Are you writing a happy story?

I remember reading books in grade school where I could choose my own adventure.  The book began by introducing characters, a setting, and some trouble. As I read along, I made decisions at forks in the story.  Should they turn left or turn right?  Should they enter the castle or continue through the forest? Should they follow the trail of candy to the witch’s house or turn and run? I knew the beginning of the story but my decisions would change the ending.

You are writing that type of story every day in your service business. You have your cast of characters, the setting, and maybe an evil villain or two. But can you predict how the story will end? QuickSight reporting will help you make better decisions in the midst of writing the story of your business that lead to a better ending.

As we were deciding on the reports we wanted to show during the QuickSight webinar we hosted this week, I realized we were examining plot twists: Which sales rep is the most successful with their quotes? Which technicians are and are not recording deficiencies that represent new revenue opportunities? What does the labor demand curve look like for planned contract work in the next six months?

Here’s how you can approach setting up your QuickSight data analysis to uncover insights that will help you make good decisions:

  1. Define what you care about. What are the key performance indicators for your business? There will probably be a lot of them and that’s good.
  2. Choose your cast of characters. ServiceTrade data can be analyzed in six major datasets:
    • Deficiencies
    • Jobs
    • Recurring services
    • Invoices
    • Quotes
    • Technician productivity
  3. Ask some questions. Parameters around your reporting generally fall into two buckets: Time and money — or both. Craft a one-sentence question that data analysis can answer for you like:  
    • How many of our quotes for deficiencies are being approved?  
    • Which sales rep in the Durham office has the highest quote approval rate?  
    • Which technicians record the most deficiencies?
    • What service lines generate the most revenue throughout the year?
  4. Collaborate. Create a team that’s responsible for generating reports and finding the best ways to discover what it is that you want to learn. Once you’ve built a few reports and are familiar with the app, you’ll think of new ways to uncover new insights.

While you’re discovering new insights from your ServiceTrade data there’s one more thing to do:

  1.  Take action. Insights require action, whether that’s doing more of what’s working or making changes where needed.

QuickSight reports tell you the whole story of your business – the comedies, adventures, dramas, and the horrors. Use this reporting tool to measure the health of your business and learn where you should make changes for better growth, profitability, and efficiency.

, ,

How to Make Billions Selling Nothing – The Story of Red Hat

The following story is a preview from an upcoming book about how commercial service contractors can earn “money for nothing” by rethinking the way that they present and deliver the services that they provide their customers.

I left IBM to join Red Hat in late November of 1998.  Red Hat would record five million in revenue in 1998 selling a software collection on compact discs (CDs) to computer science enthusiasts in retail outlets like Fry’s, CompUSA, Egghead, and Best Buy.  All of the software on the CDs was also available for free online, but in those days the Internet was still a bit slow for most people, so the CDs were more convenient because installing the software from CDs was faster and easier. The collection also included useful user manuals to help with installation and setup.  Fast forward twenty years to today and almost all of the software that Red Hat provides to its customers is still available for free on the Internet, but somehow Red Hat is a worldwide enterprise worth more than twenty billion dollars with annual sales of about three billion dollars.  How is that possible?  How can Red Hat make so much money for something that is available for free?  Because Red Hat is a “money for nothing” premium brand.

One of my first tasks, after I joined Red Hat, was to determine why all of these computer geeks liked Red Hat so much, and what, if anything, the company might sell to them or their employers that was worth more than the fifty to sixty bucks they were spending on a CD collection at Best Buy.  Shelley Bainter, who works with me here at ServiceTrade, alongside Hilary Stokes and Marty Wesley began setting up “customer Friday” events every week to quiz Red Hat customers and users on their experience with the technology and the company.  Our goal was to understand what was important to them, and how Red Hat might use that information to make a more valuable product.  The company had an initial public offering of stock on the NASDAQ exchange in August of 1999, and the shares jumped from about $20 per share to about $150 per share in a few short weeks. With huge expectations and a monster market capitalization of about twenty billion dollars, it was critical that we figure out a premium product strategy.  The company still had no clue what to sell potential customers, and we certainly did not want the shareholders to figure out that we didn’t know what we were doing.

