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.

I get lots of comments from prospective customers about “going paperless” using tablets and smartphones.  In many cases, however, they are talking about simply making the technicians in the field type character information into digital forms that otherwise would have been paper.  Maybe if you are going to go “paperless” you should reconsider how you form your data as well.

Much of the data that technicians “report” from the field is unstructured – it is not a serial number, or a weight, or a model, or a date, or a length, or a dollar amount.  A computer system is not going to operate on it in the future – a human is going to review and react to it.  It is often a detailed description of a situation that affects the customer – or will affect them if left unattended.  Or it is a description of a difficulty they encountered that threw a wrench into the schedule for that day.

Picture of ServiceTrade application capturing HVAC system informationRather than have them enter that information on a “form,” consider how much cheaper (and richer, ironically) it would be to have them shoot photos and record audio describing the situation.  Anyone who needs to act on that information can now respond to the photo and audio (and maybe video), instead of reading off a report.

Why is this important?  Because talk is cheap.  Literally.  How fast can you type on a tablet or a smartphone?  If you are really good, that number is probably 25 words per minute (wpm).  On a good keyboard, I can type at 80 wpm, but I slow to about 25 on a smartphone and about 35 on a tablet.  But we can all comfortably speak at 120 – 150 wpm.  And the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words should be considered in this context as well.  So, why would you want your technicians to be typing stuff when they could be speaking and snapping to give you more and better information faster?

I did some calculations as well on photos, and an 8 megapixel photo is worth about 1600 words just from a comparative data perspective.  And while processing audio is equal to exactly the speed of the speaker (i.e. how quickly or slowly they speak), processing photos is fast and enriching.  People enjoy the color that photos add to the customer service experience.  Photos do not lie, and the customer appreciates the veracity that a photo of their equipment and your good work conveys.

If you are “going paperless,” consider what that means for productivity, and also consider how you might change your expectations for the data you use to run your business.  Asking people to “type” things that they could say or show is going to add administrative expense that could be used for new revenue opportunities when your technicians are struggling to enter information instead of hustling to the next customer call.

Software as a Service (SaaS) is the only architecture for business applications that small and medium-sized companies should consider purchasing in 2014.  Period.  In my mind this battle had already been fought and won by SaaS, but I continue to come across good companies with thoughtful management teams that are still considering buying new, core business applications that run on a PC server in their office.  These applications are not only more expensive, but they also trap your business in an unacceptable slow innovation cycle.

Why are these applications more expensive?  For the same reason that a puppy is expensive.  It’s not the cost of the puppy – you can probably have one for free from the animal shelter or the local rescue association.  But you have to walk it, and train it, and feed it, and clean up the poop, and take it to the vet, and pay the fine when it bites the neighbor, and on and on.  With a PC app, you have to buy hardware, back it up, install updates, maintain the operating system, install security and virus software, manage network permissions, and a whole bunch of stuff I did not mention because I have done my best to forget all this stuff from the “bad old days.”  Maybe you want a puppy because you think all of that care and feeding is fun.  If so, buy a PC app.  If you have better things to do and better investments for your money and time, stay away.

Even if you think having a puppy is fun, you cannot afford the lack of innovation inherent in these applications.  Think about your last PC app and recall how often you upgraded it to get new functionality.  Almost never, right?  (Exactly never is probably the honest answer).  SaaS vendors deliver new functionality to all of their customers monthly, if not weekly (at ServiceTrade we release new features weekly).  New and fun features just “show up” in the application – ready to use.  No work required by the customer other than to explore, learn, and enjoy.

You are going to use the next core application you purchase for your business for 10 years.  If you do not want to be operating in 2024 just like you do in 2014, stay away from PC server apps.  These applications are already 10 years behind the times, so in reality you are making a business plan to operate in 2024 using technology that was relevant in 2004.  If that doesn’t scare you away from buying a PC app, I can’t imagine what else I could say to change your mind.  Enjoy the puppy.

We can market our message about the effectiveness of ServiceTrade all we want, but there is no substitute for a customer doing it for you.  Thanks to Karim Nice and BlueHat Mechanical for this review of ServiceTrade capability.  Here is the key message:

By using software wisely, we can work together with our customers to set up a preventive maintenance plan that reduces their costs, and allows better visibility into the service we provide.

Keep the hits coming.  We will do our best to enable them.

