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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My response to the situation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Repairs

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

Emergency Calls and Overtime Usage

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

ServiceTrade sells software, so we spend a reasonable amount of time coming up with ideas and content (like this blog post) to help customers make better and faster decisions about buying software (preferably from ServiceTrade). We are particularly fond of catchy, summary phrases and slogans that are memorable for the same reason that consumer marketers come up with jingles that stick in our head. Humans are impressed by and gravitate to rhythm and rhyme (along with images and stories) as a mechanism for storing and retrieving information. It is easier to learn the lyrics to a song than to memorize a speech. If it has rhythm and rhyme, you are more likely to remember the phrase.

So what is the catchy breakthrough I am seeking with this post? I have been writing a lot about how to evaluate and purchase software applications to increase the value of your business. You can check out some of that content here, and here, and here. My latest breakthrough in measuring software value is what I call the “bank bandit barometer” (note the meter and alliteration of that phrase! nice huh?). Why did Jesse James rob banks? ‘Cause that’s where the money was held. Banks are more dense in money than restaurants, or retail outlets, or hotels, for example. A robber is going to get more bang for his buck (or more bucks for his bang if he has to deploy his weapons) by focusing on banks instead of these other cash-poor outlets.

So what does any of this have to do with software? Well, the “bank bandit barometer” for software purchases would say to look for software that helps bring more bucks into the business. What is the metaphorical bank for a service contractor? Where is all of the money? I would argue that the biggest hoard of cash to go attack with software is the cash that is in the hands of the prospective customers in your market. Cash that is currently being spent with other vendors or not being spent at all due to lack of attention. The potential customer spending in the addressable market that can be reached by your services represents probably 1,000 times your current revenue. Maybe only 100 times your revenue if you are a larger contractor in your market.

Contrast this bank vault of customer spending with the focus of most service contractor software consideration – how do I lower my payroll by being more efficient internally? How do I lower my administrative costs? By definition, your administrative costs are some small fraction of your overall revenue. Maybe 10%, or .1 times your current revenue. If you were a bandit, you would be doing poorly using software to “stick up” your administrative payroll. Wringing dollars from administrative payroll is like a bandit sticking up the local neighborhood kids lemonade stand. There just ain’t much money there, so any robbery that is focused on extorting dollars from the lemonade stand is doomed to marginal success at best.

So, what do you think about the “bank bandit barometer” for software purchases? Are you focusing on innovations that help you take more money from the bank that is the market you service? Innovations that help you sell to the customer accounts that you covet? Innovations that help you charge more? And deliver new capabilities? And attract a better class of customer to your business? Are or you content to hold up the lemonade stand because the poor kids running it are a soft target? Think like a bank bandit next time you go out shopping for software applications.

Get more advice for buying software in the Practical Guide to Buying Software for Service Contractors.

What’s the worst customer service experience you’ve ever had? Think about that for a second.

How would you describe that experience? Was it inconvenient? Was it a waste of your time? Did a lack of transparency or information lead to a bad outcome? These are the calling cards of a bad customer service experience.

My recent experience with Monoprice, an online retailer, nearly caused me to have multiple aneurysms. I ordered some speakers and a small amp for my living room and the day they showed up, I was so excited to set them up that I forgot to eat dinner. It was better than Christmas. The problem is that one of the tubes on the amp was damaged during shipping. Not a big deal, right? Any reputable retailer would take care of this in no time.

After waiting on hold for an hour to speak with a customer service rep, I finally gave up and tried their online chat tool which lead to even more frustration and wasted time. When I finally reached someone, they told me they would ship me a new part. They didn’t. This happened 3 more times before they finally replaced the entire amp. 5 months. That’s how long this whole process took. WTF? What an opaque, inconvenient process. This was not the easy way.

Changing gears, what’s the best customer service experience you’ve ever had? This question always takes longer to answer because most of us don’t mentally catalog our good experiences. How about the first time you used a good app to make a purchase with something like Amazon, Uber, or Domino’s? Even though you didn’t speak with anyone to make that purchase (except your Uber driver), you probably had a great customer service experience that was convenient and transparent. That’s the easy way.

Service contracting is hard as hell, but it shouldn’t be for your customers. It should be as easy as ordering a pizza from Domino’s or buying products from Amazon. Pull that off and your brand will stand out from the competition. Customers will be loyal and happy to pay you a premium if you can take the hassle and worry out of their lives.

