An exterminator above the rest

not just insecticide and fumigator machines PestBusters wields to win customers; using IT to create additional value for customers is just as important.
Written by Vivian Yeo, Contributor

When clients ask why PestBusters charge more than its competitors, its managing director Thomas Fernandez has only one answer: Value-add.

Thomas Fernandez
Thomas Fernandez, MD of PestBusters

The pest management company does not cut corners when it comes to staff recruitment and training, and ensures that the best pest control methods and materials are used, said Fernandez.
Just as it strives to go that extra mile for its customers, PestBusters expects its IT service providers to deliver additional value for the company.

In late 2004, the Singapore-based company implemented Ranger Eyes, a Web-based application that tracks the progress of pest management jobs. Technicians who service clients are equipped with PDAs (personal digital assistants) to update the system on the go, while clients are able to log in at their own convenience to view the status of their request and learn what recommendations PestBusters has provided.

Fernandez, who trained in pest management in the United States, tells ZDNet Asia about the company's IT priorities for the current financial year and how the company has successfully integrated Ranger Eyes into its workflow.

How well has Ranger Eyes worked for PestBusters over the last 12 months?
Ranger Eyes has been about retaining clients…not just getting them. Customers seem to like the fact that it's Web-based and real-time--they can log on anytime, even when they are out of the country.

The other thing is we're working [in a more] paperless [manner], and records are stored on the server. Clients who want to look at their service data or historical reports need to log in; if they need the information they still need to maintain their contract. The pest control business is very competitive now--Ranger Eyes has helped us at least maintain or increase the number of contracts. [Client retention] is more important to us than getting new contracts.

We've been successful in the [Ranger Eyes] pilot project, and now we're extending it to all our major clients, because we see this as a tool to retain clients. We serve 95 percent of the five-star hotels and close to 85 percent of the hospitals in Singapore. These two [customer segments] are our main focus.

[Hotels and hospitals] are very sensitive environments. In pest management, we must understand the environment. If you have snakes like cobras or pythons, they're there for a reason. They are there because there are frogs or…the place has a rat problem. You need to identify why the snake is there, and this report that we compile and put into the system is sent to all the heads of departments concerned. It could be that the vegetation is [overgrown] in certain areas and needs to be trimmed. If the CEO is on top of things, no matter where he is, he will be able to know whether his staff are doing what has been recommended.

Just like how people perceive us, we look at what the vendor can value-add to our company.

Ranger Eyes acts as a warning system; it's about training clients how to pull out information. For example, the rainy season is coming, and you have tree branches that are going to touch the building. When the branches touch the building you're going to have ants crawling into the building, and so you better budget for tree trimming before the [wet] weather comes in. It's not just about using pest control; once you analyze what the recommendations are--clean this, do that…you know you have to get extra people in.

This kind of advice that we give, using trends and data from Ranger Eyes…our clients see us as a value-add because we're doing more than just pest management.

What other significant IT initiatives have been made over the course of the year?
We are looking at reducing cost in terms of vehicles, so our R&D has been looking into implementing GPS (global positioning system). We're toying with the idea, to see whether it's really necessary or not.

Other than that, we've done the usual--upgrading of software and infrastructure.

How often do you upgrade?
It depends on our work redesign. We don't do things the way we did yesterday. We come up with new technology and new application techniques. When you talk about new application techniques, the training needs to be [carried out] all over again.

It could be every three years that we need to clean up and redo the entire software. We just had a crash on our server, so we looked at it and said we need to change our server.

We changed our outsourcer for IT systems and maintenance to someone else who is more capable of keeping a close tab on our programs and the difficulties we're facing. Right now the company [providing the service] says that if our PCs are down, it will do remote rectification. We find it easier that way than waiting for the IT person to come, which could take a day. We found that tedious because of loss of productivity--one person will [not have access to a computer] and has to share with another staff.

What is your approach to IT outsourcers? Do you go with the vendor who offers the best price?
Just like how people perceive us, we look at what the vendor can value-add to our company. We changed vendors because [the new provider] can do remote rectification of problems. We have tried it out, and it's faster and less disruptive for our people.

