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Looking for Software Innovations? Look for Loosely Coupled Integration

ServiceTrade integrates with any other application you might find necessary to run your business through what we call “loosely coupled integration.” What this basically means is that the two (or 3 or 4 or more) applications DO NOT SHARE the same database. Instead, data is synchronized across the applications in a manner that is based upon which application controls that bit of data and which application simply needs the information for reference purposes. As often as the information changes for the “control” application, that is how often the reference value changes for the “reference” application.

The benefit of this approach to integration is that each application, whether 2 or 4 or 10 or more, can evolve with features that make them more valuable to you without a strong dependency on the other applications to evolve their respective data models. As I pointed out in my blog post on Software Communism, central planning by a single government committee does not deliver the innovation and value creation of the free market. The same is true for software applications – the free market chaos of competition and innovation will yield great opportunities for you to improve your operations by using multiple applications that happily work together via “loose coupling” and in most cases application programming interfaces (APIs).

In the “bad old days” of “tight integration” you would spend a fortune for a “certified” integration based upon some logo you saw on your accounting software provider’s website. You would have to shut down operations for a few days or setup an expensive dual environment while some expensive consultant installed software and “re-configured” the database to accept insertions, changes, and deletions from both applications so that both applications operated on the same dataset at all times. Then, after the expense and pain, you never changed it again until you were forced to upgrade one of the applications. Then more expense and pain ensued. Then no more innovation and no more operational improvements for another 5 or 6 years, and then pain again – a miserable existence that takes years off your life each time you want to receive new features or functions.

It is not acceptable anymore to deal with this pain and this lack of innovation. Modern Software as a Service (SaaS) application providers deliver new features on a weekly basis with ZERO PAIN. Technology moves fast. Your competition moves fast. Your customers expect fast. Being caught in the slow lane because of a requirement for all applications to share the same database is RIDICULOUS. Loosely coupled integration is how the modern applications work in order to provide the innovation demanded by a modern world.

Here are some examples from integrations we have delivered to our customers here at ServiceTrade:

Customer Account Information – The accounting system should be the master record holder for “who pays my invoices and how do I get them to pay me.” ServiceTrade needs this information for reference, so each time the accounting system updates a record, a file is fired to ServiceTrade via the APIs to update that record – typically within 2 seconds.

Location Service Information – The customer service application, ServiceTrade, should be the master record holder for “how do we deliver great customer service at this location.” The accounting system does not need to know that the alarm code is 987876 and “never send Shawn because they do not like him.” The accounting system does not even need to know this type information for reference purposes. However, when a service is delivered, the accounting system needs to know what “items” were consumed/delivered in order to process the invoice and calculate Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) and Revenue, and also to update inventory. In this case, ServiceTrade sends a file to the accounting system indicating “Job Complete/Invoice Ready” with all the details necessary to invoice the customer and calculate Revenue, COGS, Gross Margin, etc. Typically this synchronization happens every couple of minutes to once an hour, depending on the needs of the customer.

In both of these examples, there is absolutely no reason for both applications to operate on a single dataset simultaneously. I could give hundreds more similar examples, and the lesson is the same. It is also practical if you think about it. Who hires accountants to deliver technical services in the field? Who hires technicians to be their accountant? Why would you expect your accounting system to be good at customer service management? Why would you expect your customer service management system to be a good accounting system? Let each deliver its own value and insist that they cooperate – exactly as you insist the various members of your management team cooperate. They do not each need to know everything the other knows or does – only what is necessary for effective operations across both functions. Assuming that they all share the same “brain” (i.e. the database) is crazy. Their brains are different so that they can be good at what they do.

At ServiceTrade, we happily use Salesforce.com, Marketo, Google Apps, Intercom, and a handful of other applications. They all work together flawlessly using this concept of loosely coupled integration via APIs. We never once looked for a logo on a site to determine what application might have “tight integration” because we knew with great SaaS software the integration would certainly be there and it would certainly meet our needs. You should buy the application that suites your needs and is the best application for the functions it serves. Integration should be cheap and easy. If it is not, then you bought the bad stuff. Spin the purchasing wheel again until it lands on the good stuff.