In early 2001, I had just been appointed to be the Vice President of North America sales for Red Hat.  Many of my early meetings with prospective customers were geared toward understanding what was going to drive buying behavior for large scale adoption of Linux technology.  One meeting in particular sticks in my mind today as I ponder potential buying behavior for my prospective customers at ServiceTrade.

That meeting more than twelve years ago was with a technology executive at Merrill Lynch.  When I asked him why the investment bank was considering Linux technology, and by proxy a relationship with Red Hat, he replied “The firm has determined that we will not be able to hire the best technology workers in the future if we are not using the technology that they want to use.  We believe the best technology employees will want to use Linux.”

Today, as I travel about and meet with various service contractors that support over $500 billion in annual maintenance and repair commerce in the US, I hear many complaints about how hard it is to recruit and retain skilled workers.  I also see lots of really archaic business infrastructure. Interestingly, I do not hear as many complaints about hiring from companies with more progressive infrastructure.  Maybe there is a correlation.  Maybe the problem is not a skilled labor shortage. Maybe the skilled labor has no tolerance for poor working conditions.

In the case of Merrill Lynch back in 2001, they made an investment in a new type of infrastructure in order to be able to recruit the best technology managers and developers.  For service contractors, investments in infrastructure might lead to the same attractiveness for service technicians.  It is easy to see how a comfortable new truck might be attractive, just like a nice office location for a Merrill Lynch technology developer.  But the new truck does not necessarily make the technician productive just as a new building with new furniture does not make a technology developer more productive.  Productivity, and corresponding job satisfaction, comes from delivering the most value to the customer with the least amount of company dysfunction.

Manual reporting, missing parts, poorly planned routes and jobs, lost paperwork, broken down vehicles, broken tools, call backs, disorganized dispatch, and “where you at” calls during the job all represent dysfunctional BS.  Some amount of it will be tolerated as inevitable.  Too much of it will send employees searching for a better opportunity – an opportunity where the ratio of dysfunction to productive work is lower.

It is self serving, but I believe the technology infrastructure service techs use in the future is going to be equally, if not more, important than the hand tools, trucks, and other equipment.  The technology that connects the service tech to the office and the customer in a way that eliminates dysfunction and maximizes productive labor hours (and the corresponding paycheck) will be a key element of recruiting and retention.  Technology that makes the service tech look knowledgeable, modern, and effective in the eyes of the customer will reinforce job satisfaction as well. Technology that looks and feels like the basic elements of their everyday life – iPhone, Android, Internet, iPad – will be expected as a tool of the trade at work.

Whether ServiceTrade or something else efficient, effective, and modern, an investment in technology as a means to recruit and retain skilled labor talent will probably yield a pretty good return.  The alternative is to be satisfied with the business results and customer service that can be achieved with service techs that tolerate productivity sapping dysfunction.  Listen to the market for labor.  It is telling you what to do.

What do these things have in common?  They all represent “perishable inventory.”  Ripe bananas have a short shelf life – sell them or throw them out.  A flight that takes off without being full means seat miles were available and not sold.  A service labor hour without a corresponding service invoice is likewise “perishable inventory” that is lost forever.

In the case of both food distribution and airlines, the large companies that sell these products have spent lots of money for systems that help optimize revenue relative to each dollar spent on “perishable inventory.”  Most services businesses are local, owner operator businesses without the capital means to consider huge investments in systems.  However, I have seen some interesting and creative strategies during my time at ServiceTrade:

Tech Commissions – In many cases, service businesses turn a significant portion of technician pay into commissions.  This strategy lowers inventory expense, and in theory it creates incentives for optimizing revenue.  It likely works as well as the profile for the technicians you hire.  If they are highly motivated by money, it can work.  Generally speaking, however, the population of technicians that are highly motivated by money AND well organized to manage a schedule is probably pretty low.  Highly organized folks that are motivated by money probably don’t often self select into a technician job.  The best technicians I have met are not as motivated by money as they are motivated to do meaningful work for the customer.  I see this trait in software developers as well.  Doing good is more important than doing well.  They are also likely not the most organized people in the world, so non-billable expense (i.e. travel time, administration, etc.) is likely to be high.

Subcontract Everything – In my former business, DunnWell, this strategy was very successful.  The inventory cost in this case is zero – we used others’ inventory to service the customer.  The total opportunity in the market, however, is lower as the only sales opportunities available are customer prospects with sprawling service locations where the complexity and scale of delivery is not manageable by a local firm.  DunnWell grew rapidly because there were no capital constraints on growth once the company made the commitment to invest in ServiceNET, the service delivery and management platform that forms the basis of ServiceTrade today.  DunnWell was never able to sell to regional customers because our costThe  model could not match a local provider.