Well, we weren’t fast enough.  The share price plummeted from one hundred fifty dollars to about three dollars over the course of the next few months.  But in the midst of incredible employee anxiety and shareholder lawsuits, we discovered something that proved to be very, very valuable.  We discovered from our research that the more experience a customer had with Linux (the name of the software collection that Red Hat distributed), the more they valued easy and quick access to the maintenance package downloads provided by Red Hat.  These highly experienced Linux users were keen to keep their server systems in top working condition.  They did not want their critical servers to be susceptible to security flaws or operating errors that might disrupt their business.  They readily indicated that they were willing to pay Red Hat a premium to be certain that nothing ever happened to their systems.

With validated information about why Red Hat was valuable to its most knowledgeable and experienced customers, my product marketing team set about defining a premium program that would allow customers to pay for a subscription to the maintenance packages delivered by Red Hat engineering.  Coincident with our efforts to formulate a scalable product plan, the press became involved in describing Red Hat’s business model (we couldn’t yet describe it, so someone was going to fill the gap). Red Hat was a high flying stock (before the crash), and journalist and technology pundits were keen to weigh in with their opinions of whether or not any business model would actually emerge to sustain the shareholder value.

The press told the world that Red Hat sold “support” for free software.  Unfortunately, our customer prospects took this to mean that if your free software “broke” you could call Red Hat to fix it.  Nothing was further from the truth.  Our most valuable users told us that AVOIDING system failures was most important, not fixing problems after they happen!  But the “break/fix” story was a simple message that was widely promoted in the technology press.  A “break/fix” business model is a miserable model. You engage with your customers when they are under extreme stress and every revenue opportunity is an emergency.  By definition, the relationship will be stressful and challenging.  But it was easy for the salespeople to talk about it, so that’s what they began trying to sell.

No matter the musings of the popular press, my product marketing team knew what Red Hat needed to deliver to be valuable to customers.  We released two products in 2001 that, taken together, represented a premium subscription program.  Red Hat Network was a management console that helped customers update and patch systems, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux was a well-defined set of free software packages for which Red Hat promised to deliver prompt and quality maintenance.  We priced these based on the number of computer systems under maintenance and the type of application workload these systems supported for the customer.  This pricing scheme aligned the value of the systems and their consistent operating performance with the amount the customer paid.  Perfect alignment, right?  Not exactly, because the press has poisoned the market with their “break/fix” news story, which resulted in a lot of uncomfortable conversations with large potential customers.

I got to lead most of those conversations because I was promoted to run sales for the company after I negotiated the first seven-figure deal the company had ever signed.  The sales team was not yet comfortable with all of this new messaging around maintenance instead of “break/fix.”  So I nominated myself to go show them how it was done, and I got my first opportunity when Cisco Systems of San Jose, California reached out to Red Hat for suggestions on how they might simplify and streamline their Linux technology systems and applications.  The biggest deal the sales team had closed to that point was in the low six figures. When Cisco signed a multi-year seven-figure deal, the formula that I had used to sell them became extremely interesting to the rest of the company, especially the sales team.  I happily accepted my promotion to run sales, and off I went to have a bunch of uncomfortable conversations with high profile customer prospects.

One of the first calls that I fielded was from someone that worked directly for the Chief Information Officer for BankOne in Ohio.  BankOne was one of the ten largest banks in the country, and it was run by the visionary executive Jamie Dimon.  They would later merge with JPMorgan Chase in a deal orchestrated by Dimon, and today the combined JPMorgan Chase, headed by Jamie, is one of the largest and most admired banking and financial services conglomerates in the world.  Clearly, this was an important prospect for Red Hat, and they had approached us about helping them with their Linux strategy.  The person responsible for Linux made it very clear to me that they were not interested in our maintenance product strategy, but they would sign an agreement to call us when they needed technical support.  He wanted me to come to Ohio for a meeting.  I told him there was no point in me coming to Ohio because we did not offer what he was looking to buy.  I referred him to our competition and told him to call me back if he ever had a change of heart.  The CEO of Red Hat was beginning to wonder if promoting me to run sales was such a great idea.  BankOne was gone.

Fortunately for both me and Red Hat, I was having other conversations that were going quite well.  One of them was with Rich Breunich, then the global head of technology for Citigroup, which was actually the largest financial institution in the world at the time.  In a meeting with Rich and his team, I explained our maintenance business model to them.  “A break/fix model means we are incentivized to provide customers with technology that breaks all the time in order for us to grow our revenue.  This model delivers the highest revenue when things break.  But we don’t want to collaborate on technology with you only when things are broken.  We want to have a more thoughtful relationship where we collaborate continuously to give you great technology that never breaks and exceeds your expectations.”

