Rick Steinau has been in the pest control business his entire life. His father started the Cincinnati division of Orkin in the 1930s and later began Ace Exterminating, which Rick purchased from him in 1979 and has run since. Ace competes with two national pest companies for business in the Cincinnati area, and Steinau is always looking for ways to keep a leg up on the competition. He has 15 field technicians who currently use smartphones and a pest-specific service software in the field.
My conversation with Steinau intrigued me, because his interest in and perspective on technology is not the stereotypical norm of a small business owner. Many small businesses are technology averse – whether that’s because they are comfortable with the status quo and haven an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, or because they just don’t have (or make) the time to put the research and effort in to determining how to make today’s technologies work for them. Steinau’s workforce first began using handheld devices in 1986, which he points out is before FedEx even did so.
Here, Steinau joins us to discuss his inclination toward technology, how he feels it has enabled his business over the years, and where he sees things heading.
Field Technologies: You told me that your goal is to “operate smart.” How does the technology you use help you do that?
Steinau: Small companies often do not have the luxury of a staff of individuals specializing in various operational tasks. Employees of smaller companies typically must wear many hats. So, I've found that available technologies help our team members break through the many of the barriers that formerly stood in our way.
Field Technologies: You also mentioned that in competing with these national companies, you can’t win on technology alone — that you can’t “out-tech” them. Explain how this factors in to your strategy to remain competitive.
Steinau: The “nationals” have those aforementioned “specialists” that focus on marketing, advertising, and the internet. We cannot outspend them and we don't have the time to keep up with all the daily social media changes. We can, however, outmaneuver them with creative and personalized service programs. A hypothetical example: A prospective customer tells us that they need to have our technicians wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, so we’ll wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. Large companies usually can't make those quick changes. We do it every day.
Field Technologies: How do you stay up to speed on the latest technology advancements, and how do you determine as a small business owner what is and is not applicable to or feasible for your business?
Steinau: I stay up to speed on technology by reading a lot, tuning in to social media, and speaking to my vendor representatives about what's happening in the various territories they visit.
Cost is a major factor as for what is feasible for my business. However, small companies can get in the “game” by asking to be included in field testing. When I get wind of new products in development I make immediate contact with the developers and offer to be a “beta” site. Volunteering can mean a lot of detailed reporting, but it also gives me a leg up on my competition. It’s worth the small aggravation that the testing protocols may require.
We are testing two new technologies now. One can potentially lengthen the service careers of our field technicians by assisting them with repetitive motions. This technology may also help us avoid future workers’ comp claims. The other technology we are testing could help us better treat certain types of pests that are resistant to pesticides.
Field Technologies: If time and money were no issue, what is one technology you’d love to see used at Ace?
Steinau: I know that many products are available to assist field technicians with their work. I think it would be wonderful if my field service team could look at a pest with a Google Glass-type technology and immediately get an instant positive ID of the insect, treating instructions, and a list of which products were best recommended for the treatment. A compendium of information just by looking at a target.
Field Technologies: We discussed the fact that your interest in technology has always existed, and extends into your personal life. What are your top three personal favorite technologies you use?
Steinau: I love my home security system. When I travel it really gives me peace of mind about my home. There is nothing like being sure your garage door is closed when you are two thousand miles from home.
I also cannot live without GPS in my car. It allows me to schedule meetings and to be precisely on time. The GPS estimated arrival time is a terrific tool when you are showing your customers that you are dependable and punctual.
My wife and I love to watch the many well produced shows on TV. Intelligent TVs are a must-have for us. We never seem to be around when the shows originally air, but systems like Roku make it possible for us to keep abreast of the shows with a schedule that meets our needs, not the networks.
Field Technologies: What is the best piece of advice you can offer a small business owner trying to determine how to approach (or ignore) technology trends?
Steinau: If you are a small business owner and you feel like you are being overwhelmed with the demands of your business, it’s way past time to seek help. The easiest first step is joining a national association related to your business. This puts you in direct contact with many individuals who are in your same business, but who are not direct competitors. Build relationships so you can ask how they handle various operational problems. Attend a national convention and go to the meetings that cover new technology for your industry. You'll get many of the answers and meet many contacts that will quickly put you on the path to streamlining your business with the technology you need and can afford.