We're open to anything that can increase productivity and can bring value not only to us but our clients as well.

PestBuster's IT budget for 2005 was around S$100,000 (US$63,336). What about 2006?
We always [budget] about 5 percent of our turnover for IT. This time around it's definitely higher because we have decided to upgrade the server, and decided to grow 50 percent faster in terms of implementing Ranger Eyes to our other clients. If there is a demand or a need to implement [IT infrastructure or a technology], then we'll definitely implement it.

The reason why we're able to compete with the MNCs is because we're very agile. If we need some programs tomorrow to compete in a tender, we can make a decision just like that. If we find that a system is wrong, or we need to upgrade the server, we can do it. SMBs…don't have to wait for the Board to grant funding; they don't have to wait for an answer from HQ, [because] by the time they come back, the race [may well be] over.

How many technicians are currently trained to use Ranger Eyes, and how many more need to be trained?
We have about 75 technicians, and close to about 20 percent are trained [in Ranger Eyes]. We need to train about 50 percent of the technicians, as they are servicing the bigger accounts. The other 50 percent are in the mobile team, servicing homes and industrial estates, and there is no need to use Ranger Eyes for those accounts.

Can you sum up the three most important initiative for PestBusters this financial year?
That would be the upgrading of the server, implementing the Ranger Eyes application to more of our major clients and evaluating GPS.

A leader is supposed to spend 70 percent of his time searching for new ideas. I go to IT shows, just to have a feel of what it is, find out what's the latest gadget, what it can do or how it can increase productivity.

[To have or not to have GPS] depends on the adaptability of our people. I don't want them to think that we're monitoring their movement. We have to be careful that we don't disrupt our employees' lives, as if we have no trust in them.

Our technicians can actually drive the vehicle home after office hours. There will be a fear that we know exactly where they go after work hours. We have to be very sensitive. We'll slowly roll out and see if that's going to happen. And if that happens, we'll have to re-evaluate and see if that's what we really want.

I'm in the people business. I don't want [to be caught in the scenario where] I can't motivate my people anymore, and they don't have high morale because of the implementation of IT.

What about security?
[Information security] is always something that we must assure our clients; it will be something at the back of their minds. It's not pleasant for people to know that a hotel has an outbreak of bed bugs, or an influx of dengue. Our clients are very sensitive and we know that they always want the benefit of security.

Clients are concerned with staff turnover. [The workers] are there for a while; tomorrow they might join a competitor. So [we make sure that] once they resign, they can no longer access the system.

Are you concerned with issues such as spam or virus attacks?
That has always been a concern. I'm sure everyone with computers would definitely need to know what kind of firewalls they need or what type of security measures to have in place. I leave it to the outsourced company--they have to assure us that they're taking take of spam, hackers and other threats.

When you add [new software programs], you slow down [the network]. Ultimately, we look at how critical the security is for our business.

Is storage a growing concern for PestBusters?
Today, we're changing from desktops to laptops. It's portable, staff can carry it everywhere they go; they can bring it overseas. Each time we upgrade, we're giving people a laptop. [The staff] can work from home if they feel like they need more time to spend with their family. It offers more flexible working hours for them.

You can't store too much data on a laptop, so we want to store all e-mail on the server, and the capacity must hold. As we increase the number people using computers, we have more information, and that is of great concern. Even I use an external hard drive.

Where do you learn about new technologies?
SMB heads tend to be want to put their hands in everything. To me, a leader is supposed to spend 70 percent of his time searching for new ideas. I go to IT shows, just to have a feel of what it is, find out what's the latest gadget, what it can do or how it can increase productivity.

If someone comes knocking on my door and says 'Look, we have a system or program in place' I always tell my people [to] listen, [for] it costs nothing. We don't have to jump into buying the program and have it become a white elephant, but we can have some ideas of what it can do. When we're upgrading--every three years we upgrade our software--it's at the back of your mind and you can add another element to the program because you have listened to [and learnt from a vendor].

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