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The Rich Get Richer: Why Smart Service Contractors Make Smart Software Decisions

I have noticed an interesting trend with ServiceTrade customers: the large majority are already in the top 10% of the industry regarding both systems capability and typical service contractor metrics – growth, gross margin, net margin – when they first engage with us, yet they readily buy ServiceTrade (typically with only about 2 weeks of free trial). Simultaneously, I see prospects who would receive extraordinary benefit from an upgrade to better service contractor software (terrible systems, very poor execution metrics) and they are absolutely unable to make a decision and move forward.

Pareto ChartMy best guess is that the guys with better systems and better metrics have the confidence to move ahead again and again. They have seen success with upgrades and technology, so seeking greater success is second nature to them. The folks with horrible systems and poor metrics have never had a good experience with systems (and it shows), and therefore they are jaded and so overwhelmed dealing with the messiness of the business that considering an application like ServiceTrade (or other best-of-breed vendors like NetSuite and Salesforce) is not an option.

But where does this dynamic lead? I suppose it leads to the “rich getting richer” and the “poor” continuing to struggle. I suppose it is inevitable, but I am disappointed that those that really need help cannot get it because their history with bad systems and bad actors has painted such a miserable picture of change. I cannot tell you how many times I hear:

“The last time we changed our application, it was a horrible experience that took years off my life. I hate what I have now, but I will not change ever again.”

Here’s the thing about not changing anything: nothing changes. The world moves forward, and companies with this mindset are trapped. Most owners are from the baby boomer generation, and they are just hanging onto the income from their business (to the extent there is any income, otherwise they are just hanging onto a tax shelter) because the 2nd generation has moved outside the business (i.e. doesn’t want to run it) and there are no other potential buyers out there. When they retire, the brand that took so much effort to build will just die. The only way they can escape this dynamic is with a leap of faith to modern capability, where effective systems and processes can help institutionalize customer service and operational management at a fraction of the cost and aggravation they suspect will be necessary. They can then transition the business to another operator and reap the value they deserve…but it will not happen without change. Without change, the rich will simply continue to get richer, while others will work for pennies until they disappear.

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Give Yourself a Raise – 5 Ways Service Contracting Software Puts More Money in Your Pocket

One of the consistent themes we hear from our service contractor customers is how expensive, slow, and cumbersome basic administrative tasks become when they attempt to scale their business with their on-premise PC server-based applications. Scheduling, inventory management, billing, payroll, customer service requests – all of these activities seem to get choked up with an administrative staff that always needs more capacity and ultimately holds the business hostage to the arcane knowledge that is trapped in their head regarding “how things work around here.” Progress and growth in the business grinds to a halt because the administrative burden becomes so complex. The mantra of the business becomes “don’t change anything because we can’t profitably manage what we have going already.” or “Grow? Grow! Are you kidding? Everytime we grow we lose money!”

The primary reason for this calcification of process and the resulting steady escalation of administration expense is the application structure – all communication and information MUST run through the office to be processed. Traffic cannot “flow” without being directed by a “traffic cop” sitting inside the office. Every car has to get attention when it hits the traffic circle, and all other cars must wait until the cars ahead are pushed through. Plus, batches of traffic show up at rush hour (in the morning and in the evening) and further clog up the highway, preventing progress until it is processed out. The key to breaking this miserable traffic jam in the office is to create a continuous flow of work that is not constantly interrupted by the need for “immediate” communication. Getting continuous flow means eliminating the daily phone rodeo and migrating from physical paper to digital data.

Stop the “Phone Call Rodeo”

The only calls you want burning up the phone lines in your office are either customers with an urgent need or happy customers calling to gush about the service they just received. All the other calls simply interrupt the workflow and prevent forward progress. If instead, all the information from the techs arrives in a queue where it is visible, actionable, and subject to prioritization, it will get handled with much higher efficiency. In the same manner that processing through an email queue is easier than taking an equivalent number of calls, processing through real time update information in ServiceTrade is easier than taking all those update calls. A phone ringing provides no information until you interrupt your work, accept the call, hear the situation, then triage your response. A dispatch board with visual cues on status (enroute and distance, arrived, photo memo, audio memo, problem found, etc) allows the work to flow without the interruptions and real time triage. Instead of one dispatch person for every 6 – 8 techs, you move toward best in class where one dispatcher can handle 15 – 18 techs.