Rich’s staff was having none of it.  They pounded the table and puked on my grand vision.  They explained to me that every major technology publication asserted in article after article that Red Hat sells support for Linux, and by God that is what they intended to buy from us.  Rich, however, was in my corner, and he settled the matter quickly by siding with me.  Citigroup did not want to incentivize their vendors to deliver shoddy products in order to increase revenue from break/fix support, he explained to his staff.  They would happily pay a premium for great technology that performs without aggravation.  Certainly, Red Hat was available when things go wrong, but that should not be the basis of the relationship.  It should be the exception, not the rule.  Like Cisco, Citigroup signed a multi-year, seven-figure deal with Red Hat.  Now my sales team was off to the races.  They had a premium formula, and they had a leader that would back them up as they engaged in uncomfortable conversations with high profile market prospects, even if that meant walking away when a large prospect like BankOne did not agree.

Does any of the Red Hat story feel familiar?  Do you find yourself selling service features that are defined by your customer and by low-end competition? Break/Fix? Price? Labor Rate? Parts?  Do the sales people race to the lowest common denominator to declare a win?  And then dump it into the lap of the service department and move on?  All of these things were true for Red Hat as well, and yet they managed to break out of this mold of break/fix misery and create a multi-billion dollar brand by collecting “money for nothing.”  

When Red Hat turned the corner financially with a scalable model, I was often dispatched to investor and press meetings to explain how we were making so much money selling free software. My message was simple.  Red Hat offered customers “a predictable outcome for a predictable price.”  Sure, they could download a bunch of free technology off the Internet and cobble it together, and in some cases that might work out OK. In the most important cases, however, not having a reliable vendor for critical systems was not acceptable.  Putting the hardware vendor in charge was also generally a bad idea because all they want to do is sell more hardware, not optimize outcomes.  Hardware vendors get paid more when systems have marginal performance and the customer requires more hardware to support the load.  Red Hat was perfectly positioned to help them get the most from their hardware and systems through a managed technology maintenance program.

There are several important lessons in the Red Hat “money for nothing” story for the commercial service contractor:

  1. Break/fix support is a terrible business model.  Your brand becomes associated with stress and chaos at the customer.  Earning more revenue means the customer is experiencing more trouble. This model does not end well for the vendor.
  2. Selling what the market is buying is often not a good idea.  All of Red Hat’s competitors simply said “yes” to the customer’s break/fix support request because that was easy.  They got exactly what they deserved.  Almost all of them went out of business after the Linux frenzy subsided.  Be willing to have the hard conversation with the customer to get a better outcome for both you and them.
  3. Know who you are and the value of your service model.  It is not enough to say “no” to something that is obviously bad.  You have to offer the customer an alternative plan.  You need to sell a premium program.
  4. Say “no” to the customers that do not buy into your vision.  Better still, offer them the contact information for your competitor.  Let the competition sully their brand with miserable customer experiences while you strengthen yours with long lasting and scalable relationships.
  5. A subscription revenue model for a technology maintenance program is an extremely lucrative business model.  Service contracting is not incredibly different than Red Hat’s model.  Red Hat found a position of authority relative to the system vendors (Dell, HP, IBM, etc.) by offering a branded, third-party system maintenance capability.  Customers could turn to Red Hat for advice on which technology subsystems were most scalable and reliable.  As the manufacturers in your segment seek to exert more control on the customer maintenance program, you need a strategy to push back and become the technology expert that the customer trusts to deliver optimum system performance.
  6. Don’t let the manufacturers of the hardware take your seat at the table with the customer. System vendors are generally terrible at customer service, and they are incentivized to sell more systems.  Be certain you build skills and collect data across a broad swath of hardware brands to offer the customer the insights and outcomes that they are seeking.
  7. Focus on engineering and innovation.  The only way you will get to set the agenda (as opposed to a hardware vendor or another contractor) with the customer is if you have the expertise to optimize their outcomes through your premium service program.  It is better to get paid for what you know instead of getting paid for where you go.

Red Hat is a terrific example of how a “money for nothing” strategy can be used to deliver incredible customer loyalty and superior business results.  A premium system maintenance program gives the customer the “nothing” that they want – no breakdowns, no budget surprises, optimal performance – while providing your business with a predictable, high margin, subscription revenue stream.

What skilled labor shortage?

