Every Sunday evening I receive an email from the software investment banking team at Key Bank Capital Markets. The subject line of the email is “Software Valuations,” and the email contains a link to a weekly report that details the valuation metrics of about 100 different software companies. All of these companies are public corporations, so their stock information is readily available for the folks at Key Bank to analyze. Most of the companies they follow are software as a service (SaaS) companies, and because ServiceTrade is a SaaS company, this report is very interesting to me as the CEO and a shareholder of ServiceTrade. It is my job to maximize the value of our stock for the benefit of all of our shareholders, and the Key Bank team helps me do this through their analysis of SaaS company valuations.

Here is an annotated version of a table they publish for about 70 different SaaS companies. I limited the table to 10 of the entries to make a point about the importance of growth to shareholder value.

 I sorted these from high to low based on the value-to-revenue multiple. The value-to-revenue multiple indicates how much the total of each company’s outstanding stock is worth as a multiple of their anticipated 2018 revenue. The number-one performer is Shopify, with a value-to-revenue multiple of 17.2X. The total value of all outstanding Shopify stock is equal to 17.2 times the revenue expectation for Shopify in 2018. You are reading that correctly. Investors are willing to buy Shopify stock at an extraordinary premium because they believe Shopify is going to grow, grow, grow. And Shopify is delivering on that promise. Note that Shopify expects to grow revenue by 51.1 percent in 2018 compared to their revenue in 2017. That’s a terrific growth rate. Also note that Shopify has a value of NM (Not Measured because they are not making a profit) in the category of price-to-earnings. That’s because Shopify is going to lose money in 2018. They will probably also lose money in 2019 and 2020 because they are investing like crazy to continue to grow. Despite this lack of profit, their stock is still extremely valuable.

Contrast Shopify with ChannelAdvisor. Their stock trades for just 2.9 times the revenue expectation for 2018. It’s interesting that Shopify and ChannelAdvisor offer a similar value proposition with their software applications – they both help small merchants sell their products online. The biggest difference is that Shopify is expected to grow 51.1 percent in 2018 and ChannelAdvisor is expected to grow only 6.8 percent. The expectation of growth explains why Shopify is almost six times more valuable than ChannelAdvisor.

Why is any of this relevant to your business? It is very relevant because their business model is similar to yours in that they sell a subscription program to their customers. If you are following my advice and developing a subscription program for maintenance, monitoring, and inspections for which you sell an annual or longer contract, your business is similar to these companies, and investors will ultimately value your business in the same way they value these businesses. The point I am trying to make is that growing is better than grinding when it comes to creating value for shareholders.

Grinding means pushing everyone in the organization to squeeze more profit from the current revenue stream. I have nothing against profit, and I think you should aim to be profitable. But grinding does not significantly increase the value of your business if there is the possibility to grow the business instead.

Growing is much more fun for everyone than grinding, for all of the obvious reasons. Growing means that new stuff is happening all the time. New products are being introduced to the market. New customers are being served. New employees are joining the company to help take care of the new customers. New promotions are being handed out because there is more responsibility to be shared. New offices are being opened. New equipment is being purchased. New tools are being deployed. New training is underway on how to use new tools. New, new, new means fun, fun, fun.

Grinding sucks because old tools are breaking and not being replaced. Old employees are leaving and not being replaced or taking on more responsibility for no increase in pay. Old customers are complaining because they are not getting good service. Old trucks are breaking down and disrupting the workday. Old, old, old means suck, suck, suck.

What is your plan for growth? How are you going to orient your company in a direction that gets to the fun of growing? It begins with a commitment to growth. If there is no expectation in the company that growth is an important metric, then no growth will occur. Set growth targets as part of your planning process, and don’t be shy about asking people to stretch to achieve something ambitious. For organic growth, plan to grow by 10 percent per year, and think about pushing for 20 to 30 percent (depending on the size of your company). All the best employees in your business will rally around the growth goal because none of them signed on for a career in which not much was achieved. Your employees will get much more career development from an aggressive growth strategy.

Maximizing the value of your business is the most tangible outcome associated with a successful growth strategy. The difference in valuation of the companies tracked by Key Bank in the SaaS market based on their respective growth rates is extravagant, and it should be a lesson for anyone who wants to build value with a subscription business model. The intangible value of having a growth strategy is that you will attract, develop, and retain a better class of employees who value your company because they expect to experience greater career development. They will be exposed to ever-increasing levels of responsibility, which leads to higher job satisfaction and better retention. Growing is fun and grinding sucks, so aim for growth and get more pay and have more fun along the way.

Amazon does not settle for “good” in the realm of customer service. It is not enough for the customer to simply get what they paid to receive. Amazon wants customers to enjoy the experience in the same manner as a guest might enjoy a good party. Great brands now want to copy Amazon because Jeff Bezos has become the wealthiest guy in the world due to the crazy success of Amazon stock. Smart business owners want the same value for their shareholders, so they are behaving like Amazon and aiming well beyond the idea of simply satisfying the customer. They truly want their customers to “feel good” about the experience of buying from them. This current obsession with the customer experience is certainly a good thing for customers. Because so many companies are now focusing on innovation in customer service, the bar for “feel good” status is climbing higher every day.

