Your reputation has always been important when recruiting talent because the best techs want to work at the best companies. But the mediums job seekers use to search for potential employers has changed. Word of mouth is still around but pales in importance compared to your company’s online reputation. Before a job seeker even applies, your website, social media presence, and online reviews help them through the first two phases of the job hunt: Discovery and research.

1. Be Easy to Discover

When a technician starts their job hunt and isn’t familiar with all the local companies, where do you think they start? Google, of course. They’ll search for companies in their industry and the top results will be the first companies they research. That’s how Google has trained us all. The top search results are the best bet, and searching for local companies is no exception. Fortunately, the fresh, dynamic content created by your Digital Wrap is exactly the kind of indicator Google uses to rank websites. Just by performing the day-to-day tasks associated with the services you offer, your techs will be collecting customer reviews and generating rich content that will help prospective employees (and customers) discover your company.

Millennials, almost exclusively, find and research new job opportunities online. Most of my millennial friends discovered, researched, and applied for their current job completely online without talking to a single person. From discovery on Google or a job board to exhaustive research of prospective companies, they did everything on their laptop or smartphone. They browsed the company website and social media for information about the mission and culture. Where applicable, they researched customer reviews. They paid especially close attention to the reviews from current and past employees.

Indeed and Glassdoor, two of the largest job listing websites, are the dominant players when it comes to company reviews by former and current employees. When you Google a company by name, the employee rating of that company on Indeed or Glassdoor are often in the top results. Very quickly, a potential candidate can see what real employees think about a company. This can work for or against you. From a job seekers perspective, zero company reviews is concerning, a bunch of bad reviews is a death knell, and a mix of mostly good reviews is a great sign. I say a mix because people will be suspicious of your reviews if they are all five stars. Just like with your customers, it’s ok to ask your employees to leave a review of your company, just be sure that the review truly represents what they think, not what you think. Don’t instruct them to leave a good review and be responsive and respectful of any results you receive.

2. Be Easy to Research

If they find your company online, potential employees are going to look at your company website before they apply for a job. Is your website going to help recruit them? Does it have the information they ‘re looking for? Candidates aren’t just searching for a company that has an opening. They want to know about company culture and values. What do you stand for? They want to get a feel for what it’s like to work there. Is it fun? Is it challenging? They want to know what the opportunities for growth are. Will they advance their technical skill set or have an opportunity for advancement? They also want an easy application process. The bigger the barrier to applying, the fewer candidates you’ll receive. For example, a simple, mobile-friendly web form that collects their name and phone number with a call to action like “Are you a skilled technician and want to learn more about working at Aardvark Services?” will receive a lot more candidates than a Byzantine application process that asks candidates every possible question and requires them to upload a resume. You’ll definitely do more work to qualify candidates and get more that aren’t a fit but, in the midst of a skilled labor shortage, that’s an acceptable cost. Chances are, you’ll lose candidates you want before they even have a chance to apply if your application process is too difficult. Keep it simple.

Social media is a powerful tool when recruiting, especially Facebook and LinkedIn. When a candidate is considering a company, most will review the company’s social media profile and posts to learn about the brand. Compared to the corporate website, job seekers expect to find a candid representation of the company’s personality. Posts about company events, employees, and corporate values go a long way to help them get a better feel for the company.

It’d be nice if you could meet all of your hiring demand with a flood of great candidates that found you online, but that’s not going to happen for every company. Most likely, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and actively recruit new employees. Armed with a reputable brand and a strong presence online, it will be easier. All you have to do is ask.

For entry-level office and field positions, one ServiceTrade customer Guardian Fire Protection has another interesting recruiting approach. Once a month, they host an open door interview day. Anyone who shows up is guaranteed an interview. Now, some interviews are MUCH shorter than others, but everyone gets a shot. They advertise the event through craigslist, social media, and through their website. For a relatively low investment of time and money, they’ve filled multiple open positions. When they ask successful candidates that show up on the interview day why they didn’t just apply online, candidates often say that they didn’t feel like their resume was good enough.

If potential employees don’t already know about your brand, your website and reviews should drive discovery through search engine optimization. Once they discover your brand, your online reputation should drive their research to the conclusion that you are a great company to work for and that they should apply. You can do a lot to help your recruiting efforts by making the discovery and research easier for job seekers. Want a big bonus? Being easy to discover and research will help out your potential customers, too.

My wife and I love hiking and camping with our dogs. It’s our escape. So, last year, we took a trip up to the beautiful Grayson Highlands in western Virginia for a quick weekend trip with a couple friends. Hiking along those exposed ridges at a relatively high altitude provide some of the best views you’ll find in southern Appalachia. The first day was absolutely gorgeous. After a long day of backpacking, we decided to set up camp just off the ridge in a little patch of woods. Not long after we set up camp, we had to turn in early because of a constant drizzle from a small storm. We were all wiped out, so it wasn’t a problem. At least, not for the first couple hours. That small storm turned into a massive thunderstorm and it was blowing right over the ridge we were camping on.