“What skilled labor shortage? We don’t have any trouble hiring service technicians. We’re covered up in job applications.” That’s what a ServiceTrade customer told Billy Marshall, our CEO, on a recent visit. This customer figured that the economy was tanking because there are so many techs applying for work at his company. Billy just shook his head. “Nope. Everyone else is struggling to hire skilled labor. Your Digital Wrap is recruiting new techs for you.”

Your truck wrap has always been a recruiting tool. Just by performing the day-to-day work and driving around town, your technicians and the trucks they drive market your brand to potential customers and employees. A Mercedes Sprinter with a well-designed wrap is going to leave a good impression, right? A beat up, 15-year-old Ford Econoline with a few decals designed in the 90s, not so much. But, you already knew that.

What our customer and most service companies don’t realize is that a Digital Wrap works the same way. Just by performing the day-to-day work and generating online content for your customers, your technicians, equipped with technology, can market your brand to potential customers and employees. A well-designed website that shows up on the top of Google search results thanks to hundreds of great reviews collected by technicians is going to leave a good impression, right? A 15-year-old website that looks like it was designed before the .com bust, not so much. But, you probably already knew that.

Modern buyers and workers find and judge the companies they want to work with online. If you can’t be found on Google, strike. If you don’t have good reviews, strike. If your website looks like hot garbage, strike. You’re out of consideration. But, if you do have a great Digital Wrap, the customers and job applications will come to you. Selling and recruiting will get easier because people want to work a premium brand they can trust.

Don’t be Sold by Your own Sales Team

Look at these two career software salesmen.

Along with silly and fun, we’d describe Billy (in the Batman Snuggie on the left) and Tim (in the Superman Snuggie on the right) as:

  • Charismatic
  • Engaging
  • Great at building relationships

This can be extremely helpful when you’re in sales. Why? Because storytelling is a huge part of successful sales. We regularly train our sales teams on storytelling. Everyone shares interesting stories they hear from customers and prospects because stories are so important in relating to prospective customers.  

If your sales team is engaging and they can tell a good story, they can be successful. But there’s another story they might be telling, and that’s what we want to warn you about.

Watch this scene from the 2011 movie Moneyball where the Oakland A’s are trying to replace three star players lost to free agency.

Did you notice the helpless look from General Manager Billy Beane as his experienced scouts start evaluating opportunities to replace players in their pipeline? You hear: “He has the looks.”  “He’s ready to play the part.” “He just needs the playing time.” We won’t even mention the girlfriend (bless her heart.)

Do you know what that sounds like in a commercial service business?  “I’m behind but I have a lot of good opportunities about to drop.” “We have a great relationship. We went out for drinks last night and it’s a done deal.” “They’re just busy. But they said they’ll commit by the end of the quarter.”

“He has the looks.  He’s ready to play the part.  He just needs the playing time.” For a sales manager or business owner, this subjectivity is easy comfort but dangerous to believe. So our warning is this: Don’t. Be. Sold.

Now, look at what Billy Beane did instead of being sold.

Baseball managers traditionally only cared about batting averages, bases stolen, and RBIs.  What the Oakland A’s did was start thinking about getting on base.  It was a statistic that was completely ignored but helped get the team to the playoffs with about a quarter of the budget other teams had. They expanded their view to see the whole story.

Believe it or not, most business owners and sales leaders are watching the game instead of coaching. They’re sitting in the dugout waiting for home runs because what else can we do but believe the people that are going to bring us the wins?

Once you see the whole story you can stop spinning your wheels waiting for runs to be scored. You’ll know what’s happening, not happening, and what needs to happen to get those wins. Knowing the whole story removes the guesswork so you’ll know who needs some extra time in the batting cages, who needs to take a night off, or who just needs to be cut from the team. Once you’ve figured out the formula and what benchmarks you need to keep everyone accountable, your success becomes repeatable. It becomes predictable rather than a surprise at the end of the month, quarter, or year.

So what stats should you be looking at? Well, it depends. It depends on what you’re selling. It depends on how your team is structured. It depends on a lot of factors.  But here are a few general stats everyone should be looking at.


The great thing about sales is that a salesperson can have as many at-bats as they’re willing to go out and get. At-bats at ServiceTrade are initial activities that are measured by the number of calls recorded in our CRM and made in our phone system.   

On Base Percentage

This one is easy, it’s the number of opportunities being generated and is pulled directly from a CRM.