The most popular approach today for measuring customer satisfaction is the Net Promoter Score, or NPS. Wikipedia reports that more than two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 are currently using NPS. Here’s how it works.

Customers are asked a single, simple question:

How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague?

Respondents are then given an option to answer that question with a number rating on a scale between 0 and 10. 0 means that the customer would never recommend the company to a friend or colleague, and 10 means that they would absolutely recommend the company to a friend or colleague.

Next, respondents are categorized into the following groups:
Promoters – those who score the business with a 9 or 10, likely to promote to others
Passives- scored 7-8, not likely to benefit or harm your brand
Detractors- scored 6 or less, a liability for your brand

The final NPS score is calculated by subtracting the percentage of Detractors from the percentage of Promoters, with the Passives not contributing at all to the score. As an example, if you were to survey 100 customers and 35 score as Detractors (0 to 6), 25 score as Passives (7 or 8), and 40 score as Promoters (9 or 10), your NPS score would be:

Promoters – Detractors = NPS 40 – 35 = 5

Your NPS for this survey sample is a 5. Anything above 0 is considered to be positive, and a score approaching 50 is terrific.

Now I think all of this is probably a little too simplistic, and you will find lots of scientific criticism for NPS from survey theory experts if you go looking for it online. My opinion and the opinion of all of the other critics is not what really matters in this case. What is important is that two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 are relying on this information in one form or another to help them improve customer satisfaction. A lot of big brands with big budgets are focusing lots of energy on measuring customer satisfaction. The other important thing to note is that this wildly popular tool skews heavily toward “feel good” as the goal for customer service. Only scores of 9 or 10 are credited positively, and anything less than a 7 is negative. I would say anyone that scores a company with a 9 or a 10 feels really good about their experience with the company. So two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 are scheming for ways to get more scores in the range of 9 to 10 because that is the only way to improve their NPS score. That’s a lot of companies with a lot of focus on making customers feel good about their brand.

What does this emphasis on outstanding customer service mean for you? Your business is going to be compared to all of the customer service innovations of Amazon and two-thirds of the Fortune 1000 because they are all “focused like a laser” on customer experience these days. NPS is hot because customer service innovations are hot because customer loyalty is hot because growth is hot because Amazon is hot. Customers are not going to compare you to your “always go low on price” competitor down the street any longer. They are going to ask “Why can’t you be more like Amazon and give me notifications when I am due for service or when the technician is en route to my location?” The customer service bar is going to be set by the sum of all of the best experiences the customer has ever encountered across all companies in both their personal and professional life.

The good news is that most customer service innovations can be observed and imitated if they fit your idea of great customer service for your company. The case of Amazon is particularly intriguing because up until a few years ago Amazon had absolutely no influence over the products customers were buying from them. They were simply a reseller of other companies’ products. Any innovation they delivered to make a customer feel good was not a product innovation but instead was focused solely on the buying experience. In my next post, I’ll discuss the “feel good” customer service themes direct from Amazon that should probably be among the guideposts you use in establishing your “feel good” customer service strategy.

Your reputation has always been important when recruiting talent because the best techs want to work at the best companies. But the mediums job seekers use to search for potential employers has changed. Word of mouth is still around but pales in importance compared to your company’s online reputation. Before a job seeker even applies, your website, social media presence, and online reviews help them through the first two phases of the job hunt: Discovery and research.

1. Be Easy to Discover

When a technician starts their job hunt and isn’t familiar with all the local companies, where do you think they start? Google, of course. They’ll search for companies in their industry and the top results will be the first companies they research. That’s how Google has trained us all. The top search results are the best bet, and searching for local companies is no exception. Fortunately, the fresh, dynamic content created by your Digital Wrap is exactly the kind of indicator Google uses to rank websites. Just by performing the day-to-day tasks associated with the services you offer, your techs will be collecting customer reviews and generating rich content that will help prospective employees (and customers) discover your company.

Millennials, almost exclusively, find and research new job opportunities online. Most of my millennial friends discovered, researched, and applied for their current job completely online without talking to a single person. From discovery on Google or a job board to exhaustive research of prospective companies, they did everything on their laptop or smartphone. They browsed the company website and social media for information about the mission and culture. Where applicable, they researched customer reviews. They paid especially close attention to the reviews from current and past employees.

Indeed and Glassdoor, two of the largest job listing websites, are the dominant players when it comes to company reviews by former and current employees. When you Google a company by name, the employee rating of that company on Indeed or Glassdoor are often in the top results. Very quickly, a potential candidate can see what real employees think about a company. This can work for or against you. From a job seekers perspective, zero company reviews is concerning, a bunch of bad reviews is a death knell, and a mix of mostly good reviews is a great sign. I say a mix because people will be suspicious of your reviews if they are all five stars. Just like with your customers, it’s ok to ask your employees to leave a review of your company, just be sure that the review truly represents what they think, not what you think. Don’t instruct them to leave a good review and be responsive and respectful of any results you receive.