My Amazon order history tells a pretty interesting story that starts back in 2011. That’s the year that I finally decided to create an account because I realized I was probably going to be purchasing a few more items from this Amazon company and I was sick of retyping my credit card information. At this point, I didn’t realize what an impact Amazon was going to have on my day-to-day life.

It’s not like I immediately started ordering everything from Amazon. Quite the contrary. Between me and my wife, we made one order on our Amazon account in 2011, four in 2012, and fifteen in 2013. You see the trend. Later that year, we subscribed to the Amazon Prime program to get fast, free shipping for an extra $80 a year. That changed everything. Our Amazon use skyrocketed to the point where we made over 70 orders to Amazon last year. And, a quick poll of my co-workers suggests that we’re light users.

Here’s the kicker, Amazon is not the cheapest option. I price shop all the time and find better deals. But, those cheaper options either mean ordering from some sketchy online retailer that might take my money and run or a stressful, frustrating trip to a big box store. I’m not dealing with that mess. There is almost nothing as inconvenient as a trip to Walmart or Best Buy. It’s a waste of precious time. I don’t mind waiting 2 days for a product to ship from the Amazon Warehouse if it means avoiding the hassle of those madhouses.

That’s how doing things the easy way can make a loyal customer for life. Amazon is the easy way for me and for that, they’re making a killing. Compared to their most dominant competitor, Walmart, they’re absolutely cleaning house. As of the writing of this post, Amazon’s stock has increased in value over 2,600% since 2005 to a market cap of nearly $700 billion. Not bad for a company that started as a little bookstore. Walmart’s stock price, on the other hand, has only grown 82% to a market cap of $260 billion. Would you be happy with 82% growth in the value of your company over 13 years? How about 2,600%?

Now, I know you’re probably not running a multi-billion dollar company, but this strategy isn’t unique to megaretailers. Ever heard of Spiffy or FilterEasy? These aren’t big companies, but they’re growing like crazy by doing it the easy way. These two brands are built on the premise that customers want convenience and transparency and are willing to pay a premium for it. Check out my last blog post for details about their convenience-first strategies.

Could you imagine if all of these successful companies only used employees equipped with spreadsheets, phones, and email to provide this level of customer service? A concierge for each customer to update them on the progress of every purchase, answer their every question and resolve any issues. It would be a rat’s nest of communication. Of course, this is preposterous. The costs would be astronomical and the results would be a mess.

So, why is that how most service contractors solve the same problem?

Instead, Amazon, Spiffy, and FilterEasy use scalable customer service technology to make their customers’ lives easier. They cut human costs and provide a better, more convenient, and more transparent experience with applications that differentiate their brands. Of course, there are still people involved, but their cost to deliver customer service doesn’t increase with each new customer. In fact, the cost per customer goes down as they grow.

What technology are all of these companies using on the backend to manage accounting and logistics? It doesn’t matter. Their customers don’t care how they manage the business. Customers just want their lives’ to be easier. In their customers’ eyes, Amazon’s warehouse software doesn’t differentiate them from Walmart. Spiffy’s accounting system doesn’t set them apart from Jiffy Lube. FilterEasy’s payroll system doesn’t help them sell more filters.

So, why is that most service contractors think their backend and accounting systems will help them grow?

I’ll never buy from MonoPrice again and I avoid Walmart like the plague. I’ve never spoken with an Amazon customer service rep, yet I’ve been a loyal customer for over 7 years and spend more with them every year. Good customer service is convenient and transparent but great, scalable customer service can only be achieved with technology.

This doesn’t have to be hard. Give your customers the easy way.

When I joined ServiceTrade to begin its services division in 2012, Billy greeted me with the
welcoming threat “if you screw this up I’ll fire your ass.” I’m still with the company, so here is my advice for how to buy good software and not get fired in a growing company.

  1. Use the right tool for the job.
    I didn’t set out to solve our CRM, marketing, accounting, and payroll challenges. I was looking for the right tool for customer service. Any software that says it can solve all of your problems is going to be terrible at everything. I focused on choosing the right tool for one problem at a time.
  2. Choose good software.
    Two of the most important elements of good software is open APIs that allow for integrations with our other applications and that it is SaaS. The picture below shows what integration looks like with bad software. Nobody at ServiceTrade is spending time managing our own servers. We have better things to do with our resources.

