The pest management industry’s adoption of technology grows every day. Whether it is remote monitoring for pests, onboarding a new employee or completing service reports, the operational efficiencies, cost savings and speed at which companies are embracing technology and pivoting to meet current needs is impressive.

At the National Pest Management Association’s Technology Summit in December 2019, a panel of industry professionals discussed and shared best practices when it comes to employee engagement and retention using technology. Little did they know at the time how valuable that information would prove to be.

One of the panelists, Julie Fredlund, director of technology/ office operations for ABC Home & Commercial Services in Austin, Texas, knows first-hand what it takes for a company to shift on a dime. As such, the firm was able to adjust to a new reality, which included the COVID-19 pandemic.

ABC Home & Commercial has long been an early adopter of technology and had a strong digital infrastructure in place to meet the challenges of shifting office employees to work from home and to continue to deliver vital services to customers. While most of the company’s software is cloud-based, the immediate challenge last year was related to hardware and connectivity.

Employees used their own ISPs, gateways and equipment, but some were not quite up to speed to run the company’s demanding software. “Our I.T. department visited each office person’s home, in all of our locations, and conducted a complete technology analysis to ensure they were working optimally,” says Fredlund. “In some cases, we issued the employee a laptop to use from home, additional monitors and tweaked routers as needed.”

On the customer-facing side, the process was a little easier since ABC already had paperless systems in place prior to the pandemic. This made it much easier for the company to accommodate and interact with customers.

“Since we were already primarily communicating with our customers electronically, there wasn’t much to change in that capacity,” says Fredlund. “The groundwork was already complete, we just needed to alter what we already had in place to educate customers on our COVID-19 policies and expectations.”

ABC and Fredlund did notice a significant uptick in demand for online assistance from customers, particularly relating to the chat feature on the company’s website. The chat function had been in place since 2019 but when the pandemic crisis grew, ABC encouraged customers to engage with the company online instead of over the phone.

How significant was the increase? In February, ABC had 554 chat conversations but by May that number exploded to more than 3,700.

“We promoted the feature to our customers via email in April and we’ve seen usage grow significantly since then,” says Fredlund. “Customers have been turning to our website, chat feature or text options for new service inquiries as well as scheduling and billing questions.”

Before the pandemic ABC had one person monitoring the website chat during business hours. To handle the increased volume the company now has two groups of monitors — one from operations and one from marketing — as well as an after-hours monitor.

“It is a great example of teamwork between marketing, operations and I.T. to pull this off and make it successful,” says Fredlund. “Not only have we been able to maintain our customer service levels but we’ve actually seen sales activity coming through the chat feature.”

ENGAGING THE ABC TEAM. The more challenging part of the pandemic for ABC was keeping both the office and field staffs engaged.

“We recognized the need for human interaction, and promoted video meetings, as opposed to emails, phone calls and collaboration boards, as much as possible,” says Fredlund. “We made one-on-one meetings a priority, along with additional group meetings.”

Fredlund says transitioning to video meetings was uncomfortable for many at first, but over time it became more natural.

The company’s monthly meetings also went virtual with hundreds of employees watching on their phones, tablets and laptops rather than being in person. The company’s weekly meetings are now prerecorded and posted to YouTube so employees can watch them anytime.

The goal of “Meet the Anteater” profiles on the company’s website was to help ABC employees feel less isolated during the pandemic. Staff shared information about themselves to help stay connected.

Keeping morale up and continuing to promote ABC’s deeply engrained culture was another challenge the company faced.

“We had to get a bit creative on how to keep employees engaged and connected to maintain our culture and sense of belonging,” says Fredlund. “We leveraged technology as much as possible to maintain connections.”

Management encouraged employees to connect electronically by having them share pictures of their home office space or their pets or by participating in online polls like, “Where is the best enchilada in town?”

The company’s longtime anteater logo also played a role in the connection process. ABC created a virtual “Meet the Anteater” feature that helped employees get to know each other a bit better. Each employee was asked to create a 30- to 60- second video introducing themselves, sharing their job position and experiences at ABC, and giving some insight into their hobbies and interests.

The videos were posted on the ABC “Community” page through Paylocity, and several were highlighted during weekly meetings.

“Making people feel less isolated was the inspiration behind the ‘Meet the Anteater’ but this will certainly become a part of the company culture long after the pandemic is over,” adds Fredlund.

In addition to maintaining social and cultural aspects, ABC used technology to help with training. They encouraged technicians and inspectors to take photos of safety hazards they observed while on the job. The photos are typically shared and discussed at the in-person weekly meeting but during the pandemic ABC asked technicians to share the photos through email with their teams.

“Normally if a technician found a snake in a crawlspace or significant rodent damage leading to exposed wires in the attic, they would share that experience the next day, sitting around the table with their team,” says Fredlund. “Sharing the photos through email has allowed them to still have an opportunity to share that experience and it has sparked chats with teammates.”

THE LASTING IMPACT. Whether it was planned or done on the fly to adjust to current conditions, the investment pest management companies made are paying off and will continue to do so.

Fredlund says customer engagement technology — texting in advance of service visits, sharing photos/videos with service reports, website chats — is here to stay.

“Customers have been eating up those features,” says Fredlund. “It doesn’t replace the personal connection many of our technicians have with clients, but it does contribute to the total positive experience and maintains a connection.”

Fredlund sees the integration of new technology as a marketing advantage for companies. “Once a customer becomes used to engaging in a certain way, they’ll stick with it,” says Fredlund.

“They may look at another company but if they don’t offer the same experience such as online scheduling or chat services, they’ll likely stay where they are.”

What is the key to successfully engaging employees and customers with technology? Fredlund says it starts with selecting software that matches your company’s needs and identifying the right people to drive it internally.

“It’s not always the I.T. department or your software provider that leads the way,” says Fredlund. “It’s the service managers running reports, customer service reps using all the features of a software program and technicians consistently entering data. It takes discipline and being willing to hold people accountable.”

And it’s not only large companies that benefit from technology. Software companies have programs designed for smaller businesses that include chat, text and email notification features.

“It is much easier to launch new technology than it was three or four years ago,” says Fredlund, who is chairperson of the National Pest Management Association’s Technology Committee.

She encourages PMPs to engage with NPMA, state associations and their peers to see what’s out there and ask questions.

“There is a lot of support and knowledge available to companies looking to upgrade their technology offerings,” says Fredlund. “By taking advantage of those resources companies will feel more comfortable and understand what they can accomplish with technology.”

The author is a partner at B Communications.