Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New termite monitors can lead to hard sell

A recent trend has pest control providers installing termite monitoring stations around residential accounts. These stations are often offered to pest control customers as a free add-on to accompany a standard pest control contract. But there are ethical issues surrounding their use, which I think need some healthy debate.

In case you're not familiar with them, here's how termite monitor stations work. A set of small stations with a termite-attracting, cellulose bait is inserted in the ground around a structure. The stations are designed to be easily monitored by a technician during a regular service visit. Some of these devices have ingenious methods of signalling a termite "hit", similar to the pop-up devices on turkeys used to tell you when they are cooked. Some even allow the homeowner to check their own stations.

The proliferation of these devices begs the question, "What does it really mean to have termites near one's home?" In most cases the answer is, "not much."

Termites, especially in the southern and southeastern states, are commonly found in most yards around homes. Their presence around a house foundation is not usually a cause for alarm. Indeed, they are quite normal.

The ethical issue surrounding these devices concerns what a pest control company does with the information. If the customer is approached with a statement like, "We've found termites in one of our stations, but it's no cause for alarm. I think it would be a good idea to schedule a termite inspection soon, since you haven't had one for awhile. And oh, by the way, I notice that your mulch has been piled a little too high around the foundation, you should lower the mulch and soil line around your foundation to reduce the chance of termites finding their way into your home." This is a responsible use of the information provided by a monitor.

If, on the other hand, your technician or sales person presents the horrified customer with a handful of wriggling termites (collected three feet from their home!) and proceeds to explain that their home is at risk and they should be treated as soon as possible. Well that's not so good. At least one piece of sales literature for a termite monitoring system instructs sales people to tell customers that termite treatment is needed if termites are found in the monitoring station.

To be fair, some customers worry about the smallest termite risk and will want to treat preventatively. This can be a reasonable decision as long as it's understood that the treatment is precautionary and not a necessity. The troublesome issue is human nature. What's to keep some in the industry from putting pressure on a customer to buy a service they don't need? Nothing. The sales literature from one termite station manufacturer offers evidence of that.

It's time to ask ourselves why we really want to use these devices. Is it really customer education? Or is it a marketing gimmick to sell a product that's not really needed? If I'm a consumer, let it be my decision whether I want preventive treatment. If I'm a conscientious pest management business owner, I want a policy in place that tells my sales people exactly how information from termite monitors is to be used.

The last thing the pest management industry needs is negative publicity about how consumers are being duped into buying unecessary services.

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