Migrate to Digital Data

Paperwork Image

The biggest problem with paper is not the bad handwriting and lack of professionalism displayed to the customer (although these are issues which create other problems). The problem with paper is that it is slow and clogs up the office with administrative tasks that are cumbersome and batch oriented. When digital data arrives continuously through the day and it is organized in a manner that makes it actionable, you can close out more jobs faster and get the invoice to the customer faster (in the field if you like). Which means you get paid faster. When you stop being the payroll bank because you have effectively aligned your billing and collections with your service expenses, you can give yourself a raise from the enhanced cash flow.

The other “side” benefits of this streamlining and continuous flow include:

  • Burning Less Fuel – when you can complete the job and invoice without dropping the paper at the office, you burn less fuel.
  • Performing More Jobs – when your techs don’t have to call the office for updates and instructions, they deliver more jobs per month. When they know their activities and performance can be monitored in the office via digital data, they deliver more jobs per month.
  • Spending Less on Paper and Postage – triplicate paper and stamps for invoices are expensive. When your job data is digital along with your invoices, you save money on these items.

All of these are simple changes that enable you to give yourself a raise. Isn’t it about time?!

From Vision to Execution: 8 Critical Business Questions for Service Contractors

“Vision without Execution is Hallucination.”

I wish I could take credit for the great quote above, but I cannot.  Walt Brown, a friend of mine who helps companies implement Gino Wickman’s Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), used that phrase to describe companies who attempt strategic change before they have their daily operations under control.  Affecting strategic change (i.e. implementing the vision) is not possible if you cannot even make tactical improvements.  No point in planning a trip to the moon if you can’t even get to the corner grocery store.Service Contractor Software should provide your company with visibility into your daily operations.

The first necessary ingredient for implementing any change is visibility to the behavior and/or results that you desire to improve. Try catching a fly with your eyes closed, or try catching a fly by being told where it was just 2 minutes ago. Without visibility to the relevant data there is no accountability, and without accountability, there is no change.  Also, when change yields improvements that are also invisible, you cannot apply the positive reinforcement to make certain they are sustained.  Visions of the blind are simply hallucinations.

We got into this discussion because Walt is in the business of helping the same customers that ServiceTrade helps – privately held service contractors.  However, he never begins with the strategic changes but instead with the tactical improvements and accountability metrics that build momentum toward strategic change.  He references this approach as “Traction,” which also happens to be the name of the book upon which the method is based.  ServiceTrade is all about traction because we give our customers visibility to both the data and the behaviors that drive outcomes – whether minute by minute or week by week or month by month.

The Service Contractor “Vision Test”

Can you see the answers to these questions every day in the metrics you review?  Do these answers simply appear in a daily report, or does someone have to grind away for weeks to give you information that is irrelevant by the time you receive it?

  • How much revenue did each technician deliver yesterday?  last week?  last month?
  • How much repair work did you quote yesterday?  last week?  last month?
  • How much in repair quotes does each dollar of maintenance work provide?
  • How long do your technicians drive on average for a dollar of revenue?
  • Which customers need to be notified right now because the tech is going to be late due to a prior appointment experiencing complications?
  • What percentage of your quotes get approved versus the total of quotes delivered to the customer?
  • How much revenue do you deliver per dispatcher/scheduler payroll dollar?
  • How much revenue did you deliver relative to the total value of revenue available last month?

If answering these questions is difficult, expensive, or impossible, or if seeing the behavior that drives these metrics is difficult, expensive, or impossible, you are blind, and a vision of a better business is just a hallucination.  To get traction, you need visibility.  When you have visibility and traction, you can drive to better outcomes.  When you get better outcomes, you get freedom.

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The Tesla Lesson: 4 Takeaways for Service Contractors

I am a big believer in market signals. I think Tesla is one of those signals. As a breakthrough company with a skyrocketing stock value, Tesla is clearly doing many, many things correctly and making very few mistakes. I believe there are some lessons in the Tesla experience that service contractors should be learning.

Service Contractors can learn a lot from Tesla.As context for everyone that lives under a rock, Tesla is a manufacturer, distributor, and customer service company for electric vehicles. Specifically, these are are not your Aunt Minnie’s electric hybrid Prius, or Civic. These are high performing vehicles that have a style about them that does not signal “compromise.”

For those that do not watch the stock market, Tesla is a high flyer. For every $1 in car sales, Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) gets almost $10 in shareholder value in return. Contrast that with Ford (NYSE: F), a fine company with very good management, which gets approximately $.40 (yes, forty cents) in shareholder value for every $1 in car sales. The market believes Tesla is onto something special and that it will dramatically outpace all others in this segment – otherwise the share price would make no sense.

