A favorite show of mine is Law and Order. I’m amazed how they figure stuff out and are pit-bulls for the truth as the drama builds. The cops aren’t fooled by lying witnesses and the attorneys almost always get them to crack even though they try so hard to wriggle out of their cross examination. A golden rule I’ve noticed the lawyers use is one any pest pro should know and one I wish I would’ve used early in my career. Never make a statement or ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to and can back up. I learned this lesson years ago on a call to a lawyers house who had termites but all I saw- was a sale.
The Crime Scene
His house was not unlike hundreds of others I’d seen, swarming termites, some damage, attached slabs and nothing extraordinary except for one glaring feature. This home had its well ‘inside’ the structure! Now chlordane had just been pulled and the industry was in flux of what to use but at the time there was nothing labeled that you could even touch a structure with that had a well inside the walls. The owner was very sharp and it was obvious he had done his homework and he knew of the special circumstance and label restrictions that applied in his situation. Looking back I should have made an excuse to go out to the truck for a tool or something and just drove away but being the ever confident budding salesman I told him we could help.
I thought I impressed the guy with my inspection prowess and indeed I found things that other inspectors had missed. I spouted off all sorts of facts that wowed most people and recited the biology rhetoric which sent most homeowners running for their checkbooks but he barely even blinked. Coming to the kitchen table at the end of my spiel was a sales tactic I’d learned but on this pitch I suddenly felt like I was walking up to the witness stand. Although polite, he wasn’t fazed at all with my walking presentation and now it was his turn exert his expertise on me. To my surprise there were 4 or 5 competitors brochures on the table and I’m sure each one of the salesman melted under this guy’s cross examination just as I could feel myself doing. “Why did I let this go so far? I should have just said NO” I said to myself over and over. I told him there were other methods besides liquid we could use which was true but at this point in my career I had only read about it and never seen it done so I had no clue as to what or how. (that part I didn’t say) I assured him we’d get our best people on it and he had no worries but he wanted details which I couldn’t deliver. I felt as if I said too much but I couldn’t suddenly back out now so foolishly I stuck to my guns. His questions were probing and direct and any minute I expected a judge to remind me I was under oath and to answer the question or I would be held in contempt. Sounding like Perry Mason who had just cornered his witness he point blanked asked, “You said you could treat this home even with the well, I’m asking you can you do it or not?” With my confidence shot I assured with a him with what little I had left, “we’d get it done.”
Saved By A Flash
With my assurance of treatment I guess I was let go on my own recognizance but now I felt as if I were in a bigger pickle. My big mouth struck again and I wasn’t sure at all what to do. Back at the office I told my story to the branch manager who just smiled and said ” Your lawyer friend already called, you have a meeting tomorrow & we’ve called in your big guns you said we have.” I’m sure he was having fun with me but now I felt pretty strange. Was I gonna have to eat crow and explain to everyone how clueless I really was? Or did we actually have a way to deliver what my over zealous yap had promised?
To my surprise the next day I was met at the shop by the companies entomologist. I had no idea we even had one and this guy wasn’t much older than me. “Got yourself a real situation eh?” he said brimming with exuberance. I filled him in on the way and he rattled off more information than I could ever hope to know. I started feeling more confident and was sure ‘my expert witness’ would bolster my shaky testimony.
The legal eagle was only minutely impressed with the bug expert and quickly got to his point. “Your man said you can treat this house he said as if annoyed, I want to know how since you can’t use anything around my well.” Undaunted the young entomologist started in with his expertise and explained a treatment plan using dusts. I was amazed to hear the termites would incorporate the powders with the tunnels they build and that this would in effect make them ‘toxic tunnels’ which would eventually kill them. He went on and on and the attorney asked fewer and fewer questions as the bugologist just kept shooting him down with each objection. I was relieved that someone else was handling the lawyers tough questions and realized then, I had so much more to learn. I found it fascinating but right in the middle of the explanation of ‘odor thresholds and flash points‘ our lawyer friend grabbed the contract, signed it and headed for the door. -I guess he had had enough and I was acquitted.
In retrospect the biggest lesson I learned wasn’t from the unique situation or treatment technique. It was from the lawyer himself. There are times in pest control you just won’t have the answers or have run out of information. At this point it’s always Ok to say “I simply don’t know” or just walk away. It is far worse to keep talking and end up hanging yourself.