2. Be Easy to Research

If they find your company online, potential employees are going to look at your company website before they apply for a job. Is your website going to help recruit them? Does it have the information they ‘re looking for? Candidates aren’t just searching for a company that has an opening. They want to know about company culture and values. What do you stand for? They want to get a feel for what it’s like to work there. Is it fun? Is it challenging? They want to know what the opportunities for growth are. Will they advance their technical skill set or have an opportunity for advancement? They also want an easy application process. The bigger the barrier to applying, the fewer candidates you’ll receive. For example, a simple, mobile-friendly web form that collects their name and phone number with a call to action like “Are you a skilled technician and want to learn more about working at Aardvark Services?” will receive a lot more candidates than a Byzantine application process that asks candidates every possible question and requires them to upload a resume. You’ll definitely do more work to qualify candidates and get more that aren’t a fit but, in the midst of a skilled labor shortage, that’s an acceptable cost. Chances are, you’ll lose candidates you want before they even have a chance to apply if your application process is too difficult. Keep it simple.

Social media is a powerful tool when recruiting, especially Facebook and LinkedIn. When a candidate is considering a company, most will review the company’s social media profile and posts to learn about the brand. Compared to the corporate website, job seekers expect to find a candid representation of the company’s personality. Posts about company events, employees, and corporate values go a long way to help them get a better feel for the company.

It’d be nice if you could meet all of your hiring demand with a flood of great candidates that found you online, but that’s not going to happen for every company. Most likely, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty and actively recruit new employees. Armed with a reputable brand and a strong presence online, it will be easier. All you have to do is ask.

For entry-level office and field positions, one ServiceTrade customer Guardian Fire Protection has another interesting recruiting approach. Once a month, they host an open door interview day. Anyone who shows up is guaranteed an interview. Now, some interviews are MUCH shorter than others, but everyone gets a shot. They advertise the event through craigslist, social media, and through their website. For a relatively low investment of time and money, they’ve filled multiple open positions. When they ask successful candidates that show up on the interview day why they didn’t just apply online, candidates often say that they didn’t feel like their resume was good enough.

If potential employees don’t already know about your brand, your website and reviews should drive discovery through search engine optimization. Once they discover your brand, your online reputation should drive their research to the conclusion that you are a great company to work for and that they should apply. You can do a lot to help your recruiting efforts by making the discovery and research easier for job seekers. Want a big bonus? Being easy to discover and research will help out your potential customers, too.

Read part 1: Fraud Doesn’t Pay, But Consistent Results are Worth Billions

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 Madoff falsely projected in order to impress the investors that will ultimately value your business.

Revenue and gross margin are not perfect measurements for management success, so what are the measurements that matter? How can the owners of the business look back at the past month or quarter and make a judgment regarding success or failure? If the business is an investment, it should be measured like an investment, and the investments that people value most highly are those that deliver predictable returns over and over again. Bernie Madoff famously played on this investor bias by cooking the books to show steady and consistent returns, no matter what the market conditions, in order to lure more investors to his Ponzi scheme. Investors will always pay a premium for an investment with steady and consistent returns. So what are you going to measure to be certain you are optimizing for consistent and predictable returns?

Your service contracting business, just like an investment firm, faces uncertain market conditions. Instead of swings in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the S&P 500, and the NASDAQ, you are dealing with cold weather, hot weather, fuel price fluctuations, tight labor markets, and swings in customer buying sentiment brought about by the same economic indicators that affect Wall Street. In the face of all of these potential distractions, you need a simple and effective formula to focus your team on the long-term measurements that matter so that they can more effectively navigate a path through the potential chaos. I have a simple, easy to remember measuring stick to help you focus your management team on the outcomes that maximize shareholder value, but before I reveal it, see how you do in answering these questions:

  • How many customers do you have under an annual or longer maintenance contract?
  • What is the monthly recurring revenue (MRR) or annual recurring revenue (ARR) for these contract customers? This is the predictable maintenance, monitoring, and inspection revenue that always shows up on the income statement regardless of market conditions.
  • What is the total contract value (TCV) of future committed revenue for maintenance, monitoring, and inspections for all customers under contract? Are your customers signing two-, three-, and four-year commitments to you?
  • How many customers pay you in advance for your maintenance program? What is the amount of deferred revenue on the balance sheet? A higher amount of deferred revenue means that customers are paying you in advance for your services. Paying in advance means they are more committed to your services and your contract. It also means you can use that cash to fund sales to new customers.
  • What is the ratio of planned service revenue (maintenance, inspections, quoted repairs) to unplanned service revenue (emergency service calls where something broke)? Higher ratios mean better customer service, and better customer service means customers will stick with your company for a longer term. Customers do not like unplanned expenses nor the disruptions they represent.
  • What is the net revenue churn in the customer base? How much revenue did you earn this year from customers that have been with you for over a year relative to the revenue from those same customers for the prior year? Ideally, this ratio is 90% or even higher. Minimal account churn means your digital wrap is sticky.
  • What is your contract renewal rate? What percentage of customers do not renew their maintenance plan when it comes due? How much annual contract revenue on average do these non-renewing customers represent? These numbers represent your gross churn, and ideally, gross churn should be less than 10%.