Aggregator Fill-In – The other side of the DunnWell coin for the local provider is taking in work from national firms that subcontract for delivery.  If you can align the third party work with the routes for your current business, the lower margin on this work can be a great way to support an extra truck or two of incremental capacity.  The challenge is knowing how to “blend” the work into the existing routes in a manner that makes it profitable.  If you have to go out of your way at all, you just lost money.  And the extra burden of the administrative requirements for some of these opportunities can be ridiculous.

All of these strategies for optimizing revenue relative to “perishable inventory” have some merit, but they also have their drawbacks.  In my opinion, the best “mix” of these strategies looks something like the following:

Organize the Work – A commission or a very nice bonus plan will work well for some techs, but you will benefit most as the owner if you help the technician organize the work.  Provide enough office support on scheduling and customer service to maximize the revenue opportunity and minimize travel time and administrative burden.  It’s great when a tech is willing to work 12 hours, but when 5 of those hours are travel time burning your fuel, wearing out your tires, or doing job planning/organizing, no one wins.  Organize the work and give the tech tools for maximizing billable hours during a set period of time and you will both win.  The optimum outcome is for the tech to make more money while the owner also gets more profit.

Maximize Revenue Per Call – A really good field management system will track opportunities for your customer locations.  Anytime you have an opportunity to send a technician out for any reason, you should offer the customer as many services as possible.  You should also have the technician catalog any new opportunities while onsite – ideally with photos and other data-rich evidence.  Optimize every trip to the customer site.

Say “Yes” to the Customer – Subcontracting everything is not the solution for most businesses, but you should have the capability to extend your scope and reach for good customers by subcontracting work.  If your administrative and customer support systems do not seamlessly enable you to say “yes” to the customer and get trusted business partners involved in delivering the work, it is time to change systems.  This capability is a key part of our value proposition at ServiceTrade, and it is critical to our service company customers.

Rightsize your Core – If you do not have a healthy profit at the end of each month, you probably have too many technicians.  Get rid of some and get your core utilization up.  Use subcontractors to grow strategically until you can support more technicians with your customer base (see say “Yes” to the customer above).

Accept Aggregator Business Carefully – There is nothing wrong with taking down national account business through service aggregators so long as it is deliverable within your core service area.  It if feels like a stretch instead of a yawn to deliver, you are better off giving it back.  Or charge significantly more for “out of the way” locations.  Chances are if you have a hard time getting to it, so does everyone else.

Service businesses have more in common with airlines and grocery store chains that most folks see on the surface.  What they do not have is the extraordinary capital for systems that optimize revenue relative to “perishable inventory.”  The good news is that Software as a Service (SaaS) and low cost mobile computing (Android, iPhone) can help with all of the strategies above without huge outlays of capital.  If ServiceTrade can help you enable any of these, I would love to hear from you.

There are two keys to profitable service operations – job service density and job route density.  I discussed job route density in a previous post entitled “Field Service Scheduling – Kill the “Where-wolf” that’s eating your profits.”  Using a mapping tool simultaneously with a job scheduling calendar helps minimize drive time relative to work time.

Job route density is critical, but equally critical is job service density.  Job service density is how much billable work you can pack into a single job.  To maximize service density during the job planning step, you have to have visibility to all the work that is due or available at a given location.  ServiceTrade has just rolled out a new capability for managing recurring services to ensure that you never miss a service opportunity.

Assembling jobs from services that are due has historically been a painful, manual process involving old file folders or endless re-sorts of some Excel spreadsheet report.  ServiceTrade eliminates this nonsense with a simple interface to visualize all services that are due or available at a given location.  Even when the process is complicated by various equipment with different service frequencies or customer requests for delays – ServiceTrade still makes it easy.  What’s more, every facility manager can appreciate a sales pitch that begins with “While I am onsite, do you want me to go ahead and . . . “ because they understand that they have already paid for the trip charge.  Matching the jobs correctly to the equipment maintenance schedules while also maximizing the other onsite repair work is tricky business.

Instead of the crude and inaccurate approach of simply “copying the old job” to create the new job, ServiceTrade enables you to attach “services” to a location and specify a scope of work, an asset, and a service frequency.  Then, the application lets you run an interactive report that visualizes all of the services due so that you can align services at a location to maximize service density when creating jobs.