RBIs or Runs

The number of opportunities won.

Now that you’ve looked at the front end and what’s most in your control, you can start considering some other stats like opportunities left on base, your time to turn deficiencies into quotes, and your quote approval rate.

There’s no one formula that works for everyone, but once you have an understanding of the whole story and what your stats sheet should be saying, you can coach the game rather than sitting in the dugout hoping that sales delivers the home run they say they’re going to hit in the bottom of the 9th.

This blog post is adapted from the 2017 Digital Wrap Conference presentation “Moneyball” by ServiceTrade VP of Sales Anna McMahon.


Smartglasses Face a Blurry Future

At the 2012 Google I/O conference, the big “reveal” was Google Glass.  A team of Glass-wearing skydivers live streamed their descent toward the roof of the San Francisco Moscone center where the event was underway.  It was an awe-inspiring stunt, but Google Glass flopped due to a buggy and ridiculous user experience, and the project was shuttered in 2015.  Or was it?

The website for glass proclaimed “Thanks for exploring with us,” but it also offered hope for the future with “The journey doesn’t end here.”  Of course, Google can waste money on pie-in-the-sky projects forever because they print so much pie-in-the-sky money with their AdWords platform.  But what about the rest of us?  When should we expect some breakthrough capability with smartglasses?  And what would that look like anyway?

I actually think other technologies that were related to the first glasses experiments are going to dominate our attention, and that is probably a good thing.  Smartglasses initially were a symbol for three separate and distinct technology advances:

  1. A heads-up type display that removes the need for a display screen to be positioned in your field of view.
  2. A hands-free user interface to be able to engage with an application to move the experience along without tapping on a screen or pecking a keyboard or zapping a barcode or whatever other input you choose.
  3. A camera application to capture and share the imagery in your field of view.

Let’s start with number 3 first.  I decided to do this blog post when I saw that Snap (the company behind Snapchat) just disclosed in an investor update that they are writing off about $40 million on Spectacles inventory they are not able to sell.  In case you have not heard, Spectacles are the smartglasses that are integrated with Snapchat to give the user a hands-free camera application to share the imagery in their field of view with the Snapchat application.  It flopped. But that is not the interesting bit.  The interesting bit is that the glasses were $129 including the charging case.  While not free, that is not bad for a first generation, new form factor camera with LED lighting, a power source, and the electronics for connecting to other devices.  I think experiments like Spectacles are going to lead to a simpler form factor for a lightweight, high functioning camera that attaches to your glasses or the bill of your cap.  It will simply be able to attach to whatever application you are running via Bluetooth or WiFi, and now you have a hands-free camera to snap images or stream video to applications running on your smartphone or tablet.

Item number 2, the hands-free user interface, is actually here today.  It comes in two parts that everyone will quickly recognize.  The first is the earpiece/microphone that we have all used or seen others use (Jawbone is a popular brand that has done well in the market).  This allows you to give audible input to an application (likely running on your smartphone or tablet) and receive audio back from the application.  The second part is Alexa (or Siri, pick your assistant).  I think Alexa is actually going to be the game changer because Amazon is so good at productizing computing infrastructure for folks like ServiceTrade to incorporate in our applications.  We also have experience with Google and Microsoft – there are good reasons why Amazon is the market leader by a pretty wide margin.  I believe Alexa will be another example of their market-leading competence in this area.  The applications you use will have an Alexa interface that enables the technician to move the workflow along by saying “Alexa, move the workflow along (as a proxy for whatever application option makes sense.)”

Item 1, the heads-up display, is the hard bit.  Not because this is new or novel because pilots, for example, have been using heads-up displays in aircraft since the mid-90s.  It is difficult because shrinking it to work in a miniature and mobile environment like a pair of glasses is a difficult piece of physics.  The display only works correctly if the user can see the application interface in the same plane of focus as the other items of interest.  If I understand what I have researched, it appears the approach being used by Google Glass is a near retina display. The image is projected directly onto the retina, so there is no issue with the depth of focus. The information is just “there” for the retina to absorb without refocusing on a “closer” screen display.

What Google Glass got wrong (in my humble opinion) was trying to introduce all three elements in a single device, while simultaneously assuming that the applications where we might use the technology were readily available.  None of the technologies were significantly evolved to enable an “all in one” device to be successful.  I am not a fan of “all in one” applications anyway, as I find they typically suck at most of the things they try to achieve for the sake of claiming a longer checklist of “features.”