All of these questions are directly correlated with the value of a service contracting business (or any subscription or maintenance oriented business for that matter), and not one of them deals directly with the question of gross margin for service calls. Service call gross margin is important, but gross margin on contract maintenance, monitoring, inspections, and planned repairs is actually much more important. Predictable growth is even more important. No investor will complain about an occasional expense hiccup for unplanned services in the context of a highly predictable, growing stream of high margin, contract service fees. The very nature of unplanned repair work (it is unplanned!) makes it volatile and not particularly valuable to an investor, so optimizing gross margin on this work is the least of your concerns. Try to eliminate these disruptive emergency service calls altogether if you can.

I recognize that many of the questions above are kind of technical and difficult to absorb until you get into the swing of these measurements. It comes down to three simple questions to ask over and over again:

How Many? How Much? How Long?

How many customers you have? How much you earn from them? And how long you keep them?

These three questions that we’ve been talking about underpin the basic value-building fundamentals for almost any business. Read more about How Many? How Much? How Long? value calculations here.

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 hear customer prospects cry out for “the perfect application for my business that does everything” in nearly every sales call that I make. It does not exist. I have argued again, and again, and again that every business of any size will ultimately buy multiple applications to serve the diverse needs of their business functions. Look at your phone. One application? Or many? Displaying the weather is different from transferring money from your bank account is different from measuring the intensity of your workout is different from keeping up with your social network. Likewise, your accounting function is different from your sales function is different from your customer service function is different from your marketing function. The idea that one application will be sufficiently good for your business to remain competitive in all of these different functions is silly, and any software vendor promising you that outcome is a silly vendor.

But what about the follow-on question. If I am going to buy many applications, how much should I expect to spend? How do I value applications that make my business more competitive in a world where technology innovation increasingly determines market competitiveness? Well, before you even consider how much to pay, you need to perform the first and most basic test in the software buying cycle. Go to your favorite online search engine and enter the following query:

[INSERT NAME OF SOFTWARE APPLICATION HERE] API documentation

The first organic link below all of the advertisements from the software vendors that are trying to sell you a competing application should be a link maintained by the vendor of the application in question. That link should lead you to detailed documentation for how the application you are considering can be integrated with other applications that you use. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) are the key to a new world of connected innovations for your business. Without good APIs that are publicly documented, the application you are considering is worthless. You should not pay anything for it.

Go ahead and try the search for a couple of high-quality applications that are on the market today. Insert “ServiceTrade” or “ZenDesk” or “PipeDrive” or “Marketo” or “Hubspot” or “Slack” into the query above. Check out the first organic link below the advertisements. What do you see? This query is the first test to determine if an application is worth at least a penny.

Let’s say that your application passes that first test. What now? How much is it worth? Well, it sort of depends on how much it increases the value of your business. In a prior blog post, I argued that the questions that determine the value of your business are How Many? How Much? and How Long? How many customers do you have and how many can you attract with your value proposition? How much can you charge those customers for the services that you provide to them? How long can you keep those customers when you are charging a significant premium compared to your low price competition? These are the questions that you should use to evaluate how much a new software application is worth to your business. The more the software impacts these measurements, the more you should be willing to pay because it is going to make your business more valuable.

Does the new application help me attract new customers? Does it help me charge them more because it provides my service with some new features that customers value? Does it help my business become sticky so that it is difficult for customers to fire me and replace my service with a low-cost competitor? If the answer to these questions is “yes, absolutely, definitely” then the application is probably very valuable. If the answer is “no, not really” then the application is only worth some fraction of the money it might help you save by eliminating administrative burden. Let’s look at some examples from ServiceTrade’s business to set some benchmarks for how much to pay.

The biggest technology application expense category that ServiceTrade faces is for infrastructure services that power our customer’s experience with our product. Amazon and Google charge us for technology that provides neat features in our application. The ability to send a quote to a customer via an email with a link that presents the quote online with photos and video and audio and a “one click to approve” button that drives revenue for our customers is largely dependent upon capability provided to ServiceTrade by Amazon. The ability to map customer locations for scheduling efficiency, see the locations of the technicians in real time, and prefill the fields for setting up new customer location records is largely dependent upon capability from Google. The applications from Amazon and Google are VERY valuable to ServiceTrade because they help us attract new customers and charge them a premium, and we spend about 6% of our revenue on these types of applications.

Now, ServiceTrade makes about 80% gross margin on the applications we sell, so we can afford to spend heavily on making these applications great. If your service to your customer drives a lower margin, say 35%, then 6% of revenue makes no sense for any technology. The apples-to-apples comparison, in this case, is probably close to 7% of gross margin (roughly), which would equal 2.6% of revenue for an application that really helps you deliver differentiated value to your customer. So for a $10 million dollar service contracting business generating 35% gross margin, the equivalent amount would be $260,000 per year.