In the next couple of weeks, we will release a feature that gives you a reminder of past deficiencies on the location for review when creating jobs.  That way you can add repair services to a regularly scheduled maintenance job and give the customer a call to offer them a special rate because they can avoid the trip charge.

Making it easy to maximize job service density is another way that ServiceTrade helps you do more real work with fewer hassles.  Sign up today for a free trial and see how ServiceTrade can help you never miss a service opportunity.

Fleet tracking has become very popular due to low cost GPS and software as a service (SaaS) solutions.  I believe the same trends that are driving fleet tracking adoption – low cost/low hassle SaaS and real time feedback – will drive a new wave of technician tracking via the smartphone.  Fleet tracking is an important capability, but it’s the technician, not the truck, that truly drives value for field maintenance businesses.

Everyone works more effectively when they believe the boss is paying attention to what they are doing.  Paying attention to the truck, however, is different than paying attention to the technician.  The truck doesn’t do the work, so there is a limit to the productivity that can be gained by monitoring the truck.  Trucks don’t make decisions, and they don’t deliver much in the way of customer service.

Armed with the right solution, a technician can provide both the administrative staff at the office as well as the customer on the job site with a rich set of work status information without ever being interrupted by pesky “status calls.”

A GPS job clock tells everyone the location and status (enroute, arrived, planning, departed) of the technician.  These records also provide assistance in billing and payroll calculations.  Any calculation by fleet tracking apps on job hours for billing is just guessing because the technician did not affirm whether the job work had started or whether he was eating a cheeseburger in the truck. With ServiceTrade, we record what the technician tells us to record when he punches the buttons on the smartphone app (and nothing more or less).

Photo, audio, and video reports from the job site provide insight and color on the job situation.  Everyone can make better decisions with better and richer information, and the technician doesn’t have to waste time with painful handwritten reports or more annoying “what did you mean” phone calls from the office or the customer.  The technician will leave a better record –  in record time.

An interactive record of the work schedule and service history along with a representation of the work on a map enables better job planning and route management.  A smartphone in the hands of the technician provides a rich record of the work to be done.  The technician can make decisions that enable him to pick up work more effectively when the inevitable schedule foul-ups occur.

I also believe the smartphone will become the dominant solution in the realm of technician accountability and productivity because it is a positive oversight solution instead of a negative oversight solution.  Fleet tracking is a “big brother is watching” solution that does not offer much to the technician in the way of productivity gains and positive reinforcement.  By contrast, the smartphone, coupled with an application like ServiceTrade, enables the technician to “show what you know.”  It allows the business owner to tell the technician “I trust that you are good at your work, and I am giving you equipment that makes your job easier.  Now show me just how good you are, and go make us both some money by knocking it out of the park for our customers.”

The smartphone is not the best way to understand which technicians are doing jackrabbit starts in the truck or exceeding the speed limit (although it is technically possible using the GPS and accelerometer in the phones, but iPhone doesn’t allow it).  Fleet tracking is clearly the way to improve on these type of potentially destructive and costly behaviors.

Smartphones with ServiceTrade is the way to get the most from your technicians when it comes to driving decisions and behaviors that improve your business and your customer service capability.  You can review the ServiceTrade mobile app with this quick video, and then sign up for a free trial to prove it to yourself.  We look forward to working with you.

If you have been looking for an excuse to arm your field techs with smartphones, I am going to give you several in this blog post.

The goal of any business expenditure is to make your business more competitive by lowering costs, improving customer service, or increasing revenue.  I believe an investment in smartphones for your technicians can do all three.

Lowering Cost
The biggest cost to your business by far is the payroll expense for your technicians.  The way to lower these costs with smartphones is to maximize billable hours relative to payroll hours.  Simply put – deliver more jobs with less time spent planning, reporting, and traveling.  The smartphone features (coupled with the ServiceTrade app) that help deliver more jobs are:

GPS Time Clock – when you know where your technicians are working and their status (en route, onsite, job prep), you don’t have to call them (and waste time) asking for updates. When they know you know, they will also act differently.  Everyone performs better with management oversight.

Job Planning and Dispatch – when job details arrive in the palm of their hand, techs don’t have to waste time talking to the office, taking notes, or traveling to a place to print paperwork.

Map Based Planning – when techs can plan their route using a map displaying all of their work, they will travel less and bill more.

Faster Paperwork – when the paperwork is printed with all the customer details pre-filled, and the job report is delivered instantly back to the office using the phone as a mobile scanner, techs don’t waste cycles (or lose paperwork) delivering it back to the office.