Instead of the “all in one” that flopped for Google (although the physics breakthroughs they achieved with the display are impressive), I believe you will begin to see small changes sneak up on you.  It is easy to imagine someone with a Bluetooth Jawbone and a visor-mounted camera collaborating via Facetime with a remote colleague.  There’s nothing extraordinary here because all of the technology is well developed already.  I can also imagine a technician setting up their tablet beside a piece of equipment and asking Alexa to play and pause and rewind a recorded video of how to repair a complex piece of equipment – hands-free with an interactive application that we already use every day.

There is a phrase in my industry called the “consumerization of IT.”  Basically, this phrase means that the end-user consumer applications for new technology will generally lead the market before the commercial applications become available.  Seems counterintuitive until you realize that consumer spending makes up 70% of the US economy.  It just makes sense that the titans of technology such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, would focus their research and development dollars to address the biggest available market.  If you want to experiment with things that likely will work to improve your commercial application, don’t look for some big breakthrough from a wildly new and different application.  Instead, focus on the commercials that you see during the holidays that demonstrate how you can display an eggnog recipe and play holiday music by commanding Alexa to do so.  Pay attention to the display of best-selling gadgets at Best Buy from companies like Jawbone that connect to applications on your phone.  Then go play around in the context of your work for customers and find innovative ways to put these consumer breakthroughs to work for the benefit of your customers and your company.

Who do you think you are?

What’s your brand promise?  A brand promise is a powerful, shorthand way for companies to tell their customers what to expect. They’re what makes a company different and better than their competition, and a good brand promise gives you permission to focus intently on living up to that promise.

Here are a few popular examples:

Geico: 15 minutes will save you 15% or more on auto insurance


BMW: The ultimate driving machine


Jimmy John’s: Freaky fast


So who do you think you are? What does your company promise to your customers that they can’t get from your competition?

Don’t fret if you are scratching your head right now – it’s not uncommon for service companies to lack a clear, concise statement like BMW’s “The ultimate driving machine.”  

There are a few things you can do to reveal your brand promise. But we’d like to start with what not to do, and that is to offer empty platitudes. Have you ever uttered any of these phrases?

We have better techs.
We give better service.
We work harder.
We care more.

It’s ok if you have because you aren’t the only one — by a long shot. Benign statements like these are hard to prove and are meaningless to the customer. While it’s nice that you work hard and care about doing quality work, it isn’t unique to your business and it isn’t compelling to your customers and prospects.

Gain Perspective

The best way to determine your brand promise is to step into the shoes of your best customers. What do they want? Why do they love working with you?

  • They want a better program designed to fit their needs
  • They don’t want any hassle
  • They want to see the value in your relationship

Be Unique

How are you different and better than everyone else who does what you do? At ServiceTrade, our mission is to make commercial service contractors more important to their customers to grow their business.

At BMW, it’s to create the ultimate driving machine. BMW shoppers know that they’re looking at an automobile that offers a driver’s experience, not granny’s slow, comfortable ride around town. Jimmy Johns does everything it can to be freaky fast. Even to the point of limiting their menu to a single option for mustard or cheese. (Did you know that? Dijon or provolone – that’s it.)

What makes you unique isn’t a question you can find the answer for in Google. It takes introspection. Involve your team in this project of self-discovery.

Get Uncomfortable

And, finally, get ready for some uncomfortable conversations. You’re definitely going make some customers unhappy if your brand promise doesn’t match their values. You may even lose some deals. But it’s worth it to focus your business on delivering the type of profitable work that is in your sweet spot. Uncovering your brand promise will help you win more of the customers you want and help keep them for longer.

Who do you think you are? Spend some time to figure it out.


Also read:

Build a Services Brand that is Worth Something


This blog post is adapted from a 2017 Digital Wrap Conference presentation by ServiceTrade Director of Marketing Shawn Mims.

, ,

Snakes on the Roof!

Every popular book or movie generally hues to a typical formula.  A hero faces a daunting challenge and makes a big effort to overcome trouble.  The reason this formula works is because humans are captivated by trouble and drama.  Jonathan Gottschall, the keynote speaker for the Digital Wrap Conference, documents in great detail the human attraction to dramatic story in his book The Storytelling Animal.   

Here are a couple of the money quotes from the book:

“Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story.  No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.”