The next biggest category of technology expense at ServiceTrade is for sales and marketing applications. We have Salesforce, Marketo, Salesloft, and a handful of other applications that help us present our value proposition to customers in a way that drives new sales. These applications help us increase the How Many customers metric. We spend about 1.5% of revenue on these types of applications. Again, to adjust for gross margin, that would be about .6% of revenue for a 35% gross margin business. So for a $10 million dollar service contracting business with 35% gross margin, the equivalent annual expense would be $60,000.

The next biggest category of technology expense at ServiceTrade is for customer service oriented applications. These are the applications that help our engineers and our support staff keep track of how things are going for our customers and to monitor the application for errors or potential signs of trouble. We spend about .4% of revenue on these types of applications. They are tangentially oriented toward helping with the How Long can we keep our customers question. Clearly, these are far less valuable than Google and Amazon, and also less valuable than the sales and marketing applications, both of which help us drive up the How Many? and How Much? elements of our business value. Adjusting for gross margin again, and you get .16 as the percentage of the revenue in a 35% gross margin business. A $10 million service contracting business should consider spending $16,000 per year on customer service infrastructure.

Finally, there are the administrative applications like accounting, email, file sharing, calendar, reporting, office productivity, etc. These are the applications that every business needs, but their value is simply in keeping the administrative burden of running a “tight ship” as low as possible. ServiceTrade spends about .3% of revenue on these type of applications, and it is unlikely that the expense of these will scale linearly as we grow. When we double in size, I would expect that percentage of revenue to be about .2%. So for a $10 million dollar service contracting company generating 35% gross margin, the administrative applications in the business should be on the order of .08% of revenue, or about $8,000 per year on accounting, email, reporting, calendar, office productivity, etc.

If we total all of these up for a $10 million service contracting business, the percentage of revenue spent on technology applications is about 3.44% of revenue or about $344,000 per year. Now my ears are almost bleeding from the screams and bellows of “That’s Crazy!” that I can hear coming from service contracting customers reacting to this number. But is it so crazy? Are applications that help your business become competitive in attracting new customers, driving new revenue, and charging a premium price really worth that type of spending? Consider these two examples. How much do you pay for an application like Square that helps you collect money from a customer in the field? It consummates the sale by getting the cash now. You happily pay about 2.5% of revenue for this type of application. How about the central station monitoring application that enables you to sell a high margin monitoring service? You happily pay between 30% and 50% of revenue for this valuable addition to your service arsenal. So no, 3.44% of revenue is absolutely not crazy for a full set of applications that help you drive value in your business.

The problem is that you are probably significantly overpaying for administrative applications like accounting and underinvesting in applications that drive new customer acquisition, service differentiation, and revenue. And I also bet your accounting application provider is telling you “we have a plugin for sales, and customer service, and technician management, and every other thing you might need” in order to justify the crazy price you are paying for that application. Am I right? Probably.

So how can you alter your portfolio of applications through time to push down the expense associated with administrative applications so that you can reinvest those dollars in applications that actually drive up the value of your business to its shareholders? Applications that enhance your ability to add customers, charge them more for your services, and hold onto them longer? Well, the first step is to only consider modern software as a service (SaaS) applications that have publicly documented APIs. These will generally be cheaper than the older, legacy server-based applications, and they will deliver more innovations to your business going forward. Software investors are NOT investing any of their precious capital in old server applications, so these legacy applications are going to stagnate and die. No point in throwing your money away on a dead horse.

The second step is to ask the basic questions around How Many? How Much? and How Long? for new applications you are considering. If the applications you are considering do not contribute to these value metrics, then simply look for the low price alternatives that meet the SaaS and API criteria and determine how much administrative expense they might save you. You can spend up to 100% of the savings on the administrative applications to eliminate manpower spending.

If the applications do in fact help you attract more customers, charge them more for valuable new features, and hold onto them forever, open up the wallet and let fly for up to 2 – 3% of the revenue you expect to drive by being the most innovative service contractor in your market. I assure you that the best service contractors will collect a 15 – 25% revenue premium in their market, which easily justifies the spending on the applications that drive that differentiation. I will also assure you that competing on technology innovation is much more fun than competing on price.

Predicting the future is tough, but predicting the future of customer service for commercial service contractors? That’s easy. The technology is already here. It’s already permeated the consumer world. It’s just a matter of time before it revolutionizes how you do business. Just like local retail was rocked by e-commerce and video rentals were decimated by online streaming, the way you deliver service and make customers happy is going to be upended in the next 5-10 years. Rest on your laurels and your brand will end up like Blockbuster. Prepare and, on the other side of this revolution, your company will emerge as a dominant brand like Amazon.

Three different technologies are going to drive the service contracting revolution: Smart cars, smart equipment, and smartphones.