    This is what integrations look like in a server environment.

  3. Blow it up from time to time. 
    When I started, I chose ZenDesk to run customer service. About five years later, we blew it away because something better came along. We discovered that Intercom offered a few more integration options and we like its online chat. So one morning in about four hours we unplugged ZenDesk and plugged in Intercom. It didn’t require us to change our accounting system. It didn’t bring down our CRM. It was just like when you get a flat tire – you pull over, change the tire, and leave the rest of the car alone.
  4. Enable more integrations.
    In making the change to Intercom, we added more options for creative integrations. We rely heavily on Zapier to connect our apps to each other, so compatibility with Zapier is a must. Search for “Zapier library” to get an idea of how an application you are considering can connect with other apps in your company.
  5. Be decisive.
    The Practical Guide to Buying Software for Service Contractors gives you six things that should be easy to determine when you’re working with a good software company. It’s important to us that our applications keep up with the pace of our growth and new ways to help our customers. If that means adding new software, we’re decisive and act fast by following the tenets in this guide.

Also read:

This blog post is adapted from a 2017 Digital Wrap Conference presentation by ServiceTrade Vice President of Customer Success James Jordan. Presented here without the rooster photo.

United Fire wanted to increase the level of customer service that their technicians provided by improving technology, automating processes, and increasing efficiency across the organization. Their first steps towards this goal were to replace their 20+-year-old computer systems and to implement ServiceTrade. However, there was a lack of integration with United Fire’s current accounting system. They needed a cloud-based solution that could:

  • Integrate with ServiceTrade
  • Eliminate manual duplicate entries
  • Deliver up-to-date custom reports and dashboards
  • Reduce dependency on Excel spreadsheets

FINDING THE RIGHT SOLUTION
United Fire chose Leap the Pond to implement Sage Intacct, a cloud-based accounting software solution. The seamless integration between ServiceTrade and Sage Intacct was a key decision factor. Sage Intacct allows them to significantly improve accounting processes (no more manual dual entry and tedious Excel spreadsheets) and have real-time access to their financial reporting.

SEEING RESULTS RIGHT AWAY
“Accounting was an accidental blessing to our company-wide technology upgrade. Before Sage Intacct, we could not get a real-time status of our financials and our accounting department was doing a lot of manual entries. Now we have real-time visibility and transparency to our financial results from anywhere. It has completely changed our business model.” Jeff Wallace, United Fire. Sage Intacct provides a user-friendly environment for business and accounting users.

United Fire has a small accounting team and during the implementation process, they lost a key accounting staff member. Leap the Pond provided the extra support needed to complete the implementation on time and trained United Fire’s new accountant on Sage Intacct’s platform. In addition, during United Fire’s staffing shortage, Leap the Pond assisted with their outsourced accounting services to close their month-end.

Since United Fire’s implementation, they have:

  • Shortened their invoice cycle dramatically – they can now process same day invoices
  • Improved the monthly reporting cycle to provide timely reports within days of the month end
  • Simplified and streamlined key accounting processes
  • Increased competence in accounting transparency and ability to track spending
  • With investing in the right systems, United Fire now has a greater focus on their customers and is in a better position to make long-term strategic plans for their organization.

ABOUT UNITED FIRE
Since 1969, United Fire has provided installation, service, recharge, and repair of fire extinguishers, fire suppression system, backflow devices and offers repair, inspection, and parts for fire alarm systems, sprinkler systems, exit lights, and emergency egress lighting. They pride themselves on keeping their employees educated on the newest standards and require proper licensing of all their technicians. United Fire offers excellent on-time service, reliability, and quality products.

ABOUT LEAP THE POND
Leap the PondLeap the Pond delivers Sage Intacct based accounting solutions to small to medium-sized organizations that have BIG plans. Our senior leadership averages more than 20+ years of experience with accounting and operations. Since 2008, Leap the Pond has led more than 350 projects for nearly 300 companies.

ABOUT SERVICETRADE
ServiceTrade is a software as a service platform that manages customer service, service management, sales, and marketing for commercial service contractors.

 

Thank you to Kate Johnson and David Furth at Leap the Pond for sharing this case study with us.