Here are the lessons that I believe service contractors can take from Tesla:

The market values products that dramatically lower fuel consumption.

The market is signaling that fuel prices are going to continue to spiral upward. If fuel was going to be $2/gallon or even $3/gallon in the future, Tesla would not even exist. As a service contractor, you better have a strategy to use less fuel per revenue dollar in the future or you will find yourself in a dramatic squeeze. What are you doing to pack more revenue into every mile driven by your techs? Raising fuel surcharges is not the answer. Something along the lines of “plan a better route and offer more value at each stop” is the right strategy. Increase your service revenue density per mile is a lesson from Tesla.

The market values products that require minimal maintenance.

Tesla’s vehicles require far less maintenance than conventional cars. Some of the maintenance is delivered over the air in the form of new firmware for the drive system. All customers want to buy a product that is maintenance free. How will you drive revenue growth for products that require ever decreasing levels of maintenance? Expand your service area? See above on revenue per mile – difficult to do with ever rising fuel prices? Expand your expertise offered to your existing customer base? Yes. Expanding your service density per customer location is another lesson from Tesla.

The market values predictive maintenance with a single point of accountability.

Tesla monitors the health of the cars and initiates service with the customer based upon the exact situation of their vehicle – not some vague timeline. Tesla shows up with a loaner and takes the customer vehicle to the shop based upon setting an appointment with the customer interactively using the Tesla interface in the car. Equipment will be increasingly connected to the Internet (see Internet of Things) and monitored for service requirements by the manufacturer. How will you be the source of knowledge and data for the customer when the customer is connected directly to the manufacturer via the Internet? Collect an extraordinary record of the customer’s service needs via mobile devices, aggregate data to discover opportunities for better outcomes, and use the Internet to connect to your customer is another lesson from Tesla.

The market values a direct connection with the manufacturer.

Tesla sells direct, with the customer doing most of their education and interaction via the Internet. Manufacturers will increasingly connect with customers via highly interactive, multi-media and multi-modal experiences regarding their product and its advantages. What will you do to be a part of that conversation and express to the customer all the things the manufacturer does not know and cannot know because you are the one with the experience on the ground? The answer is not “well I guess the technician will show ‘em some stuff while he is there, before he leaves behind a handwritten, tobacco- and coffee-stained invoice with a bunch of cryptic codes from my accounting system” Wrong answer. You better be thinking about how you express your expertise to your customers online, interactively, with “rich media” and “big data,” because I can promise you that the manufacturers that you currently represent are going to do it. Embrace technology that connects you directly to your customer with rich media and a data driven approach to service management is another lesson from Tesla.

Fortunately, none of these lessons have to be scary lessons. Yes, manufacturers have big capital to do big things, but they move slowly and spelling “customer service” would be a challenge even if they read this blog post. And big capital is not a requirement for fantastic systems in a world with ubiquitous mobile platforms (smartphones and tablets) and cloud computing.

With just a little bit of cash flow, you can make investments in capability that will cement your relationship with your customer in a world where they value everything I described above that Tesla is delivering. You can increase service density per mile, increase service density per location, collect an extraordinary record to drive expert service, and connect to each customer in a manner that educates them regarding the value you provide. Or you can wait for the manufacturers and other third parties to insert themselves between you and the customer so that every time the phone rings it is a dispatch to “their” customer. You decide.

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4 Ways Service Contractors can Grow Sales without Selling

Services businesses are “the gift that keeps on giving” in the revenue department…if managed effectively. Unfortunately, many are not very well managed and somehow lose their connection and relevance with customers. The success of Angie’s List and other similar customer advocate intermediaries is a direct result of service vendors inability to remain relevant and build long term value through their customer base. For the vendor that is paying attention and wants to avoid the fate of having every job delivered by a customer service web engine that siphons off valuable margin, here are some tips for growing that do not require massive investments in sales and marketing.

Never Miss a Service Call

Service Contracting Software - DispatchingWhen a customer calls, whether a new prospect or an existing customer, how effective is your company at responding? An effective response is directly proportional to the immediate visibility the customer service rep has to supply and demand.