My wife, Jessie, shook me, but I was already awake. Nobody could sleep through that noise. “It sounds like lightning is right on top of us!” she said. It was loud, but I wasn’t concerned. “Count the seconds between the lightning and the thunder. The lightning is a mile away for every 5 seconds.” I recalled from my time in the Boy Scouts. At this point, we were at 15 seconds. 3 miles. No problem. It was loud, but we were safe and that put Jessie at ease. The dogs, not so much.

Unfortunately, that 15 seconds quickly turned into 10, then 5, then 3. “Half a mile? We’ll be fine. At least we’re not out on top of the exposed ridge!” I thought to myself. Jessie, on the other hand, was not feeling great about the situation. She gets sweaty palms when she’s anxious and, at this point, they were sopping wet. That’s when it happened. CRACK! The light was blinding and the sound deafening. Zero seconds. It was right on top of us. Then again. CRACK! This one was different. It was followed by a long, low creaking moan and hard, leafy thud. A tree just fell in the forest and we heard it.

The next day, we were a little shaken up, but everyone was OK, even the dogs. We found the fallen tree about a hundred yards away and decided that we’d never camp on a ridge during a storm again. We hiked back down to our cars and couldn’t wait to get home to sleep with a solid roof over our heads.

This is a true story, mostly. The trip, the storm, and the nervous wife all happened. The falling tree, not so much. It seems like a plausible story, but it’s fiction: The same kind of fiction that your customers receive from other, less-reputable contractors. Your customers have been burned by bad contractors that told them plausible stories about their building assets just to, ultimately, be disappointed by bad outcomes like unexpected equipment failures and exorbitant expenses for unnecessary work. They are wary of touching that hot stove again.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? An age-old debate. Sorry, I don’t have an answer for you on this one. I do, however, have another question for you. If you tell your customer a tree falls in a forest, will they believe you? Those other contractors have made it difficult. How about if you show them this?

Absolutely, they’re going to believe you because those disreputable contractors have made your customers skeptical. You can write pages describing the work you perform for them or spend hours on the phone with them, but they’ll still question you regardless of your company’s reputation. Instead, show them. Show them pictures of the leaking system. Show them videos of the failing asset. You should even show them when things aren’t broken just to reassure them that their equipment is in good condition. Show them everything. You’ll stand out from all the other contractors as transparent and trustworthy and they’ll be happy to pay a premium for your reliable services.

Sound like a lot of work ot show pictures and videos from every job to the customer? It’s not. Technology makes it easy. All of your techs are used to taking pictures and videos with their smartphones. Getting that rich media in front of your customers is another challenge altogether. Ad-hoc emails with attachments are not the answer. Instead, let software like ServiceTrade, solve that problem in a scalable way. ServiceTrade logs every picture and every video your techs take and automatically organizes them against jobs and quotes that are effortless to share with your customers. For example, after your tech snaps a couple pictures and a quick video of an equipment issue and collects the customer’s signature, all of that information, the pictures, the video, and the signed work order, will automatically be sent to the customer’s inbox. That’ll show them!

Who has better pizza, Domino’s or Papa John’s? I do a lot of presentations about these companies and when I pose this questions to audiences, usually they’re split right down the middle. Personally, I’m a Domino’s fan. From a value perspective, however, our opinions about who has better pies don’t really matter. Here’s what really matters:

Domino’s is CRUSHING Papa John’s and they have been since 2009. In fact, Domino’s stock has outperformed Amazon, Apple, and Google in the last 9 years. For every dollar you invested in Domino’s in 2009, you’d have $36 as of the writing of this blog post. Compare that to $10, $5.50, and $2.75 for Amazon, Apple, and Google respectively. Papa John’s, on the other hand, would be worth a respectable $3.75, but it’s been on a steady decline for the past two years.

These numbers are surprising considering how ubiquitous Papa John’s marketing is. It’s practically impossible to watch sports without hearing their slogan, “Better ingredients, better pizza.” They’re everywhere. Domino’s spends plenty of money on advertising too, but their marketing strategy went a very different direction starting in 2009. It’s best summed up by their CEO, Patrick Doyle, who said:

“We are as much a tech company as we are a pizza company”

What technology do you think he’s talking about? Their accounting platform? Their point of sales systems? Their pizza ovens? No. He’s talking about their customer-facing technology like their Pizza Tracker and mobile apps. While Papa John’s has been pouring money into billboards, radio ads, and TV spots, Domino’s hired the best web and mobile developers, built an incredible R&D team, and took a massive risk on the future of smartphones. In fact, an interview in 2015 revealed that around 300 of their 700 employees at their corporate headquarters were focused on technology, not pizza (or accounting). Here’s another one of Doyle’s quotes:

“We believe by transaction counts we’re in the top five of e-commerce companies in the world.”