Good design makes a small company look big or a big company look like a leader. Whether that’s on a website, in emails, social media, on proposals, or in customer service, it’s worth a service contractor’s time to create unique, engaging, modern designs.

You do not have to spend a lot to get something good. We think that we put together good-looking designed pieces on our own. And when our needs are beyond our capabilities, we’ve found some affordable outsourcing options.

Here are five tools that service contractors can use to create professional-looking marketing materials.

Canva
canva.com

Canva is an easy-to-use online tool for creating images for websites, emails, advertising, invitations, posters – just about anything. They provide templates that you can use as a starting point or you can start from scratch. It does not give you as many options as the Adobe Creative Suite – nor the hefty price tag. For simple creative projects, Canva is our go-to tool.  

Cost:  FREE

The paid version is $12.95 per user per month and I like it because it offers a few important features like saving PNGs with a transparent background, establishing brand preferences, and setting up teams of users that can share an account.

Samples that we’ve created with Canva:

 

Animoto
animoto.com

Animoto is great for creating short marketing videos that use photos and existing videos.  We’ve used it to create a video that loops in our booth at tradeshows, check it out below.

Animoto has a stable of storyboard templates. Once you choose a template, the customizations you can make are pretty limited, so be sure to try out a few template options to find the right one for your project.

I like Animoto because I am overwhelmed by video editing applications. For simple projects and short videos that combine existing elements, Anomito is a very usable tool that’s saved me a lot of time and aggravation.

Cost: They don’t offer a free version. I seem to have everything I need at their Professional level for $264 a year.

Sample booth video:

 

Beautiful.ai
about.beautiful.ai

When you need a beautiful presentation, Beautiful.ai is a tool for creating stylish slide decks with the option for cool animations. It’s another point-and-click tool that produces professional results. They offer about 50 templates, and like other tools, the templates are only somewhat customizable but are a fast way to put together attractive slides for those of us who are allergic to PowerPoint and want a slick design.

Cost:  It’s free for now. They have plans to add a paid pro tier later in 2018.

Sample slide:

 

Stock Photos

It is hard for any company to have a full supply of their own high-quality photos that they can use on a website or other projects, so that’s when you turn to stock photos. Choosing stock photos is a matter of personal style and brand personality, so I can’t give you much advice there, but I can tell you about some sources for stock photos that we’ve found helpful.

Here are three stock photo websites we use most often:

Pexels – there are a ton of sites that offer free stock photos, but I like Pexels for its good search function and large library

New Old Stock – lots of black and whites from days gone by

Shutterstock – where we purchase most licensed stock photos.

As I’m browsing free photos, I save the ones that I hope to find a use for in the future that strike me for being beautiful, funny, or relevant to our messaging — including these gems.

 

CAUTION: Try not to chose cliche or over-used photos. How many times have you seen (or even used!) a vanilla stock photo of a smiling person wearing a headset? Be unique! Need advice for choosing photos? Start here.

 

WARNING: Do not use licensed stock photos without buying the license. The owners of the license (companies like Shutterstock, Getty Images, iStockPhotos, to name a few) have highly intelligent systems that find where their images are being used online without proper licensure. I know someone who learned this lesson the hard way by receiving a bill for $900 for using a photo after the license expired. Always buy the license or choose royalty-free stock images instead.

 

99 Designs
99designs.com

My biggest challenge is recognizing when I need the help of a professional designer before I spend hours working on a project before I realize I’m in over my head. When that happens, I usually turn to 99 Designs.

At 99 Designs, you begin a contest where you describe the project and set your budget ($199, $299, or $399 are common amounts – do you see why they’re called 99 Designs?) and how many days you want to run the contest.  Then designers within their network choose to participate and submit an initial design for your consideration. This is where the contest part comes in – after designers have had a certain number of days to submit designs, you go through them and choose the designs that you want to go to next steps with and request revisions.  Once you have chosen a final design, you award the project to the winning designer and they hand over your final files. The winner is the only designer who gets paid.

I enjoy the contest element and having a number of options to consider. For the price and the amount of time each designer can invest in the project, I realize that I’m getting a lot of template work that the designer has on file, but that’s usually just fine for us.  

A recent 99 Designs project:

 

What other tools do you use that I should know about? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.