Supply visibility is knowing the current status of all of the field technicians that might be able to respond. I crack up when I see PC-based dispatch boards that represent “what was supposed to happen” at the beginning of the day but immediately become irrelevant when the day begins. If your dispatch board is not updated by every action the technician takes in the field (or does not take), it is irrelevant by 8:05 AM for making customer service decisions. Putting the customer on hold, or heaven forbid, calling them back when you know what is possible, is the kiss of death. Review the board and make the decision NOW about which tech will make it happen and when. If the decision has to wait until you finish a game of “phone call rodeo”, the customer will not be amused, and you will lose the call.

Demand visibility is quickly reviewing the customer history and having an educated opinion on what might be causing the problem. Providing some instant advice based upon your location record as to how they might reduce the severity until your technician arrives will gain you hours of cushion to get to the location. For example, knowing that the water cutoff is in the broom closet 12 steps from the front door. If you have to traipse back to a filing room, or if your technician reports are limited to scans of terse, hard to read, hand-written reports relating the history, you have little opportunity to establish credibility with the customer and move toward a solution in the first 2 minutes of the interaction. If it is a long run for the nearest technician, you are losing valuable points with the customer that may result in a lost customer when the next service opportunity arrives.

Maximize Maintenance Revenue

If the month of May has 285 maintenance services due, how many do you deliver? If your answer is less than 95%, your organization is not best in class, and you are missing revenue. Maximizing maintenance revenue requires 2 key capabilities: visibility to the undelivered work and customer scheduling efficiency.

Service Contracting Software - SchedulingWhen you have visibility to what is committed but undelivered, you can drive your technicians to respond. When you do not know what is happening hour to hour and day to day, and you are waiting on a folder to come back to the office to understand the productivity of a week of work, you have no hope of maximizing maintenance revenue; you do not know who is productive and who is goofing off. You need to know the productivity of every technician every hour of every day. The money is out there just waiting to land in your pocket, but you need constant visibility to take it all.

Committing the customer to the work is also a requirement to maximize maintenance revenue. Ideally, committing the customer to the work does not involve 5 phone calls to each customer. Having visibility to the customer preferences for service (never Tuesday, always early, etc.) as well as a notification system that allows you to easily connect with the customer lowers the expense and aggravation of committing the customer to the schedule. This customer engagement model for scheduling is a challenging technical problem, and I expect some very interesting innovations to emerge in this area.

Deliver More with Less

Growing without selling also means having capacity to deliver without expensive and slow ramp up of new resources (techs, trucks, admins). When you can squeeze more out of the current resources and just say “yes” to the calls that are already arriving, that is the ideal situation. Additionally, the ability to seamlessly “source” work to trusted partners when you have absolutely exhausted your ability to fulfill it with your crew is critical.

Squeezing more out of the current resources means that you have the visibility to where a well applied squeeze will be effective. Squeezing your most productive tech as hard as you squeeze the loafer because you cannot see the results is a recipe for some pretty low outcomes – the best guy leaves and the loafer stays. It also means that your office crew is not covered up with mindless additional administrative work when new opportunities arise. How effective is your process in the office at scaling to meet new demand? Is it a miserable paper chase with stacks of folders representing different status migrating from desk to desk? Or is it a well oiled machine with instantaneous status alerts online that hardly notices an additional 15% uptick in orders?

Delivering more with less also means that you can have the ability to subcontract work to trusted providers with a click of the mouse. If your subcontracting process is not a simple redirect of work in your management application, with your subcontractors using the same technology platform and processes that you use to hold your techs accountable, then you have the wrong application and it is time to call ServiceTrade.

Fix Everything

The best sales lead in the world goes something like this:

“Yesterday while I was at your location, my technician noticed a problem with Equipment A. He documented it with photos that I have attached to the quote that you can review online. We can fix it this week, and all you need to do is click “Approve” in the upper right corner of the online quote.”

Service Contracting Software - Quoting

As long as you are incurring the expense to go to a customer’s location, whether for a maintenance call or a service call, or even a sales call, you might as well maximize your opportunity by noting everything that you could do for the customer. When I say “note,” I do not mean some chicken scratch on a piece of coffee- and tobacco-stained paper that rides around in the truck for another week. What I mean is an organized record of digital artifacts, including photos, audio memos, and perhaps even video, that is easy to redirect back to the customer online to demonstrate your organizations thoughtful stewardship of their equipment. Online quotes with photos are more than three times as likely to be approved by the customer than flat paper quotes delivered via mail or email attachments.