That’s unbelievable for a pizza company. On the other hand, Papa John’s sales are sinking and their stock price is sliding. They’re trying to blame their poor financial performance on the recent drama and viewership decline in the NFL. The reality is that they got left in the dust. Nine years later, they’re trying to catch up to Domino’s with Papa Track, their answer to the Pizza Tracker, but it’s too little too late. They’re sitting at the starting line coughing up dust while Domino’s is off to the races.

Domino’s figured out how to differentiate their offering with something more valuable than close-ups of melty cheese and empty platitudes like “Better ingredients. Better pizza.” Really? Does anyone buy that Papa John’s really has superior ingredients and better pizza? Can they prove it? Sadly, I’ve heard a lot of service contractors use a very similar line. “Better techs. Better service.” Really? Do you think anyone is buying that? Even if they do, it’s impossible to convince the customer that it’s true. So, why bother? Instead, take a page from Domino’s book. Offer customers a better experience with service certainty.

Domino’s thoughtful investments in technology are cutting edge because they focus entirely on the customer as opposed to logistics and accounting. Everything they build is for the customers’ express benefit. In some cases, they even added administrative work for their in-store employees to improve the digital outcome for the customer. Their Pizza Tracker is semi-automated, but Domino’s employees still have to manually update the system a couple of times to alert customers about the progress of their pizza. For example, every time a pizza is ready for the oven or put in the car for delivery, whether or not the customer is actively using the Pizza Tracker, some Domino’s employee has to update the system just in case a customer decides to check in on their order. They sell more than 2 million pizzas a day. If we assume an average of 1.5 pizzas per order, that works out to almost 1 billion manual system updates a year. That’s a lot of Domino’s data entry! And, for what? The customer. It’s that simple.

Obviously, Domino’s has limited the cost of these billion customer updates substantially with a technology-enabled process. They’re not picking up the phone and calling their customers multiple times per order to update them on the progress. That would be ridiculously cost prohibitive and annoying for the customer. Yet, that’s exactly how most service contractors think about solving the same problem! Better call the customer or send them an ad-hoc email to let them know what’s going on with their service. That’s an expensive approach so it’s either reserved for premium clients or doesn’t get done at all. Why not give every customer a great experience and let technology solve that problem by incorporating it into the standard workflow? For example, instead of having techs call, email, or text to alert the office and customer that they are on the way to a service call, incorporate technology (like ServiceTrade) that will, with a few clicks, log the techs drive time, update the office staff, and send an en route notification to the customer with a picture of the tech and estimated time of arrival. Or, instead of signing a paperwork order, waiting for it to get back to the office, scanning it, and emailing it to the customer with an ad-hoc summary and picture attachments, how about incorporating technology (like ServiceTrade) that will automatically send all this information to the customer the moment they sign the digital work order? Even if it adds a few new points of quick data entry, it’ll remove a boatload of calls and emails.

For Domino’s, however, there were no cost savings with their new workflow. They weren’t calling or emailing the customer to update them on their orders in the first place so these billion data entry points were a net new expense. Despite that, they don’t even think twice about the cost because they understand the value of MIPS, or Marketing Impressions Per Service. MIPS is the heart and soul of Domino’s customer experience strategy. For each service (or pizza) delivered, a series of useful notifications are sent to the customer updating them on their purchase. In Domino’s case, customers receive push notifications on their mobile device throughout the process. From prep to bake to delivery, customers are notified about every step and each notification links back to the Pizza Tracker, the visual manifestation of MIPS.

When you order a pizza for an office full of hungry coworkers or a house full of famished kids, you want certainty about your order. Hangry and anxious, they’ll look to you for one answer: When will the pizza arrive? At this point, you can either be a zero or a hero. If you’re in the dark and you leave your compadres in limbo, the anxiety will escalate and you’re going to be a zero. Compare that to the certainty of “it just got boxed up and should be here in 12 minutes.” That’s more like it! You’ll be the hero. Next time you want a pizza, who are you going to call? The company that made you a zero or the one that gave you certainty and made you a hero? When your customers have failing equipment or systems in their building that impact their tenants, customers, or coworkers, do you think they’d rather have the hero or the zero? This doesn’t just apply to emergency service work. For standard maintenance or inspection work, they’d rather be certain about what’s going on so they can keep their colleagues up to date, make arrangements on their end, and have peace of mind about the work being performed.

