Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Churchfolks and Roaches
When we started Holmes Pest Control, my kids were practically babies and a handful. Now that they are older, nothing has changed. This time of year reminds me of all the big goals I had for the company initially. I believed starting a company and being patronized by all the people I knew would be a walk in the park. Pick a person and I can do three degrees of separation. The pest control business has been very good to my family. I thank God everyday for every critter he created for HPC to kill and I am thankful for every customer that has been given to us. A customer is more than a customer, they are family and friends. However, it has not been a walk in the park but I am grateful for choosing the road less traveled.
Many moons ago, I naturally assumed the customers on the Goodlettsville - Tennessee State University route we serviced while working for another company would naturally want to become our customers once we started our own business. As the foundation was being laid to start HPC, I volunteered to set appointments for the national known company that employed my husband. Everything about the commercial pest control was at our finger tips, but we had no clue about the residential side of the industry. Calling customers nightly and talking about everything to everybody helped me to understand, firsthand, the likes and dislikes of homeowners. Several large churches were on the 400-plus monthly customer route. After a year of learning names and numbers, I began to share my dream of business ownership with others.
Each time I would express my desire to become a business owner, I was always reassured that when the time was right they would want to be our customer as well. “We would never leave you guys”, we heard over and over. Since the pastors on the route had the most influence, we met with many to discuss our plans. The ministers gave us hugs and reassurances to fight the good fight and to do well. After two years of working for someone, we struck out on our own. Holmes Pest Control was in business and we were officially a “minority-owned" pest control service ready to do business in Nashville! With the excitement of a kindergartner starting school, I went door to door selling Holmes Pest Control.
On a crisp fall day, armed with 400 names, freshly printed pamphlets in hand, and a good pair of shoes; determined and driven, I knocked on doors from morning to night. But there was a slight problem, the customers were firmly planted. My business plan was surmised around customers who were brand loyal to another company not the service that was given to them by us while working for that brand. I did not have a plan B when they did not become customer with Holmes Pest Control. A route that we had serviced for two years, predominantly minority and middle income were not feeling the love for a young start up company with three hollering kids. Out of 400 plus customers, only four came with us. A future vice-mayor, a future councilman, a pediatrician, and character I lovingly called Mr. Slick. All of them are still with us today and considered close friends. Each of them has stayed with us through the good and bad times, personally and professionally. Of our four customers, Mr. Slick’s persona was peculiar and his referrals were unique like him.
He called at odd times with to do lists that were endless. He had rental properties all over town which we did not have keys too; therefore he accompanied us on every trip. No matter how far the drive or how long the job took, he remained with us as we worked. He passed the timed complaining, criticizing, and dissecting us while we worked silently. We never responded to his tirades no matter how his words hurt. After a year of working with Mr. Slick, he called two days before Christmas to get his properties treated. We had packed the vehicle to visit my parents but we unpacked and reloaded it with chemicals for Mr. Slick. After following him around town for an entire day, he told us he wanted us to meet him back as his place. Dog-tired and thoroughly confused, we followed him home without speaking a word about our special customer with his eccentric demands. He came out with an envelope stuffed with cash. He always paid in cash but the envelope was much thicker than usual. “Get something for them babies,” he said in a gruff voice. He also told us his church needed pest control. I was floored. Not about the extra thousand dollars but that he mentioned church. “God provides,” was my comment for my ugly thoughts. Churches were a hard sell. Church folks love pest control service but if you are not on first names with a Bishop, a Reverend Doctor, and Saint Peter…keep walking. Christmas arrived two days earlier for the Holmes family.
After the holidays, we attended service with Mr. Slick. He wanted to introduce us to the pastor and church board. In my Sunday's best, I came prepared with brochures and a contract. Being raised in a multi-denominational family and a graduate of Catholic high school, visiting churches was always an adventure. His church took me back to the old days of fanning and fainting, long and lively, and pious preaching. As I was visually checking out the church folks, I could not miss the bugs. Yep, this church was open to everyone, including roaches. As the minister started delivering his message, I could see smaller roaches starting to scurry. About fifteen minutes into his sermon, the roaches were coming for an alter call. The more he banged on the podium, the more the roaches appeared. I knew this where I needed be. Since the roaches were coming into the light, I felt moved to be thankful. Kicking Roger, I pointed to the roaches and he started clapping as well. The more we clapped the more bugs we saw. Needless to say, we cut a shine right down the aisle. I was praying this church became our customer. Mr. Slick, Deacon Slick on Sundays, was sitting in corner wishing he never invited us. I could read his body language. He knew we saw the roaches and I knew he was going to have to explain his visitors’ “happiness” at the next board meeting.
We got the contract but it was not given right away. We sat out in the hallway while churchfolks with roaches looked for every reason under God’s blue sky not to do business with us. They hid nothing and every suspicion about dealing with a young company was discussed openly with us listening. Humility has many levels and remembering I had three kids to feed kept me from walking out the door. I refused to allow pride to hinder a blessing in disguise.
Years later, Mr. Slick is still a customer. His health has deteriorated over time and he does not call as often but he still gives his commentary. I send highlights of “them babies” often. He gave me the “skinny boy's” gift for graduation this year; cash in an envelope as usual. He finds it hard to believe they are young adults. For Father’s Day this summer, I took him a pie, sweet potato of course, and a card with their signatures on it. He smiled quietly and I could see the humility that comes with aging. As I was leaving his home that we have served over the last decade, I reminded him of our church visit and the lessons we learned that fateful day.
I told Mr. Slick he taught us to be faithful, we learned that four customers that believe in your mission is better than 400 who do not, drop the label minority-owned and just be Holmes Pest Control and don’t be afraid to shout when you are happy. Giving him a big hug as I said good-bye, I was reminded how many interesting churchfolks one meets on the road less traveled.