Smart Cars

Every major car and truck manufacturer is developing some form of autonomous, self-driving vehicle. Imagine a fleet of driverless work trucks that are involved in a fraction of the traffic incidents and can deliver parts without wasting a tech’s billable time. That’s great! But, what happens to your company when nearly 5% of all workers in the national economy that drive for a living lose their jobs practically overnight?

When semi-trucks, delivery vans, and taxis don’t need drivers and all of those jobs disappear, the unskilled labor pool is going to overflow. With no new demand for unskilled labor and a massive increase in supply, economics tells us that the cost will go down. Hiring low-skilled workers is going to get cheaper and easier. This won’t solve the skilled labor shortage, but you will have a huge selection of candidates to fill entry-level and apprenticeship positions. Prepare for this labor glut by building an efficient job application review process and scalable training program for new employees, but don’t worry about their driving record.

If you’re an early adopter of a smart fleet, you’ll differentiate your brand and show customers how you take advantage of technology to reduce costs and provide better customer service, you’ll stand out from the competition. It’ll be part of selling the program. Driverless cars are a perfect fit for the program. They’ll enable your company to reduce costs for you and the customer while opening up productivity for improved customer service. Besides that, how cool do you think it will be to take your customers for a spin in one of your driverless trucks?

Driverless vehicles will be as transformative as the internet and successful service companies will adapt quickly. Just like the companies today that still use fax and paper to communicate instead of internet-enabled technologies, there will be Luddites and slow adopters of driverless cars. They will get left in the dust. Companies that are prepared will dominate.

 

Smart Equipment

Imagine building equipment smart enough to alert you when it needs maintenance or repair, all the while customers are paying you a recurring fee for “equipment monitoring.” You’ll be able to deliver exactly what the customer wants, optimal uptime, without the extraneous labor costs. In fact, it’s already on the market. However, manufacturers and building automation companies are fighting to lock everyone else out of the market. Whoever wins this fight will be positioned to own the relationship with the customer and levy a toll on anyone who wants access. What happens to your company if you’re on the wrong side of this toll?

If you don’t own the relationship with the customer, your brand will be devalued and you will become the truck depot beholden to a third party. Don’t get locked out of the revenue stream. Equipment monitoring products that bypass the building automation system are already on the market. From monitoring sprinkler flow for leak detection, to HVAC and chiller performance monitoring, you can track it all. The moment a problem occurs, you’ll be alerted and mobilize to save the customer’s day and prevent future mayhem.

But, there’s a catch. This future only exists if there is demand for standalone equipment monitoring products. Otherwise, the manufacturers and building automation companies, with their deep pockets, will push those companies out of the market or acquire them. The solution? Incorporate equipment monitoring in your premium program today! Go explore the market for the best monitoring solutions for your customers. They should have simple subscription pricing models with a API-enabled, cloud-based applications that feed equipment data directly to you and your customer. Treat it just like any other software purchase and refer to Chapter 9 of The Digital Wrap for buying criteria. Tell all of your colleagues at other service companies about the solutions you’ve found. Collaborate to find the best solutions and build demand in the market to avoid getting locked out.

Smartphones

Widespread smartphones adoption isn’t new, but its impact on your workforce and your relationship with customers is not done evolving. The average smartphone user spends 3-5 hours a day on their device. Those screens enhance almost every aspect of their lives except for how they do business with you. What happens to your company when they expect to engage with you through that screen? Will you be ready?

Trends in B2B tend to lag behind the consumer world by a few years, but they’re coming. Your customers will expect to engage with you entirely through their smartphones. The better their experience, the more valuable you’ll be. Easy said, hard done. Unlike banks and massive consumer brands like Amazon, you can’t afford or get away with a single shiny mobile app to manage all the communication. It’s too expensive and impersonal. You have a close relationship with your customers. You meet them in-person and chat with them on the phone all the time. Your solution to mobile engagement will require a multifaceted and integrated technology approach.

One way or another, you’re going to give your customers a branded mobile app. It will tell them everything they need to know about the work you do for them and give them a way to request and approve new work. While standing in front of a piece of equipment, they’ll have instant access to pictures, videos, and notes from every service you’ve performed on that asset. They’ll see a spend summary on the equipment and have the information they need to make a smart choice: repair, replace, or roll the dice. That information will roll up into an overall summary of their equipment so they can have their finger on the pulse of their facilities. All of these features will integrate seamlessly into their experience when they log in on their computer, just like ordering from Amazon or banking.

These future conveniences for you and your customers are coming. As we like to say, if you ain’t first, yer last. Be the leader in your market for adapting and adopting new ways of operating your service business.

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

I am amazed at how often I see service contractors spending extraordinary effort to measure the gross margin of each service call, job, or project to two decimal places while simultaneously making zero effort whatsoever to measure and understand the value of their business in total. Service call gross margin is a very poor proxy measurement for the overall value of the business to its shareholders.