At the end of the day, all facility owners and managers really want is certainty. Strategically, that means certainty about their facility budget. Tactically, that means certainty about the facility services they receive from day to day. They want certainty about everything from when the tech will arrive to how they should resolve equipment issues. MIPS give your customers tactical certainty by giving them the information they need to make good decisions on a service-by-service basis. Service certainty can distinguish you from the unpredictable, unreliable competition.

Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the wealthiest person on the planet. He owns about 17% of Amazon, and that stake is worth about $115 billion. Amazon was founded in 1994, so Jeff has amassed this fortune in just 24 years. Wow. I bring up the example of Jeff Bezos as a wealth-building machine because he has some unique views regarding how to apply technology to build a company that are directly orthogonal to sentiments that I often hear expressed by the management of service contracting companies.

I have had countless executives and managers in service contracting companies tell me over and over again that the most critical feature for a customer service technology platform is how seamlessly that platform integrates with their accounting system. My sarcastic reply is that the most important feature of a customer service technology platform should be how well it enables amazing customer service. Sarcasm aside, the prevailing wisdom in most service contracting companies is that accounting is the function to be optimized using technology, and, therefore, accounting is the most important function in the business. Poppycock.

The most important department in the business is customer service, and the most important person in the business is the customer. They are the people with the money that you want. Customer service is everyone’s job, so there really should not be a department that is solely responsible for customer service. However, some departments in the business are closer to customers than others, and I believe that accounting is not one of the ones that is especially close to the customer.

For a service contracting business, the employees that are closest to the customer are the technicians. Second in line are probably the sales team, or perhaps the service managers and administrators. Executive management is probably next closest, with accounting bringing up the rear. Jeff Bezos would likely say that a company should focus technology investments first on the customer, then the technicians, then the sales and service administrators, and on down the line. Last and least is accounting. Here are a couple of quotes from Jeff to illustrate my point:

“If there’s one reason we have done better than of our peers in the Internet space over the last six years, it is because we have focused like a laser on customer experience”

“We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.”

“The best customer service is if the customer doesn’t need to call you, doesn’t need to talk to you. It just works.”

“We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.”

And my favorite Jeff Bezos quote of all time is:

“Amazon has become an amazing company because our accounting processes are far superior than those of our competitors, and great accounting is what our customers really care about above all else.”1

More sarcasm. Seriously though, I bring all of this wisdom from Jeff Bezos to you because I see so many service contractors who are paralyzed in their technology decision making because they are afraid to rock the boat in accounting. Why is accounting relevant at all? Accounting practices have not changed for decades, and if great customer service leads your customers to spend ever larger sums of money with you, I assure you that the accountants will figure out a way to stuff all that dough into the ledger in a GAAP-compliant manner.

My advice is to focus on the customer. If the accountants get thrown overboard with all of the waves generated by a customer-focused strategy, then I sincerely hope that they can swim. The good ones will hold their seat on the ship, and then help you set a course that safely navigates the waves and yields a customer-centric organization. All the rest that believed accounting was more important than the customer needed to be replaced anyway.

 

1 In case it isn’t obvious, I made up this quote for comedic effect.

Read part 1: Fraud Doesn’t Pay, But Consistent Results are Worth Billions

One day you will want to have some outsider set a value for your business as part of an exit strategy or for the purpose of passing the business to a new generation. What management metrics will you use to guide your efforts during the many years leading up to that valuation day? How can you deliver steady, market-beating results that are not affected by the various dips and swings that you inevitably experience while serving your customers? The key is to find a strategy that minimizes volatility and maximizes consistency over a long period. You need to deliver for real what Bernie Madoff falsely projected in order to impress the investors that will ultimately value your business.

Revenue and gross margin are not perfect measurements for management success, so what are the measurements that matter? How can the owners of the business look back at the past month or quarter and make a judgment regarding success or failure? If the business is an investment, it should be measured like an investment, and the investments that people value most highly are those that deliver predictable returns over and over again. Bernie Madoff famously played on this investor bias by cooking the books to show steady and consistent returns, no matter what the market conditions, in order to lure more investors to his Ponzi scheme. Investors will always pay a premium for an investment with steady and consistent returns. So what are you going to measure to be certain you are optimizing for consistent and predictable returns?

