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.

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