“Stories the world over are almost always about people . . . with problems.  The people want something badly – to survive, to win the girl or boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want.  Just about any story – comic, tragic, romantic – is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.”

If you want to keep the attention of your customers and get paid a premium for your services, you need to give the customer some trouble.  That sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  “The customer doesn’t want trouble!” you retort indignantly.  “Quite the opposite, in fact.  The customer really just wants nothing!  No breakdowns, no disruptions, no aggravation, no hassles.”  

And I couldn’t agree more.  But the problem with delivering nothing is that your service is taken for granted, and you will get unplugged from the account by “one truck Chuck” when he promises a lower price.  You can almost hear the customer now responding to Chuck’s low price pitch:

Nothing ever happens around here!  Why am I paying these other guys so much?  Chuck, thanks for saving me some money!  You won the business with your low price!

Of course, Chuck will screw it all up, and pretty soon the “nothingness” that was taken for granted will become a series of disruptions, breakdowns, hassles, and aggravation.  It doesn’t have to be this way.


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.

The customers are only human.  They can’t resist clickbait.  Clickbait is a good story that shows how you have charmed and corralled the threatening snakes to save them from trouble.  When they open your online quotes offering all manner of snake traps and snake killing repairs and upgrades (mind you, no snake oil for the customer!), they are practically gleeful that the hero of the story (that would be you) has again prevailed over the devious equipment snakes that were plotting to harm them.  Approved! If you want to keep your customers for the long term, give ‘em some trouble by finding some snakes on the roof!

Also read:

Celebrating Five Years of ServiceTrade

Earlier this week on Tuesday, September 26, ServiceTrade turned five years old. If you don’t know our origin story, the roots of ServiceTrade go back to a national service company called DunnWell. A couple of smart, entrepreneurial fellas saw that the technology that DunnWell created was strong enough to evolve into a product that could help other commercial service contractors. That technology became a company on September 26, 2012, founded by Billy Marshall and Brian Smithwick.

What Billy said in the first blog post that introduced ServiceTrade nearly 5 years ago remains true today:

  • We were created to help service companies deliver better service, grow faster, and be more profitable.
  • Services still remain an underserved market for integrated SaaS applications – though it is improving.
  • Our application will always be better next week than it is this week.
    (Read 5 years of release notes here.)

Some members of ServiceTrade at one of Billy’s famous Low Country Boils.

  • Today ServiceTrade employs 21 full-time employees in 3 states.
  • We have more than 300 customers in 45 states and 4 Canadian provinces.
  • More than 14 million photos and documents are stored in ServiceTrade.
  • About 23,000 photos and PDF docs are added each day.
  • Around 2,600 invoices are created each day.
  • Over the life of our app, our customers have sent 240,000 quotes representing $483,000,000.

One of the earliest subscription contracts has a $3 per tech per month rate. Being first had its advantages. (Everyone in sales wants me to tell you that this rate is no longer available.)

Our first beta testers are now our oldest customers — these folks shared our vision and saw the opportunity for their businesses early on. They have become good friends and some of our most trusted advisors.

ServiceTrade’s first customer appreciation event and fishing tournament at the Outer Banks in 2014 was attended by 11 people. This year we’ll have 150 at the Digital Wrap Conference.  

2016 Digital Wrap Conference


Storytelling has been part of the fabric of ServiceTrade since the earliest days. Our blog has been active since early 2013. The five most popular blog posts for our first five years are:

Now is the most exciting time in our five years. Everyone on our team believes strongly in our mission and that they have a part to play in making our customers’ businesses more successful. Our customer roster has always held the most innovative service companies across the U.S. and Canada who push themselves – and us – to do new and better things. Let’s meet back here in 2022 to see how things have changed for our 10th birthday.


Keeping Score is Not the Same as Winning

Every major sports venue has a prominent scoreboard so that fans and participants alike can easily review the score with a glance to the outfield or upward at the jumbotron.  Knowing the score is a critical element in decision-making.  No point in running the ball up the gut in football when you are behind by 3 touchdowns with five minutes left in the game.

Imagine trying to coach the game, however, by looking at the scoreboard instead of watching the action on the field.  Ever notice what is happening with the coaches on the sidelines during the game?  Doesn’t really matter what sport.  The coaches are riveted to the action on the field or on the court, right?  They may glance at the scoreboard occasionally, but most of their attention is directed onto the field of play.  So that they can make adjustments during the game to accentuate what is working and compensate for what is not.