Your service contracting business, just like an investment firm, faces uncertain market conditions. Instead of swings in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, and the NASDAQ, you are dealing with cold weather, hot weather, fuel price fluctuations, tight labor markets, and swings in customer buying sentiment brought about by the same economic indicators that affect Wall Street. In the face of all of these potential distractions, you need a simple and effective formula to focus your team on the long-term measurements that matter so that they can more effectively navigate a path through the potential chaos. I have a simple, easy to remember measuring stick to help you focus your management team on the outcomes that maximize shareholder value, but before I reveal it, see how you do in answering these questions:

  • How many customers do you have under an annual or longer maintenance contract?
  • What is the monthly recurring revenue (MRR) or annual recurring revenue (ARR) for these contract customers? This is the predictable maintenance, monitoring, and inspection revenue that always shows up on the income statement regardless of market conditions.
  • What is the total contract value (TCV) of future committed revenue for maintenance, monitoring, and inspections for all customers under contract? Are your customers signing two-, three-, and four-year commitments to you?
  • How many customers pay you in advance for your maintenance program? What is the amount of deferred revenue on the balance sheet? A higher amount of deferred revenue means that customers are paying you in advance for your services. Paying in advance means they are more committed to your services and your contract. It also means you can use that cash to fund sales to new customers.
  • What is the ratio of planned service revenue (maintenance, inspections, quoted repairs) to unplanned service revenue (emergency service calls where something broke)? Higher ratios mean better customer service, and better customer service means customers will stick with your company for a longer term. Customers do not like unplanned expenses nor the disruptions they represent.
  • What is the net revenue churn in the customer base? How much revenue did you earn this year from customers that have been with you for over a year relative to the revenue from those same customers for the prior year? Ideally, this ratio is 90% or even higher. Minimal account churn means your digital wrap is sticky.
  • What is your contract renewal rate? What percentage of customers do not renew their maintenance plan when it comes due? How much annual contract revenue on average do these non-renewing customers represent? These numbers represent your gross churn, and ideally, gross churn should be less than 10%.

All of these questions are directly correlated with the value of a service contracting business (or any subscription or maintenance oriented business for that matter), and not one of them deals directly with the question of gross margin for service calls. Service call gross margin is important, but gross margin on contract maintenance, monitoring, inspections, and planned repairs is actually much more important. Predictable growth is even more important. No investor will complain about an occasional expense hiccup for unplanned services in the context of a highly predictable, growing stream of high margin, contract service fees. The very nature of unplanned repair work (it is unplanned!) makes it volatile and not particularly valuable to an investor, so optimizing gross margin on this work is the least of your concerns. Try to eliminate these disruptive emergency service calls altogether if you can.

I recognize that many of the questions above are kind of technical and difficult to absorb until you get into the swing of these measurements. It comes down to three simple questions to ask over and over again:

How Many? How Much? How Long?

How many customers you have? How much you earn from them? And how long you keep them?

These three questions that we’ve been talking about underpin the basic value-building fundamentals for almost any business. Read more about How Many? How Much? How Long? value calculations here.

Bernie Madoff was arrested in 2008 for running what is believed to be the largest Ponzi scheme ever. Over a period of more than twenty years, Madoff had convinced wealthy, high profile private clients like Steven Spielberg and the Wilpon family (owners of the New York Mets) along with sophisticated commercial clients like MassMutual, Banco Santander, and HSBC to entrust their money to his firm. The reason these folks went along with the scam is not because Madoff delivered eye-popping results with a brilliant strategy. He was not like John Paulson, who famously made over four billion dollars personally in a period of less than twelve months by using credit default swaps to bet against the subprime mortgage lending market. Madoff drew high profile clients and sophisticated financial firms into his orbit by falsely projecting modest but consistent returns. Over a period of 174 months (just longer than fourteen years), Madoff reported results that were only modestly better than the return of the Standard and Poor’s index, but over that very long horizon, he only reported a monthly loss seven times. This extraordinary consistency led several financial forensics investigators to question Madoff’s legitimacy, but the allure of consistent, albeit modest, positive returns was a powerful magnet for investors. They all turned a blind eye to the fraud while funneling enormous sums of money to Bernie.


The lesson for the service contractor is not that fraud is a good road; Bernie is serving a 150-year sentence for his crimes and the related $17.5 billion in losses he cost his clients. The lesson for the service contractor is that predictable, steady growth over a long period of time is an irresistible attraction for sophisticated investors. One day you will want to have some outsider set a value for your business as part of an exit strategy or for the purpose of passing the business to a new generation. What management metrics will you use to guide your efforts during the many years leading up to that valuation day? How can you deliver steady, market-beating results that are not affected by the various dips and swings that you inevitably experience while serving your customers? The key is to find a strategy that minimizes volatility and maximizes consistency over a long period. You need to deliver for real what Bernie falsely projected in order to impress the investors that will ultimately value your business.

In an earlier blog post about Red Hat, I described the efforts that Red Hat undertook to avoid being labeled as a company that provided “break-fix” support for technical issues associated with Linux technology. The directors at Red Hat were savvy investors, and they understood that a volatile “break-fix” revenue model was far less valuable than a consistent subscription model. During my time with DunnWell, the service contracting company that preceded ServiceTrade, I witnessed firsthand the difficulty of delivering steady, predictable income performance when the mix of services leans too heavily towards a “break-fix” model. One particular management meeting stands out in my mind. It was a March meeting to review the February results, and the tension between the steady, predictable outcomes of maintenance work as compared to the more volatile “break-fix” type work became vividly clear.