Less Paperwork – when job notes can be entered onto the ServiceTrade job record using the camera and the audio recorder on the phone, the techs spend less time writing out notes and talking with the office to explain their cryptic, bad handwriting from a job two weeks ago.  The report is fast, detailed, and “in living color” for both the office and the customer.

The smartphone lowers technician costs by improving accountability, streamlining reporting, and optimizing the job plan.

Improving Customer Service
Great customer service is all about better and faster information (assuming of course that work quality is a given).  Smartphones coupled with ServiceTrade get you and your customers better and faster information through many of the same capabilities that lower cost:

GPS Time Clock – when you and your customers know where the technicians are, it saves effort associated with calling and verifying.  Good status information makes everyone more comfortable with the plan.

Better Job Reports – online job records with job photos and audio memos from the smartphone give the impression of thoroughness, and it establishes trust.

Job Planning and Dispatch – when technicians have location service history in the palm of their hand along with job details in the form of customer preferences and logistics, problems are diagnosed faster with fewer foul ups.

Map Based Planning – when you know where every tech is located and their job status at a single glance (based upon the GPS job clock), you can make dispatch decisions while the customer is still on the phone instead of calling them back after you play tech update bingo by calling and interrupting every job.

The smartphone improves customer service capability by giving everyone – the customer, the dispatcher, the tech – faster and better information about the job from start to finish.

Increasing Revenue
Higher revenue comes from selling more jobs and delivering more jobs.  We already reviewed how to deliver more jobs through tech productivity, so let’s talk about selling more jobs.  If we again assume quality of work product is a given, then the selling edge goes to the company that builds more trust with the customer.  Here’s how you build trust with the smartphone:

GPS Job Clock – sounds like a broken record, but showing the customer via GPS records when technicians arrive and depart builds trust in your billing.

Better Job Reports – the best sales lead in the world sounds like “I have some photos of broken equipment that were taken yesterday at your site.  Take a look at them online, and let me know if the quote I provided to fix it is acceptable.”  Quotes with photos (or video) get approved twice as often as those without.

Technician Professionalism – when customers see the technician as informed and armed with technology to provide a better job outcome and report, they trust that he is part of an organization that invests in their people and their customers.

So now you have the excuse and justification you needed to do something you wanted to do anyway – arm your technicians with smartphones.  Just by themselves, smartphones would probably be a good investment.  But coupled with the ServiceTrade mobile and cloud app, they are definitely a homerun for your business.  Have a look at this quick video to see more, or jump right into a ServiceTrade free trial.  We will help you get the most from your smartphone investment.

Field service scheduling is hard because it involves both time AND space.  You can’t decide “when” until you know “where.”  And knowing “where” is not just one location.  The scheduler needs to see ALL jobs on a calendar AND on a map simultaneously to make good decisions for the schedule.   In most cases, “where” actually determines “when” and not the other way around.  “Where” is the variable that makes or breaks job profit due to travel time and fuel expense.

The wisdom of “where” is obvious to anyone that has spent more than an hour planning a field service schedule, or many hours trying to understand why the business is not profitable when the job rates and margins look OK.  The “where-wolf” is eating all the profits due to drive time and fuel.  If the “where-wolf” is haunting your business, we have a solution.

ServiceTrade designed a highly interactive map into the heart of our application – it drives the scheduling decisions.  It took every ounce of clever software engineering we could muster to show where, when, who, and what along with current assignment and schedule status on a single, interactive web page.  It’s pretty cool.  See for yourself with this video snippet.

But the “where-wolf” doesn’t just prowl around the office eating up profit.  It also rides around in the truck with your techs.  That’s why the job map, the “sort by distance” job list, and the GPS job clock on the ServiceTrade mobile app are also critical components in killing the “where-wolf.”

When your techs see their work in relation to where they are, they can adjust their schedule on the fly to mitigate the impact of daily foul-ups (customer “turn aways,” traffic, job delays, or faster completions).  They can pick up more work because they see everything – jobs, locations, priorities – in the context of the map.  And when your office staff can see tech location and status because of the GPS job clock, they will no longer fear the “where-wolf” when emergency calls hit.  The right assignment decision is obvious without calling every tech to ask “Hey, where are you and what are you doing?”

If you are ready to drive the “where-wolf” out of your business, sign up to try out our mobile and cloud app.  It’s free to try it, and there are no hassles with installing software or managing computers.  Give it a shot and let us know what you think.