If you are ready to grow, but you are not ready to suffer the ramp up of expensive sales resources, consider how these tips might generate the growth you want. Connecting with customers in the digital age is an amazing new opportunity for service companies. The ones that figure it out will grow with an absolute minimum of marketing and sales expense.

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It Pays to Know: How Service Contractors Get Paid For Expertise, Not Just Labor

The best service contracting business model is based upon customers paying a premium for expertise instead of simply paying a markup on parts and labor.  When true expertise is offered, the customer perceives that in the long term they will have better outcomes for less money – no callbacks, fewer breakdowns, less energy consumption, higher equipment output.  With expertise in play, the customer trusts the advice of the provider, the provider takes care of the equipment, and both parties are happy with the long term value from the relationship.

Knowing is Half The BattleWithout expertise, the payment is simply a markup on parts and labor plus the lingering suspicion that perhaps something was not done right.  Without expertise, it is always a forced march to the lowest rate on labor or the first truck in the driveway.  The customer becomes like the general contractor – a supposed expert, often with dubious management practices, and a sharp focus on the fees.  Without expertise, you are simply getting paid to show up and execute the tasks according to the will of the task master.

But how can a service contractor transition from the labor markup model to the premium pricing model?  What is required to get paid for what you know instead of payment for where you go? There are 2 steps in this transition – 1) know what you know, and 2) show what you know.

Know What You Know

You cannot get paid a premium for expertise until you know what you know.  Most service contractors do a lousy job sharing expertise throughout their organization.  Part of the problem is due to antiquated systems – PC based applications with short text fields, no photo reporting, no audio memos, and with access restricted to those sitting in the office.  Most of the knowledge is with the techs in the field and is based upon the unique situation that exists at the customer premises.  However, the only means techs have to report what they know is a paper form upon which they scribble notes for the office to decode and enter into a system that no one in the field can access.  If it sounds ridiculous it is because it is ridiculous.

Knowing what you know means that it must be easy to collect what you know and also to distribute what you know.  Humans learn visually (pictures and video) and from stories.  Whenever I want to learn a new song on the guitar or if I want to fix or upgrade something on my boat or my F250, I turn to YouTube.  First, no one would bother to write most of that stuff down because it is too tedious.  Second, it is hard to learn without the visual cues of video and the context that is often delivered with story vignettes by the “teachers.”

Turn the techs into teachers – for the office and for the customer and for other techs – by turning them loose with photo and audio (and video once the data plans support it).  You will be amazed at how much more effective everyone becomes at matching the customers needs with the right resources when you have better tools for knowing what you know.  ServiceTrade builds photos and audio into the mobile applications so that the techs become the teachers.  We enable them to share with others in a manner that is easy to use so that everyone benefits.

Show What You Know

The next step in getting paid for what you know is to be able to show what you know.  How do you share your knowledge with the customer?  Is it limited to when you show up on a service call?  When they are stressed out because their equipment is broken?  Or do they have a 24×7 digital love affair with your work?  Oftentimes the techs on-site visit schedule is a darned inconvenient time for the customer.  They have work to do also, and sitting around jawboning with the tech about how this breakdown could have been prevented or about the unique approach he took to fix it is not high on their list at the moment.  However, after dinner or over the weekend when they are paying bills, they might indeed take the time to review in detail the situation that led to an equipment breakdown.

If those details are scribbled on a triplicate form with coffee and tobacco juice stains on it, chances are they are not going to dwell on the matter.  Nor will they have a high opinion of the service contractor no matter how capable the technician might have been.  However, give them a webpage to browse with useful links to insightful details of their situation, and you might discover an interested customer that appreciates learning.  The best gift we can give another human being is to teach them something that they want to learn.  How effective is your customer service approach at teaching customers about their equipment and how you take care of it?

With the low cost of smartphones, tablets, data plans, and software as a service applications like ServiceTrade, there is no excuse for not moving toward a better service contracting business model.  “Getting paid for what you know instead of where you go” will be more profitable and more enjoyable for everyone.

6 Tips for Spotting "Good Software"

As ServiceTrade grows, I am reflecting on the responses we get from customers on their purchasing criteria for service management software.  As it turns out, buying software is not much different than buying anything else you might consider in your life – which is the way it should be.  Here are some tips for spotting good software:

If your field service management software looks like this, run!Pretty
Turns out that good software is usually attractive and easy on the eyes.  If the interface reminds you of the early days of Windows 3.1, you probably don’t want to sign up as a customer.  If it looks like something that you would see on an iPad in your living room, it might be good software. If it looks ugly and clunky, it probably is ugly and clunky.