February temperatures that year had been brutally cold throughout much of the country, and lots of sprinkler pipes had frozen at our customers’ locations, even in the southern states. The emergency revenue was very high for that February as we responded to so many frozen pipe situations. The maintenance and planned repair revenue, however, was somewhat lower than expected, but the total revenue exceeded our target by about fifteen percent based upon the strength of the emergency service calls. The gross margins were OK, but not what you would expect when you have much higher revenue to absorb the delivery costs. “Shouldn’t the margins be higher since we charge more for emergency work?” I naively asked. “Nope,” replied Sean McLaughlin, the head of operations. “We have to pay an arm and a leg to get people to respond to these emergency calls on a bitterly cold winter night. It is always a scramble. Costs are higher, and the administrative burden is also higher because you have to constantly field calls from the customers and then call them back with updates.” Looking at the numbers I guessed “So the maintenance revenue is lower because our people were focused on chasing down problems instead of staying on top of the planned work?” Sean snorted “That MIT education is paying real dividends for you right now, isn’t it?”

During a typical month, DunnWell would deliver between 92 – 96% of the planned maintenance, inspection, and repair work that was available under contract. We called this measurement the “due versus done” ratio. It represented the amount of work delivered and invoiced divided by the total amount which customers had authorized, either via a maintenance contract or an approved repair quote. To be strictly correct, it should have been called the “done versus due” ratio, but it was named before I got there, and “due versus done” had a better ring to it. That cold February, the “due versus done” ratio sagged downward to about 80%.

When the metric lagged, Joe Dunn, the largest shareholder in DunnWell, would remind everyone that “the customer has written a check and laid it on the counter, and we couldn’t be bothered to show up and cash it.” Put in those terms, it seems pretty silly to let anything get in the way of cashing a check, but it was surprising how often people with good intentions could become distracted by chaos and neglect to pick up those checks. The distractions typically take the form of some emergency, and in the case of this cold February month, the distraction was caused by frozen pipes and irate customers. But the February revenue was really good, and the overall margin was good, so what was the problem?

The problem is that not all margin dollars are equal. That sounds silly, but it is true. For this February period, DunnWell did not cash some checks for planned maintenance because we were busy cashing checks for emergency work. How do you suppose the customers that were due for planned maintenance felt when we did not show up as promised? How about the customers whose pipes burst? Do you suppose they were happy with the emergency response fees? And do you believe those emergency service dollars are going to show up consistently every February like contract maintenance dollars do? Nope. Emergency service calls by their very nature are unpredictable – the opposite of consistent results. So even though revenue was higher and overall margins were acceptable, that cold February was a failure. Just because the gross margin on every job is in an acceptable range does not mean that the business is performing in a way that maximizes value for the owners. The emergency “scramble” gets in the way of the Bernie Madoff lesson that teaches us that consistency is better.

So fraud is never a good road, but Bernie understood very well what investors want. You can take a lesson from his fraud and focus your business on minimizing the chaos and disruption of “break-fix” type services and instead attempt to maximize the revenue you receive from consistent revenue services like monitoring, inspections, planned maintenance, and planned retrofits and repairs. Next week, we will do a follow-on post to describe the metrics and give example management charts that you can use to be certain you are on the right road to maximizing the consistency of results to yield the highest value for your shareholders.

Read part 2: Consistent Results are Worth Billions, Part 2

I love asking business owners and managers “Who do you think you are?” I’m not trying to pick a fight. What I’m really asking is “What makes you different and better than your competition?” But that’s a pretty boring question. Generally, those who give me a concise, thoughtful answer run growing and profitable companies. Those who can’t, don’t.

We’ve written a lot about figuring out what makes you different and better than your competition, but sometimes being committed to your unique value proposition leads to difficult conversations with customers and prospects.  Being different will certainly help your company stand out relative to the competition, but it can also feel pretty uncomfortable at times. I will never forget a customer visit with Billy that illustrates just how difficult being committed to being different can be.  We were visiting with Randy and Rebekah Akins, the owners of Aztec Fire and Safety in San Diego California. Randy was on the phone because he could not get to the office that day, and Billy, Rebekah, and I were sitting in Rebekah’s office. Randy led off the conversation with an observation on why he had abandoned his last customer service platform and selected ServiceTrade.

“The last application we used really screwed up our Quickbooks, and the most important thing ServiceTrade can get right is an elegant integration with our accounting application,” Randy declared through the phone speaker.  

Uh oh, I thought to myself.  This is about to get really interesting.  Billy didn’t let it go as I hoped he might.  Randy had just signed up with ServiceTrade the week before, and I guess Billy was pretty confident that Randy had already written and mailed the check because his first response was a verbal punch in the mouth for Randy.