Why is it, then, that commercial service contractors so often obsess over the accounting systems that measure the score while completely ignoring the customer service systems that provide real-time feedback regarding the action on the field of play?  Keeping score is not the same as winning.  Winning means that everyone is executing the plays for the business to the best of their ability and in the interest of great customer outcomes.  Accounting systems and accountants have almost zero impact on the game, and yet they are often placed at the very center of decisions regarding how to execute a winning game plan.  That’s like asking the statistician to draw up the winning play on fourth and long with the game on the line instead of entrusting it to the offensive coordinator.  The score at any time in the game matters, but it is a small element in a winning coaching strategy.

To be fair, customer relationship management systems, electronic commerce, and customer service applications (along with marketing automation) are newer applications on the market relative to the older and more established accounting and enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications.  It is worth noting, also, that these newer applications focused on sales and customer service are the fastest growing breed of applications on the market.  It makes sense.  If you are going to compete in today’s fast-paced and online markets, you have to observe and measure what is happening on the field – play by play – instead of just waiting for the score to be tallied.  How are the salespeople performing on their calls and quotes?  How are the technicians performing identifying opportunities for repair?  How are the customers grading your customer service via online reviews?  How often is the service level agreement being met or exceeded?  None of these items register in the accounting system, but all of them will have a profound influence on your ability to win the game.

There is nothing wrong with glancing at the scoreboard a few times every quarter to tweak the playbook.  Winning consistently, however, means a relentless focus on the play by play action in the field while making constant adjustments.  Keeping score is not the same as winning.  Remember this maxim when you prioritize how you invest in applications for running your business.

Better techs, better service? Try a better experience.

Do you have a “Papa John’s” sales pitch? They claim to have better ingredients, better pizza. Whether it’s true or not, the financial markets have spoken and Papa John’s is getting crushed by its biggest competitor, Domino’s. Here’s the stock growth for Papa John’s and Domino’s since 2009:

Does your sales pitch sound something like this: Better techs, better service? Even if it’s true, why should your customers believe it? Your competition makes the same claims. Who should the customer believe? It’s your word against theirs. The same goes for any other platitude you may use in your pitch. We care more. We work harder. We have more integrity. Prove it!

If it doesn’t work for Papa John’s and their multi-million dollar marketing budget, do you think it will work for you?

On the other hand, we have Domino’s. Obviously, they are doing something very right. In 2009, they moved away from slogans and hollow talking points when they introduced their mobile app and pizza tracker. They did so to harness the power of the Experience Economy, which is summed up nicely by the Harvard Business Review like this:

“An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event. Commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable.”

In other words, successful companies like Domino’s are winning more customers, making more money from each customer, and keeping them for longer by creating a memorable customer experience. And now more than ever, that experience is increasingly digital with fewer in-person interactions. For another example, consider Amazon’s convenient shopping experience compared to the chaos of a trip to Walmart. That alone explains Amazon’s wild growth compared to Walmart’s lackluster stock performance.

The problem with a great customer experience is that most of it happens after the customer buys something, making it difficult to incorporate into your marketing and sales pitch. It’s difficult to convince someone that’s never used Domino’s or Amazon just how awesome it is until they make the leap and try it out. Here are a few tips to overcome that barrier:

  • Adopt a modern customer experience: If you don’t have one, you can’t sell it. This blog post is a great starting point to build your service company’s customer experience: Customer experience is more important to your business than customer service.
  • Use language that describes the experience: Convenient, transparent, modern, accountable, and data-driven are all words that mean a lot more when you can back them up with a sleek, digital experience that offers these benefits. They stand out compared to what your customers are hearing from your competitors.
  • Give prospects a taste of the experience: As quickly as possible, show prospects what your customer experience is like. For example, you can give them access to a demo account in your online service portal or send them a sample online job summary (in ServiceTrade, send them a Service Link) or quote with pictures and videos from a real job. They won’t get the full experience, but they’ll quickly see that you’re a cut above the competition.

Platitudes won’t get you anywhere. Until you align your sales pitch with a valuable customer experience, you’re going to continue losing to the competition. Drop the Papa John’s slogan and try to offer a Domino’s experience.


Learn how to sell a service program with a modern customer experience: Webinar – Sell the program
Read more about Domino’s strategy as it relates to service contractors: Domino’s Dominance – There’s an app for that