Cloudy
There are few companies in the world that should be running their own servers and administering software infrastructure, and most likely you are not one of them.  If you see “free download” or “server requirements” or “installation manual” anywhere in the advertisements or documentation, it is probably not the solution for you.

Tiny
Not every element of every application will be mobile and portable, but many of all should be. Business does not stop and start at the threshold of your office building.  The more functionality that is able to fit into your pocket, the better.

Inexpensive
If it does not feel like a good deal, it probably isn’t.  I cannot think of a single software product we use at ServiceTrade that does not feel comfortable on the income statement.  If it hurts the wallet, it is probably because the vendor does not serve a broad market (or has no ambition to do so), and therefore you must pay the price.  Question closely the business model and ambition of the vendor.  You want vendors that serve large markets efficiently so you do not get trapped by high cost and low functionality.

Social
I hate this term, but I do not have a better one.  I cringe when my customers ask me about a “customer portal.”  A “portal” is a window through which others watch you work.  A social application is one where you work together with your customer and other business partners to achieve optimized outcomes.  Look for applications that enable multiple constituents to play multiple roles without relegating some to the role of bystander.

Reference-able
Ask for lots of references, call all of them, and ask lots of questions.  If the references are not people and companies that you admire, if they do not gush about the partnership or functionality, if they seem uncomfortable talking about the details of their experience, caveat emptor. Keep looking for something better.

I absolutely believe that all of these elements for qualifying a software purchase (which coincidentally are easy to determine with a moderate amount of inspection) are better than the often touted “Return on Investment.”  ROI can only truly be calculated via the rearview mirror as you ponder the actual results.  At that point, the wreckage you see behind you may have cost you a huge amount of money with no positive ROI in sight as you shift your focus to the windshield and the road ahead.

If Communism Failed, Why do Software Vendors Continue to Embrace It?

With the winter games taking place in the former Soviet Union this month, it got me thinking about “Software Communism” – the practice of central planning by a single vendor that prevents the users from ever leaving. At the AHR Expo in NYC, I met with more than one prospect that was irate because he was being held hostage by their current software vendor, while there were others that had bought into the vendor’s utopian pitch of “a job for every worker and a chicken in every pot.”

Software CommunismThe basic premise of communism was that a central committee planning for the needs of the state’s constituents would be far more effective in meeting those needs than the free flowing chaos of free markets and democracy. When it did not work out for anyone but the central planners who enriched themselves via corruption and graft, the state erected large fences to prevent the citizens from leaving. Longing for the innovations produced by free market commerce was a crime, and fleeing to a better situation was punishable by death.

I think of these failed communism experiments when I see software vendors promoting the premise that only through a single software package can you achieve effective business outcomes, or when I see a failing vendor erecting “high fences” (i.e. holding customer data hostage) to prevent mass exodus. Fortunately, the failure of state communism plus the success of free markets tells us how Software Communism will ultimately end – software that enables innovations by interoperating easily across multiple vendors will win, and Software Communism will be a part of history that is conveniently omitted from the timeline during the software olympics opening ceremonies (should such a thing as software olympics ever come into existence).

At ServiceTrade, we use Salesforce.com, Marketo, Google Apps, and Echosign, among others. Each sends or receives data from the other seamlessly thanks to Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). We get to enjoy the terrific innovations and features that each offers without feeling burdened by high walls siloing off the data each application holds. The idea that any one vendor will deliver every innovation you need to run your business is silliness anyway; no company is big enough or smart enough to do everything and do it well.

Even the biggest symbols of Software Communism (i.e. Oracle, IBM, SAP) are slowly being dismantled by free market innovations and yielding to the requirements for free flowing innovation. Now, companies like Salesforce, Google, and ServiceTrade are showing the way for customers to have the innovations they want no matter where they originate.

So as you think about your next software purchase, don’t be sold by the theoretical allure of Software Communism. It did not work for state planning and it does not work for software planning either. Look for the best features and value and then ask “How easy is it to integrate your application with others?” The correct answer is “It is not hard because we offer a rich set of APIs for you or your integrator to do what works for your business.” If the answer comes back “The only way to get great software features is through central planning by a single vendor,” then you should run the other way…towards software freedom.