“Well then, you are likely to be disappointed with ServiceTrade if an elegant Quickbooks integration is what is most important to you.  We focus most of our research and development spending on innovations that help you make more money from your customers through great customer service.  We believe making more money and great customer service is far more important than how you send the information to your accounting application.” Billy wasted no time getting to the heart of the conflict, and Rebekah and I stared awkwardly at each other wondering what was going to happen next.  I personally was happy that Randy was not in the room because he seemed to be spoiling for a fight after wasting a year or more on an application and then switching to ServiceTrade to solve what he felt was his most important problem – Quickbooks integration.

My response to the situation.

“That’s a pretty arrogant thing to declare in the first meeting with a new customer.  Basically, you are telling me that what I want is not important and that you guys know better than the customer.  We are going to be very disappointed if you can’t help us with this Quickbooks problem.” Randy wasn’t backing down either.  I felt I should do something, but this experience was like watching a train wreck, and I felt paralyzed. I literally couldn’t speak or move.  Billy continued with “We certainly don’t mean to be arrogant, and you guys are important to us. I hope the Quickbooks thing works, but it might not.  If you stick with us, however, I can promise you in six months you will be thrilled with how much easier it is to take care of your customers, deliver more services, raise your prices, and attract new customers.”

“We have already written the check, and we plan to make every attempt to be a good customer.  I hope you are right because our last experience with technology was a huge disappointment,” Randy closed the door on the fight, and we moved onto more comfortable ground with a conversation regarding the training and data migration plan for Aztec.

Fast forward eight months and Billy and Randy are best buds.  Randy and Rebekah’s business is growing like crazy, and they feel like ServiceTrade has made them stand out in their market.  They are selling more services, earning a premium, and attracting new and better customers to their brand. Billy took a calculated risk in that first conversation because he knew that the best ServiceTrade could do regarding a Quickbooks integration was not going to impress anyone.  Quickbooks is low cost, basic accounting application that is easy to use, but it has severe limitations regarding how third-party applications interface with it. There are no APIs for the desktop version. Besides, having a Quickbooks integration is not what sets ServiceTrade apart in the market. We know who we are as a company, and our mission is to help commercial service contractors use technology to deliver amazing customer service and become more valuable to their customers.  Quickbooks has no bearing on that mission.

Do you know who you are as a business?  Do you know what makes you different and special in your market? Can you confidently tell your prospects that you don’t care about being the low price leader and explain what unique value you can offer them instead? Can you explain why your program will reduce inconvenient and expensive breakdowns in the future? Do your customers know who you are?  Commit to being different, even if it means being uncomfortable, in your early engagements with customers and prospects to overcome the bad habits they’ve learned from your low-end competition.

Service contractors, beware. Blind trust is dead and as the “youths” say, pics or it didn’t happen. Pictures and videos are the new currency of trust thanks to technology that makes it so easy to capture and share them. Social media and modern ecommerce have trained us to expect images as tangible evidence that stories are true and products are real. Asking your customers to blindly trust your expertise without providing visual proof is like buying products online that don’t have pictures. It won’t happen. My wife and I had a recent experience with a Toyota dealership service department that’s a great example where a couple pictures could have made the difference between us being lifelong customers and abandoning the dealer completely.

When we purchased Jessie’s Prius, we bought a package of ten services at a discount from their counter rate. We drop her car off for service every few months and every once in a while they warn us about small issues like bad windshield wipers. Whenever possible, I take care of small issues myself. Changing out a set of wipers isn’t exactly rocket surgery.

We were satisfied with the Toyota dealer until last month when they performed a thorough inspection for the 75k mile service. That’s when the recommendations and repair suggestions came out of the woodwork! We expected some, but this list was just ridiculous. My favorite was that they still recommended new windshield wipers because they weren’t replaced by Toyota last time we brought the car in. They just carried the recommendation over despite the fact that there were obviously new wipers on the car. That particular misstep had me questioning the rest of the quoted work.

If they didn’t look at the wipers, how can we trust that they looked at anything else? There weren’t any pictures that prove that they did. They quoted us for tire alignment but they didn’t include a graph showing the results of the alignment test. They just said “Found suspension in need of alignment based on time or miles.” Then there’s the quote for replacing the brake pads and resurfacing the rotors without any pictures of the pad or rotor wear. The brake fluid is discolored? Show us. Pics or it didn’t happen.

We don’t like getting ripped off. Nobody does. Even the feeling that you might be getting ripped off is enough for someone to consider getting a second opinion. And, that’s exactly what we intend to do. We’re going to our favorite local mechanic who emails us pictures of issues before sending quotes for repair. Taking pictures and sharing them with your customers should be easy. If it’s not, you’ve got a problem. Don’t expect your customers to blindly trust you.