Any financial calculation of investment value is always about the current value of a future stream of income. The more certain and less volatile that future stream of income, the higher the premium that can be paid today to own that future income – i.e. to become a shareholder. For a service contractor, optimizing this value is all about having a large set of somewhat diverse customers that spend predictable amounts of money each year for the maintenance, monitoring, repair, and upfit of their important equipment. It is also about having a sales approach that regularly adds new customers to the portfolio while simultaneously having high customer satisfaction levels so that few customers ever terminate the relationship.

So what questions should you be asking as a shareholder to determine the value of a commercial service contracting business (or any other high value, maintenance or subscription-oriented business)? Here are a few ideas to get you started. Let’s see how you do in answering these:

  • How many customers do you have under an annual or longer maintenance contract?
  • What is the monthly recurring revenue (MRR) or annual recurring revenue (ARR) for the set of customers that have a maintenance contract?
  • What is the total contract value (TCV) of future committed revenue for all customers under contract?
  • What is the annual contract value (ACV) expected to become revenue in the next twelve months?
  • What is the amount of deferred revenue on the balance sheet that reflects payments collected in advance for services to be delivered in the future? What is the ratio of this number to the ACV number above? To the TCV number above? The higher these ratios, the more committed the customers are to your contracts.
  • What is the ratio of planned work revenue (maintenance, inspections, quoted repairs) to unplanned work revenue (emergency or priority service calls where something broke)? The higher this ratio the better the customer service being delivered. Customers do not like unplanned expenses nor the disruptions they represent.
  • How much does it cost in sales and marketing expense to land a new customer (the cost to acquire a customer or CAC)? What is the ratio of that cost to the first year average revenue from a new customer?
  • What is the net revenue churn in the customer base? How much revenue did you get this year from customers that have been with you for over a year relative to the revenue from those customers for the prior year? Minimal churn means your digital wrap is sticky.
  • What is your contract renewal rate? What percentage of customers do not renew their maintenance plan when it comes due? How much annual contract revenue on average do these non-renewing customers represent? These numbers represent your gross churn.

All of these questions are directly correlated with the value of a service contracting business (or any subscription-oriented business for that matter), and not one of them deals directly with the question of gross margin for a service call. Service call gross margin is important, but gross margin on contract maintenance, inspections, and planned repairs is actually much more important. No investor will complain about an occasional expense hiccup for unplanned services in the context of a highly predictable stream of high margin, contract service fees. The very nature of unplanned work (it is unplanned!) makes it volatile and not particularly valuable to an investor.

So what is the formula for managing the business toward the highest return for the owners of the business? If service call gross margin is the wrong metric, what are the right metrics? And how can they be measured regularly to assure the business strategy is generating high shareholder returns?

As I indicated above, the basic finance formula for determining the value of an investment is to assess the amount and the risk of future income streams. Of course, predicting the future is tricky business, so it is best to rely on historical trends as a proxy for future performance, along with a healthy dose of common sense. With that in mind, I have developed a simple, easy to remember mantra for service contractors to keep in mind as they consider strategic initiatives to increase the value of the business:

How Many? How Much? How Long?

These three questions underpin the basic value-building fundamentals for almost any business.

Tune in next week for a continuation of this chapter with tactical examples of how to measure “How many? How much? How long?” In the meantime, check out Billy’s previous post on this topic: What’s your company worth?

 

As I indicated in my previous post, the basic finance formula for determining the value of an investment is to assess the amount and the risk of future income streams. Of course, predicting the future is tricky business, so it is best to rely on historical trends as a proxy for future performance, along with a healthy dose of common sense. With that in mind, I have developed a simple, easy to remember mantra for service contractors to keep in mind as they consider strategic initiatives to increase the value of the business:

How many? How much? How long?

These three questions underpin the basic value-building fundamentals for almost any business.

How many?

“How many?” refers to how many customers the business services under a contract. It can also be how many locations or customer assets are under contract. Likely all three need to be measured. Any business that is overly reliant on a small number of customers, even if they are large customers, has higher risks associated with their future income streams. A single screw up or a change in management at the customer can put the entire company at risk. It is better to have many customers with many locations so that the risk and volatility of the revenue portfolio are lower.

At the end of every quarter and every year, you should measure how many customers or locations were serviced that quarter compared to the same period in the prior year. Do you have more customers and locations under contract now? How many customers that were serviced last year declined service or canceled their contract this year? How many new customers were added under contract and serviced this year? As a percentage, what type of growth does this represent? How much did you spend on sales and marketing to add those new customers (sometimes this is difficult to measure precisely because marketing spending tends to come well ahead of actual customer wins, sometimes by several quarters or even years)?

Here is my favorite chart for plotting the progress of the business in maximizing the how many? metric.

It shows the number of customers/locations serviced in the quarter, the number that declined service or canceled, and the number of new customers added. The customer locations lost and the newly added locations are plotted on the second axis because these may be small in a large, mature business with lots of customer locations under contract from years of servicing the market. Ideally, everything but locations lost is going up and to the right. The number of new customers/locations added should also exceed by a good margin the number that canceled. Otherwise, the “churn” in the customer base will eventually decimate your business if it continues over too many quarters.

How much?

