Published Thursday, April 1, 2010 by Adam Sherer, CCHP

A single bedbug occurrence has a multitude of customer service/retention, operational, and profitability implications. An added complexity is that it is virtually impossible to determine the source of infestation, as bedbugs can lay dormant for more than a year and can travel from one location to another (e.g., via suitcase). What we know is that the incidents are growing, but that it is not as widespread as you may have heard or read. So where do we begin and how do we make sure all parties involved are part of the solution?

For a temporary housing provider, the goal clearly is to minimize guest/customer inconvenience quickly through identification, accommodation, and treatment. Remember that you, as a mobility professional, and your temporary housing provider are partners in a solution—although neither one of you created the problem, because the bedbug was either pre-existing in the apartment or inadvertently introduced to the apartment by the guest/customer or a supplier partner. Regardless of who is at fault, because it really is almost impossible to determine, it still is important to determine who should pay for what expenses. 

Commonsense Strategies
In the event of a bedbug infestation, there are some reasonable (?) commonsense steps that need to be taken by all parties.

  1. Prepare. All organizations involved in the delivery of mobility services must be prepared for the customer who contacts them to report a bedbug incident. Although it is an infrequent occurrence, it is not sufficient to react to the incident without a plan and a clear understanding from all involved parties about next steps. Members of the Corporate Housing Providers Association (CHPA) will be valuable partners. CHPA has provided guidelines on bedbug processes and procedures, as well as expertise delivered via webinars on the appropriate response to a bedbug incident. Many CHPA service partners, such as furniture and soft good provider companies, have experience and a plan in place for quick responses to this issue. Equally as important to understand is your client’s expectation regarding resolution.
  2. Communicate. Consistent and calm communications among all parties is crucial to an amicable resolution to an unfortunate circumstance. The first priority for the mobility professional is to determine if, in fact, a reported bedbug infestation has been validated by a technical expert (such as a pest control provider). This does not mean that anyone interfacing with a customer should argue or act unsympathetic to a customer who reports being bitten by bedbugs. There have been, however, many reported incidents that turned out to be mosquito bites or bites from other types of insects. In addition, throughout the process, there will be a significant amount of coordination that will have to occur among the customer, relocation professional, and temporary housing provider to best accommodate the guest/customer.
  3. Follow-Up. In your role of mobility professional, you need to work with your temporary housing providers (and their supplier partners) to ensure they are following their prevention, inspection, and remediation processes.  For the proper abatement and eradication of bedbugs, the customer will have to be part of the solution as their clothes are cleaned, personal items moved and/or cleaned, and their dwelling treated by a pest control professional. This coordination requires excellent project management skills and the deft customer service talent of mobility professionals. 

Know Your Policy
Mobility professionals should know what is included in a typical bedbug policy for temporary housing providers long before there is an incident report. Each provider will have its own formal/informal policy that will reflect parts or the entirety of this list:

  • notification procedures (internally and externally);
  • targeted response timeline;
  • identification and scheduling of pest control provider;
  • outline of guest/customer responsibilities;
  • involvement of supplier-partners, e.g., furniture rental company;
  • suggested treatment plan;
  • communication plan to guests/customers; and
  • post-infestation follow-up.

Mobility professionals should feel free to have a discussion with their temporary housing provider partner about their policy so that, in the event of an incident, there is clear understanding and alignment on next steps.

Mobility professionals and temporary housing providers must work together to inform guests and customers of their responsibilities. This can be a difficult task, but clearly outlining standard processes to a guest/customer can set the stage for an effective resolution well in advance of any issue. Although a pest control professional will be able to elaborate on the preparation steps a guest/customer needs to take to achieve successful eradication of bedbugs, he or she should otherwise should:

  • Wash and dry clothing likely to have been in close proximity to area of infestation. For example, if the infestation is found only in one room, clothing and items in that room are at greater risk although such judgments are best left to the pest control provider.
  • Keep newly washed and dried clothing separate from areas of likely infestation.
  • Place clothing, shoes, backpacks, stuffed animals, and the like into a clothes dryer on medium to high heat for 10 to 15 minutes. This efficiently kills all adult bedbugs, nymphs, and eggs and can be done in lieu of hot washing. Dry cleaning also is effective. Most dry clean-only items also can be de-infested without harming the garment by placing them in clothes dryer at low to medium heat provided the item is not wet.
  • Inspect any electronics thought to be at risk and, if necessary, treat in the manner prescribed by your pest control provider using, for example, heat, Nuvan Prostrips, or Vikane fumigation.
  • Inspect miscellaneous items thought to be at risk. Items that cannot be washed, such as shoes, may be dealt with in a similar fashion as electronics or may be placed in clothes dryer at a medium to high setting for 10 to 15 minutes. Placing small numbers of items outdoors on a hot sunny day in plastic bags, or in a closed vehicle on a hot day, also can be effective provided the internal temperature reaches 120F for a minimum of two hours.
  • Be vigilant. If guest/customer has been relocated, they need to remain attentive to their new accommodations and let their mobility professional or temporary housing provider know immediately if they have any related concerns.

The Most Difficult Conversation
One of the most difficult conversations to have among all the interested parties is who is responsible and who is going to pay.  Each situation is different, and there are many different areas of potential exposure including alternative accommodations/vacancy exposure on infested apartment; treatment of apartment, furniture, and housewares; treatment of personal items, including clothing; and customer service remediation.
It is important to address this up front and make sure areas of responsibility are clear. “Reasonable” responsibilities vary widely depending on the specific situation. In one case, it may be appropriate to require the guest/customer to contribute toward the cost of treatment while, in others, the provider may choose to arrange and absorb the cost of laundering and dry cleaning. All involved parties should be careful not to set unreasonable precedents when assuming responsibility.

Regardless of the agreed-on definition of “reasonable,” it should be made clear to the guest/customer in every case that the ultimate goal is to resolve the problem and minimize the risk of transferring the infestation to another location. Providers should be careful to clearly state that it is not possible to reduce this risk to zero.

Prepare, Communicate, and Follow-up
It takes collaboration and excellent communication to ensure the best outcomes for every relocation experience. Addressing a bedbug incident demands the same steps to ensure successful handling of an unfortunate reality. Understand that this is a growing problem, but not as widespread that might be communicated in the media. No one is at fault—bedbugs are resilient and can become an issue for a variety of reasons. Review the bedbug policy of your CHPA-affiliated temporary housing provider and understand your client expectations before an incident happens, inform the guest/customer of their responsibilities to successfully manage the infestation, discuss with all parties involved about who is responsible for what when there is a confirmed bedbug incident, and remember that everyone’s goal is a satisfied customer.

Helpful Hints

  • Rely on the professionals for the facts. Avoid hearsay, chain e-mails, and other non-technical sources and websites for appropriate information and direction.
  • Suggest guest/customer seek medical treatment if they are complaining about possible bed bug bites—do not provide medical advice.
  • Avoid moving guest/customer to another apartment or hotel which complicates treatment and increases the risk of spreading the bed bugs to another unit.
  • Always be polite and professional with customer. Follow your company’s systems and procedures.
  • Rely on your partners and their knowledge/experience. CHPA members receive continuing education on bedbugs and other topics, and also have access to member supplier partners who have experience with this issue. Many have their own internal guidelines/policies and procedures on bedbugs.

Helpful Websites:
http://www.ca.ky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef636.asp
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/bedbugs
http://www.thebedbugresource.com
http://www.QRegistry.org