“Money for Nothing” is the concept that you can charge a premium if you offer customers predictable facility outcomes at a predictable price. You should be more profitable when “nothing” happens: no emergencies and no system failures. These bad outcomes are undesirable for the customer and expensive for everyone, especially your company. Even if you charge the customer an exorbitant labor rate or emergency fee, being reactive costs a lot more than your tech’s overtime rate. The uneven labor demand of reactive work overextends your most expensive resource, skilled labor. Read our Money for Nothing blog post and check out Billy Marshall’s presentation, Money for Nothing: How Exceptional Service Brands Earn More Pay for Less Work, for a deeper understanding of the topic.

To understand how a Money for Nothing program works operationally, let’s talk about your technician Dan. OK, you may not have a Dan, but stick with me. Dan is the man. He’s been with you for years and he racks up all sorts of repair work and generates a lot of revenue for the business. He’s great at what he does and is irreplaceable in the face of the skilled labor shortage we’re experiencing. On a typical maintenance call, he may find a small equipment issue that has the potential of manifesting into a severe problem in the future. He reports the issue that makes its way to the customer as a quote. As usual, the facility manager, Stingy Steve, ignores the quote because he doesn’t think it’s all that urgent. Eventually, the equipment fails and Dan has to drop another job and work late to resolve the issue. Even though Dan the Man predicted the problem, Stingy Steve is still frustrated that he has to spend more money and deal with the hassle of an emergency.

That’s a bad customer outcome that could have been avoided. That’s how you lose customers. Dan did a great job reporting the problem and your team did a great job quoting it, but more effort should have been made to convince Steve that the minor repair was the right choice. Measuring the right performance metrics can help hold your team accountable for good outcomes and incentivize them to work harder for your customer to avoid situations like this.

Money for Nothing Metrics – or MnMs, not to be mistaken with M&Ms – are business measurements that will help your facility service organization effectively deliver on your premium service contracts and drive better customer outcomes. But first, what internal metrics do you currently use? Labor utilization summaries? Quote approval rates? Revenue per tech per day? These are valuable KPIs for measuring productivity and revenue, but what about customer outcomes? You can measure retention and customer lifetime value, but those are just the results of your performance. They indicate the overall “stickiness” of your brand and how effective you are at extracting dollars from your customers, but they don’t help you understand how you got there. We know that you can’t improve what you don’t measure, so let’s take a look at some key MnMs.

Suggested Repairs

How proactive is your team when it comes to equipment and system issues? Easy. Just track the ratio of reported, quoted, and approved proactive repairs as compared to more severe, reactive problems. The higher the ratio, the better job your company is doing at preventing future catastrophes. Even though these repairs produce less revenue, they will reduce the chance of a bad customer experience and can be scheduled during slow months.

Emergency Calls and Overtime Usage

How often do your customers have unexpected issues? For most service contractors, the answer is very seasonal, but you still have some control over the volume. More proactivity leads to fewer emergencies and happier customers. Measure the volume of emergency calls and overtime hours used for contracted customers to the total number of contracted customers by month to get a sense of what to expect from month to month. You know you’re doing a good job when that ratio drops for the same month year over year.

 

Hold your team accountable and incentivize them for “nothing.” Just like your program, your team should be making money for nothing: no emergencies, no failures, no bad outcomes. MnMs give you the numbers you need to set goals and realize outcomes.

When you deliver great service, equipment and systems don’t fail, nothing happens, and your customer is left wondering if you’re worth the money. When you deliver poor service, systems fail and the customer gets frustrated. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Billy Marshall’s keynote presentation at the 2017 Digital Wrap Conference, Money for Nothing: How Exceptional Service Brands Earn More Pay for Less Work, explains how to keep customers happy and earn a premium when nothing goes wrong. As Billy explained in an earlier blog post, this strategy requires you to show customers all the “snakes” you find in their systems:

You can give the customer what they want, which is nothing, as long as you are regularly finding snakes on the roof, snakes in the riser room, snakes in the ductwork, snakes in every nook and cranny of their critical equipment.  Of course, these are figurative snakes, not literal snakes.  The snakes are the equipment deficiencies that your technicians are recording with photos, audio, and video for the customer to review online via your Service Link. The deficiency snakes are clickbait that constantly reminds the customer how your diligence keeps them from getting bitten by disruptions and breakdowns which inevitably lead to hassles and aggravation.

Billy didn’t stop talking about snakes for months. He managed to take this snake analogy all the way to his keynote presentation:

The analogies and stories don’t stop at snakes. Check out Billy’s entire presentation to learn how to make “Money for Nothing” and create a customer program that will let you charge a premium because you provide more value.