“How much?” refers to the amount of revenue you can collect from a given customer or location. The higher the number the better, of course. There are generally two ways to drive this metric higher: 1) raise prices to charge more for what you do, and 2) do more for the customer. Investors love companies with pricing power in their markets. Companies that can raise prices without losing customers to the competition are valuable to shareholders. Customers love companies that can do more for them because their overhead associated with vendor administration is lower. It is also more difficult to replace a vendor that is doing many things, so your services are likely to be more durable in the face of a hiccup or challenging customer service situation.

Every quarter, you should measure the amount of revenue you earned from each customer and each group of customers relative to the amount of revenue you earned in the prior year period. Were you able to raise prices? Did customers respond to your solicitations for larger amounts of their business? Did they buy new innovations or suggested upgrades that you recommended?

I suggest that you break your customers up into groups or “cohorts” indicating what year they initiated the service relationship with your company. You can plot a view of how much money you are getting each year from customers that have been with your company for one year, two years, three years, four years, and so forth and so on. Ideally, you are growing within each cohort group for the first few years and then holding onto most of that business during subsequent years. Some churn after a number of years is understandable as companies go out of business, merge and change strategies, or experience other corporate disruptions that ultimately affect their relationship with you. However, if you can show strong growth from sales to existing customers along with staying power within accounts as a business pattern, a new investor will pay you a premium for that trend.

Here is a chart that shows how revenue breaks down by customer cohorts grouped into the year you landed the service contract with the customer.

Notice how the recent cohorts start smaller, grow over time, and then hit a steady state before a slow decline.

You should also measure how much? as a function of the type of revenue you are recognizing. I would suggest three different categories – contract maintenance or program subscription fees, planned repairs and upfits associated with quoted work, and unplanned repairs such as emergency service calls. You want to demonstrate a pattern over time of an ever increasing portion of your revenue coming from contract fees and planned work as compared with emergency service calls, which are typically associated with customer equipment malfunctions.

Planned work is more efficient and more scalable because the logistics can be meticulously coordinated. Customers benefit and your business benefits when you can plan the work to avoid excess travel time, expedited parts shipping, overtime expenses, and the general administrative stress associated with delivering service “right now.” Ideally, you can get the customers assets “under control” and minimize the service calls by quoting planned repairs to replace the risky equipment assets with more robust ones that are less prone to failure.

Here are a couple of graphic illustrations that demonstrate why you want to pursue a strategy that ultimately transitions your revenue mix from unplanned, service call work to programmatic contract work and quoted work.

The oscillating, sine-wave-shaped pattern represents demand associated with random equipment breakdowns when no programmatic approach is in effect across the customer base. If you scale up your technician workforce to deliver great service in the face of random peaks in demand, you will be losing lots of money as you keep that workforce in place during the random slack periods.

If you scale back your technician workforce to avoid the plunge in profits when demand tapers, you are at risk of delivering poor customer service during the peak periods.

The ideal situation is to get the customer demand curve “under control” on a customer by customer basis by putting them into a contract that incents both you and them to programmatically eliminate the risks that ultimately drive equipment failure.

In this case, customers pay more for your maintenance program and monitoring fees, and in return, they have less risk of failure and fewer unplanned expenses. If you do a good job demonstrating to them the story of their equipment via video and photo evidence, they will not have a problem with the program fees, and they will generally accept your advice regarding repairs, retrofits, and upgrades that further eliminate risks, disruptions, and unplanned expenses. The ideal situation, as always, is that you are getting “money for nothing” while the customer sees daily evidence through your digital wrap that they are indeed paying for “something” very valuable.

How long?

In addition to measuring how many? and how much? on a periodic basis, you also need to measure how long? which refers to the duration of your relationship with a customer. If you can create a really sticky digital wrap that reinforces the story of your brand throughout the service cycle, you should, in theory, be able to hold onto those customers forever. Ideally, you are actively working your pricing model to manage your portfolio of customers by raising prices on those customers that do not fit with your model and in other cases perhaps trimming prices or offering other value-added services at a discount with those customers that are your prized possessions. In fact, once you become comfortable in your marketing and sales strategy and the cost of attracting new customers that fit the model, you will probably begin actively firing customers that do not fit by not renewing their contracts or simply directing them to your competitors when they call for service.

Investors love sticky brands with repeat customers that pay up year after year on a subscription basis to continue receiving the terrific results from the relationship. However, investors are just like customers in that they generally do not want to pay for nothing. In this case, nothing refers to sales pitch platitudes that ultimately add up to “Trust me! It’s gonna be great! Just sign the check so I can cash it!” You have to provide the evidence that your “money for nothing” program really yields higher returns in the form of a predictable income stream. Show them the charts that you use to measure the business value you are generating. I bet they are impressed, and you might be surprised at just how much “money for nothing” you get if you ever decide to sell shares in your company.

 

The bar graphs in this post were created from data in ServiceTrade with Amazon QuickSight.  Learn more about how you can use this Business Analytics tool to uncover insights in your own service data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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