make the PMP’s job more difficult. This prolongs their trauma and often the treatment.

Our firm, The Bed Bug Adviser, wanted to better understand what elicits such extreme emotions. We also wanted to understand and share some of the responses a PMP might use to help calm the customer and ease the situation for him/her. We contacted entomologists, psychologists and a medical doctor to better understand the emotional experience of the bed bug victim.

VICTIM’S PERSPECTIVE. As pest control experts, it sometimes can be difficult to understand the aversion people may have to insects and vertebrate pests. While we know that bed bugs don’t represent a major health concern, that’s not always something our clients understand. In fact, our research shows that the second-most clicked link when searching for bed bugs is WebMD. That tells us victims are concerned about disease from bed bug bites. Although not justified, the worry is real for our customers.

Bed bug victims are subjected to multiple levels of trauma — some real, some imagined. The border between the two is often blurred. Not only are they being bitten by the annoying “buggers,” but they also may have to deal with negative social stigma, shame and fear. Clients often fear they will lose their possessions and tenants fear the risk of eviction. Since it is common for people to lose sleep and experience dermatitis following the insects’ feeding, medical issues are a concern. If there are children in a residence, then parents can become doubly stressed.

Dr. Stéphane Perron, M.D., is a researcher at the University of Montreal. He reported bed bug victims have experienced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and rarely Delusions of Parasitosis (DP). Understanding how clients can feel victimized by bed bugs, and how to best manage their stress, can make the PMP’s job easier. Perron’s research indicated that clients with bed bugs experience higher levels of stress and anxiety, which includes sleep disturbances at higher rates than those without bugs (all other factors being the same). Perron suggests that anxiety symptoms are a normal reaction to bed bugs and even says, “If you have bed bugs and you don’t have stress or sleep disturbances, then you are probably not normal.” But not all hope is lost, as Perron also says that anxiety and sleeping problems both tend to disappear when the bugs do.

Dr. Gale E. Ridge, a researcher at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, says the “average psychological reaction” of most people’s encounters with bed bugs amounts to “wide-eyed panic and a withdrawal from reason.” At least one woman Ridge saw became catatonic when she learned her home had bed bugs. Would you know how to address a client who is in hysterics? This is when understanding clients and empathizing with their “victimhood” can make their experience (and thus your experience) go more smoothly.

Knowing that reactions to bed bug bites have a wide range of severity is commonplace in pest management. Recognizing that most reactions tend to be severe should make us more sensitive in our engagements with customers. Along with these anxieties also comes what Perron calls a “pathological fear” of re-infestation. When you are treating for a bed bug client you are doing more than eliminating a pest, you are eliminating a source of anxiety.

THE OTHER PERSPECTIVE. Bed bug victims commonly want three things:

  1. They want the “bugs gone.”
  2. They want them “gone fast.”
  3. They want assurances “they are safe.”

While we can eliminate the insects, it can be a lengthy process. Knowing what the customer wants, and the difficulty in achieving the desired results, must be considered in your planning and preparation. Understanding the trauma your client could be experiencing can help to develop a protocol that takes into account their primary concerns vs. your standard practices. Managing the client’s trauma can, at times, be more important than the immediate eradication of the bed bugs.

It may help to talk with your customer early on in the inspection process to get an understanding of the level of their concerns and anxieties. Safety is high on the list of concerns for the majority of customers. Intuitively we would think that means we should inform the customers of the fact that bed bugs present no real serious medical harm to them. However, according to Ridge, PMPs may have to walk a fine line here. What can seem as helpful advice can actually be perceived as denial of the victim’s experience/perspective, which would make them less likely to listen to what you say. The challenge is to balance accurate information with empathy for what the customer is experiencing. Communicating as much as a client is capable of understanding and processing can be tricky.

PROPER RESPONSE? While your primary concern is to obviously rid a property of insects, you may consider a modified protocol to address the customer’s concerns. Remember, they want the “bugs gone” and they want to “feel safe.” Taking extra steps to ensure a secure sleeping space during the course of the treatment can put their mind at ease. Reinforcing the idea that the bed can be made into a refuge against bed bugs will likely be appreciated and may facilitate a sense of calm, resulting in better cooperation by the occupant(s). A significant amount of our protocols should include securing the sleeping area through vacuuming, installing encasements and climb-up interceptors. These steps are crucial to garner trust from your client(s).

Ridge also recommends giving clients a productive outlet for their anxiety. If a customer has “a course of action” to proactively address their bed bug problem, it will be therapeutic and often will relieve their anxiety. One of her recommendations is to simply teach clients how to properly use a vacuum cleaner with a crevice tool attachment. Show them how to concentrate their vacuuming efforts on cracks and crevices where bed bugs “hang out.” Perron echoes Ridge’s sentiments insofar as he says he believes taking control is always good for the victim. Perhaps consider providing a canister vacuum cleaner for the duration of the treatment for those that do not own a machine. This allows your clients to feel like they have the ability to regain control over their lives by going after the bed bugs as they periodically vacuum their beds themselves, particularly whenever they feel they are not secure. This not only can help with their trauma, but it can also make your life easier through constant management of the pests.

Perron goes even farther and suggests PMPs should not limit the client’s ability to take control over their lives to vacuuming. Once you can establish some level of control for your clients, other pieces begin to fall into place. Perron’s research suggests that alleviating some of the anxiety caused by bed bugs with an initial treatment can help facilitate the client/victim being able to provide more assistance for future/follow-up treatments. While some, if not most, clients are incapable of properly doing extensive pretreatment prep, most are able to do so after an initial treatment (which often alleviates their anxiety). Getting clients to do pre-treatment prep for future visits may be invaluable.

Another action that can help (and maybe even overcome) some callbacks is to educate clients on running their bedding through the household dryer. Ensure blankets, pillows and comforters that come in contact with the floor are dryer treated prior to putting them back on the bed.

Recognizing that clutter can be difficult to deal with or manage means you may not be able to eliminate all of the insects in a dwelling in a timely fashion, but you can establish a secure sleeping spot somewhat rapidly. Customers who are experiencing the trauma of bed bugs may find themselves unable to do prep work or deal with the clutter beforehand. Doing a modified first treatment cycle during which you establish a safe sleeping space may help the customer’s emotional health such that future visits can include the proper customer advance preparation. Recognizing that your customers’ primary concerns can be different from yours can boost favorable reviews, help with job completion and customer satisfaction.

Adjusting your practices to be sensitive to your customers’ needs is always a good business model. For bed bug jobs, it might be the difference between a satisfied customer or a wide-eyed, panic-stricken person in the corner of a room.

The author is president of The Bed Bug Adviser, a team of PMPs and researchers dedicated to ensuring the public has accurate and up-to-date information on bed bugs. Learn more at www.bedbugadviser.org.